Rwandans sing and pray at the Evangelical Restoration Church in the Kimisagara neighborhood of the capital, Kigali, Rwanda, on April 6, 2014. Rwanda’s government has closed numerous churches and mosques in 2018 as it seeks to assert more control over a vibrant religious community whose sometimes makeshift operations, authorities say, have threatened the lives of followers. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
KIGALI, Rwanda – Grace Umutesi has secretly been conducting services in her house in the Bannyahe slum on the outskirts of the capital since officials shut down her church in July for failing to comply with building safety standards and other regulations.
“I’m very disappointed by the decision of the government to close our church,” said Umutesi, 35, a mother of four. “But we cannot stop to pray and praise God because our church has been closed. God is everywhere and he listens to our prayers.”
Umutesi, an elder at Joy Temple Ministries, said her church was closed because the pastor had no theological degree from an accredited institute as the government requires. She also said her church lacked proper toilets and bathrooms for guests and congregants — and can’t afford to comply with government regulations.
“It’s expensive for the church and it’s wrong for the government to tell us not to worship,” she said.
Joy Temple Ministries is one among thousands that authorities have shut down in recent months. An estimated 8,000 churches and 100 mosques have been closed across this East Africa nation of 12 million people, according to the government’s latest figures. Muslims comprise around 5 percent of the Rwandan population.
At the beginning of this year, Rwandan lawmakers enacted new laws requiring pastors to be educated and church buildings to be renovated, offer two bathrooms for men and women and provide paved access to churches on a half hectare of land or more.
Critics of President Paul Kagame said the crackdown is an extension of his long record of disregarding human rights. They say he has been clamping down on freedom of expression since he took power in 2000.
But the government has defended the move, saying it wanted to bring sanity in religious institutions and that it was not targeting any religion or church.
Rwanda President Paul Kagame in Dublin on March 23, 2014. Photo by John Ohle/Creative Commons
“We have freedom of worship in our country but that does not mean that you keep worshippers in a substandard house of worship that is likely to fall next day,” said Justus Kangwagye, a government official responsible for overseeing faith-based organizations in the country.
“We simply require churches to meet modest standards and all preachers to have theological training before opening a church.”
The new rules led to the closure of most Pentecostal churches where charismatic preachers draw huge followers because of purported miracles. Kagame has long accused Pentecostal pastors of using “fake” miracles to lure locals and enrich themselves. The authority arrested six pastors earlier this year for trying to defy government orders to close down churches. Those pastors were later released.
In response to the shutdowns, numerous worshippers have decided to conduct their worship services in their homes.
“Thousands of faithful are now secretly praying in their houses for fear of government crackdown,” said one senior pastor who did not want to be mentioned for fear of arrest.
“When the government arrested the six pastors,” he said, “it was like a stern warning to others not to resist the new laws on churches. We are feeling pain as pastors but we can’t talk about or discuss the issue. … How can leaders deny their people the right to worship freely?”
Rwanda, circled in red, in central Africa. Map courtesy of Creative Commons
Some faithful are walking for miles away from their homes every Sunday to look for other churches to worship in after their own were closed.
Esther Umohoza, who lives in Nyamirambo estate in the southwestern corner of Kigali, walks nine miles every Sunday to worship. She sometimes attends a Bible study at her neighbor’s house every Wednesday to keep close to God.
“Life has become hard, especially for Christians in this country,” she said. “You have to travel for a distance to seek God. But we are not going to give up on seeking God. I pray that the government revises these rules. We need churches to be everywhere so that people can pray freely.”
But Umutesi believes prayer will lead to changes in government policy. She hopes churches will reopen soon.
“We are praying God to change the government’s mind so that they don’t completely shut down churches,” she said. “We believe no leader can go against God, and if he does so, our country will be cursed.”
SHARING THE BREAD OF LIFE: When not making biscuits at a local restaurant, Democratic Republic of Congo refugee Benjamin Kisoni pastors a congregation of African immigrants in Tennessee. He awaits asylum in the U.S. and dreams of reuniting with his family. (Photo by Dawn Jewell)
Benjamin Kisoni’s recent life reads like the story of a modern-day Joseph. But instead of donning a fine multicolored robe, he ties apron strings in pre-dawn stillness. His fingers freeze mixing chilled buttermilk and flour. He is preparing the day’s first biscuits at the fast-food restaurant Bojangles’ in Jonesborough, Tennessee.
Until three years ago, Benjamin had never tasted a biscuit in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Amidst the region’s ongoing turmoil, he was pastoring a Baptist church and publishing a Christian youth magazine. But in 2009, five times men assailed his house, seeking to kill him. Each time Benjamin evaded them. Desperate, he fled to the U.S., leaving behind his wife and eight children (ages 14 to 30) and effectively shutting down his family’s printing business.
Benjamin was targeted because he pursued a court case for his brother’s assassination. Hired gunmen had murdered his brother, a veterinarian and businessman respected for his humanitarian works. Local influential leaders had feared his brother’s increasing popularity.
“I love my country and wanted to help change it by writing. I never imagined I’d be chased from it,” he says. He and his wife reluctantly agreed that his leaving the DR Congo was the best chance they had for everyone to survive. So in May 2009, the beleaguered pastor arrived with one suitcase in small town America, welcomed by his sister and her husband.
Since then, Benjamin’s faith has been refined. After applying for asylum and while awaiting a work permit, Benjamin penned his story on God and suffering to encourage his fellow countrymen. “The ink which wrote this book is my tears,” he says. The book, “God, Where Are You?” will be released later this year by Zondervan’s Hippo imprint.
Biscuits for Jesus
Five days a week Benjamin rises at 3 a.m. to pray and read Scripture. His eight-hour shift begins at 4:30. He has honed the science of Bojangles’ made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits.
“It’s non-stop work,” he says. But God prepared Benjamin via his Master of Theology thesis on the ethics of work years ago.
Last year Benjamin was promoted to Master Biscuit Maker, training new hires from other restaurants. On their first day, he tells each trainee: “I’m a Christian, I love God…The manager may be present or not, but I know God is there. I’m working to please God.”
God, in turn, has blessed the work of his hands. Business has improved at Benjamin’s Bojangles’ location since he started working there, his boss told him. Three times his manager has nominated him “employee of the month.”
Each month Benjamin wires home a large portion of his meager salary to provide food, medicine and rent for his family. It’s not how he imagined supporting them or rebuilding his nation. But he has accepted God’s plans.
Silent worship carries Benjamin through hours of biscuit-making. As the batter forms a ball, he softly sings in French:
“Here is Good News for all who are disappointed;
He offers better than anything we’ve lost,
Because what we see is not all there is,
His provision never ends…” (English translation)
“I used to think you can go through suffering and then reach victory on the other side. But I’ve learned that when you are in the midst of suffering and have hope in God, that is victory,” he says. Like Joseph, this suffering servant in exile has excelled, trusting in God’s plan.
An African Billy Graham
God keeps confirming the strange twists of Benjamin’s life. Twelve years ago, he dreamed he was helping to build a church, oddly within a bigger church. Today Benjamin is senior pastor to a fledgling congregation of local African immigrants. It meets within the larger American Grace Fellowship Church.
On a recent Sunday, 50 men and women, and more than 25 children from Ghana, Liberia, South Africa, Ivory Coast, the DR Congo and Cameroon filled chairs. The International Christian Fellowship formed in 2009 out of a Bible study to meet cultural needs that American churches couldn’t.
From the pulpit, Pastor Benjamin preaches the Word clearly and simply; Billy Graham is his life-long model. As a pastor’s son, a young Benjamin devoured each new issue of Graham’s Decision magazine. Today he avoids theological debates and exhorts congregants to imitate Jesus. The church is slowly expanding.
Besides discipling fellow Africans, Benjamin has helped Bryan Henderson, a bi-vocational pastor and financial advisor, grasp God more clearly. The two men email, pray and meet regularly as friends and accountability partners. “I’m white, he’s black. I grew up with privilege and he grew up with poverty,” Bryan says. “We had nothing in common, but everything in common. We had the Holy Spirit guiding us.”
BI-VOCATIONAL BROTHERS: Bryan Henderson (left), a pastor and financial advisor, met Benjamin during a time of personal despair. “He helped me see that man does not live on bread alone,” says Bryan. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Henderson)
The two men met shortly after Bryan had lost his job with financial giant Merrill Lynch. Benjamin’s deep faith amidst persecution and trials “really helped me see that man does not live on bread alone,” Bryan says. Now they discuss church leadership issues, American and African culture, and Scripture passages.
A strong daily dose of God’s word sustains Benjamin’s hope. “People here want fast food, fast cars, fast this, fast that. They haven’t learned to wait patiently on the Lord,” he says.
Recently he resonated with the three women who carried spices to Jesus’ tomb, despite awareness they couldn’t budge the boulder at the entrance (Mark 16). “The women could’ve stayed home, but they didn’t,” he says. “So I said, ‘God, I have many stones in my way. I believe you will remove them.’”
A Place to Call Home?
The biggest stone in Benjamin’s life is his asylum case. Last year the U.S. granted asylum to about 25,000 people seeking sanctuary, although three times as many applied here. Like refugees, asylum seekers flee their home countries because of persecution or well-grounded fears thereof, based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
Back home, Benjamin is sure he would be killed. His family is scattered across the eastern DR Congo, too afraid to return to their house but tired of living in limbo. Recently his daughter texted him, “Dad, I want to go back home. If they will kill me, let them kill me.”
This May an immigration judge denied Benjamin asylum, claiming inadequate grounds. His lawyer is appealing, but the process could last years.
Massive backlogs of asylum cases sit in the vastly under-resourced U.S. court system, says Lisa Koop, managing attorney of the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), a Chicago non-profit. Anxiety for family members still facing danger back home is a huge stressor for asylum seekers, Koop says.
In recent months, fighting between marauding militia and the army has increased in the lush green hills of eastern DR Congo, near Benjamin’s hometown. Despite peace accords signed in 2003, 5 million people have died since 1998 in the world’s deadliest conflict. The current battle for power, the region’s mineral wealth, or security originates in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the subsequent flight of Hutu civilians and militia into the DR Congo.
Meanwhile, Benjamin looks beyond the American dream, “longing for a better country, a heavenly one,” he says (Hebrews 11:14).
“I trust God because He’s sovereign. I’m not asking the ‘why’ questions,” he told Bryan after his case was denied.
The final pages of Benjamin’s story are unwritten. Meanwhile, reads his book’s epilogue: “I thank God for my suffering. He made himself known to me, and through them he has allowed me to comfort others.”
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Here’s an idea for Lent that will do more good than giving up desserts: Read a book about contemporary sub-Saharan Africa. It’s not a penance, though it can hurt. And seeing how much of the rest of the world lives sure does put a lot of our minor irritations, and even major problems, in perspective.
Consider reading a novel or memoir by an African author, such as …
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
Tsotsi by Athol Fugard (South Africa)
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah (Sierra Leone)
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin (Zimbabwe)
Or read a journalist’s first-person account, like …
What Is the What by Dave Eggers (Sudan)
Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder (Burundi)
The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński (post-colonial Africa)
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch (Rwanda)
Or, if you’d rather watch a movie, try one of these …
The Devil Came On Horseback (Sudan)
Tsotsi (South Africa)
War Dance (Uganda)
Hotel Rwanda (Rwanda)
What do you think?
Are there books or movies that you’d recommend as aids for spiritual reflection during this Lenten season?
THE LIGHT STILL SHINES: The sun sets over the Murambi Genocide Memorial in Rwanda on July 9, 2011. (HDR photo by Tyler Hutcherson)
Five months after being immersed in the study of the Rwandan genocide, I still don’t know what to say about it.
I went to Rwanda last summer as part of a study abroad program with my university. I visited genocide memorials and saw the remains of victims, heard the testimonies of survivors and watched Rwandans passionately cry out to God in churches.
By the time I got back, my brain was overloaded with stories of genocide — images of machetes, babies slammed against walls, people hiding in cramped spaces praying they wouldn’t be found.
To try to put these stories into words, when I know that any attempt I make could only trivialize what Rwandans experienced, is not possible. It’s a story that cannot be shared lightly, when someone casually asks what Rwanda was like over small talk at lunch. But Rwanda holds a story that must be told—a warning against the dangers of racist stereotypes and propaganda, and proof that a country that has been through devastation can rise again.
This week, the Christianity Today story I reported in Kigali, Rwanda, went online. It’s about the charismatic movement in post-genocide Rwanda, a surge of emotionally expressive worship for catharsis, a turning toward God for healing.
During the month I spent in Rwanda and the weeks I struggled to write about it, I wondered how Rwandan Christians could still have such strong faith after surviving genocide, how anyone could believe in God after their family was brutally massacred in a church.
I poured out my questions in a post for UrbanFaith, and was comforted by the insights readers shared. Five months later, I still don’t have all the answers, but I do have some more thoughts.
Why did Christians commit genocide?
It deeply disturbs me that professing Christians took part in the Rwandan genocide. How could someone who identifies as Christian hate another race or ethnicity so much that they’d think of them as inyenzi (cockroaches) instead of children of God, that they’d believe it was their right to rape and murder them? How could some priests lure people into churches with false promises of sanctuary before opening their doors to murderers—or, in one case, sending in a bulldozer?
I don’t know the answer to that, but to ask this question without considering why the genocide happened in the first place is too simple of an approach. Genocide never would have happened if it hadn’t been for colonialism. The concepts of Hutu and Tutsi as ethnicities didn’t even exist before then; the names originally referred to social class. It was the colonial government that sorted people into ethnic groups, literally measuring Rwandans and issuing them Hutu or Tutsi ID cards.
Through racist European eyes, the Tutsi were intellectually superior, better fit to rule, taller, and lighter-skinned, supposedly because they had European ancestry going back to the biblical Ham, son of Noah.
NEVER FORGET: Pictures of those killed during the 1994 genocide are installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali. Donated by survivors, the images honor the 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus who died. (Photo by RADU SIGHETI/RTR/Newscom)
The colonial government and the Catholic Church favored the Tutsi, turning Rwanda into a breeding ground for ethnic resentment. Decades of tensions eventually grew into a genocidal environment under an extremist Hutu regime. Rampant propaganda portrayed Tutsi as “cockroaches,” or enemies set on destroying the country who had to be crushed.
Genocide doesn’t come from nowhere; it’s foreshadowed by ethnic dehumanization — the kind of ideology that will latch on to anything that could lend it power, especially the most powerful of all, religion.
This history by no means justifies what happened in Rwanda, but it does show us the horrifying consequences when people don’t stand up to racism and injustice.
How can Rwandans trust God after genocide?
When I watched Rwandans worship, I couldn’t help but think that you don’t see this kind of dedication in the United States. Some members of a church I visited prayed there for hours every day. How could people who survived such trauma come to God every day and submit their lives to Him without hesitation? And how could they trust Him enough to forgive the people once bent on eliminating their ethnicity?
In the aftermath of genocide, powerful stories of reconciliation between the perpetrators and their surviving victims have emerged. Not only have many Rwandans forgiven, but some have invited the people who killed their family back into their lives—living as neighbors once again, or even becoming family (one woman adopted her son’s killer).
As Bishop John Rucyahana of Prison Fellowship Rwanda told me over the phone, forgiveness is a crucial part of the healing process. Prison Fellowship Rwanda organizes reconciliation programs and works with perpetrators of the genocide to help them repent and ask for forgiveness.
“Those who are forgiving are not forgiving for the sake of the perpetrators only,” Rucyahana said. “They need to free their own selves. Anger, bitterness, the desire to revenge, it’s like keeping our feelings in a container. When you forgive, you feel whole.”
Being in Rwanda is like living in a world of contradictions. Massacres happened on the ground where I stood, and yet when you’re there, you cannot help but stand in awe of the stunning natural beauty. Rwandan Christians survived horrors beyond any nightmare, and yet they have found the strength to forgive their enemies and passionately worship their Creator.
Before, I asked how Rwandan Christians could possibly trust God, let alone believe in his existence, after surviving genocide. But now, I wonder if they trust because they’ve been through hell and back, and they know Who conquers in the end.
REMEMBERING THE TRAGEDY: A Rwandan genocide survivor visits the Gisozi memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, where he views pictures of some of the 800,000 people killed in his nation's 1994 massacre. (Photo: Radu Sigheti/Newscom)
When I studied abroad in Rwanda in July, friends and family expressed concern for my safety. To them, Rwanda conjured images of genocide that tore through this small African country in 1994.
Now, after learning about what happened during the genocide, their concern seems terribly ironic. Because if anything like the genocide were to happen again, my American passport would have gotten me a seat on the next plane home. I never would have been in any danger.
But I can’t say the same for the people I met in Rwanda: fellow students I took classes with, pastors I interviewed, street children I gave food to, and the leaders and scholars who lectured for our class. People who were like me, sharing my passion for ministry or my hope to make a difference, but without the American passport.
When the Rwandan genocide began in April 1994, Americans and other Westerners were immediately evacuated, while the most vulnerable people—the Tutsi being targeted, and the Hutu moderates who stood up for them—were abandoned.
The international forces that poured in to evacuate foreigners could have stopped the genocide right then if they’d teamed up with UN peacekeepers and other nearby troops. But they didn’t. And 100 days later, a million people were dead.
Seventeen years after the genocide, Rwanda is now one of the safest countries in Africa. But in other parts of the world still experiencing conflict, this scenario is not so far from the horrifying truth of what could happen when crisis hits: foreigners are saved, and Africans are not.In Rwanda, the killers were sharpening their machetes and waiting for the evacuation team to do their job, so they could close in on their victims without interference. The message to Rwandans was disturbingly clear: you were only getting on a UN rescue truck if you had that passport—or, in plainer words, if your skin was white.
“Mass slaughter was happening, and suddenly there in Kigali we had the forces we needed to contain it, and maybe even stop it,” UN General Romeo Dallaire told journalist Samantha Power in The Atlantic’s “Bystanders to Genocide.” “Yet they picked up their people and turned and walked away.”
ABANDONING RWANDA: The extremist Hutu militia killed 10 Belgian soldiers at this site to scare Belgium out of Rwanda. Belgium pulled its soldiers from the UN peacekeeping mission, severely reducing its force. The bullet holes are still visible at this former military camp, now a memorial in Kigali. (Photo by Tyler Hutcherson)
You can’t help but ask the difficult questions: Why were foreigners saved and Africans abandoned, when their lives are just as valuable? Why didn’t the rest of the world pull their troops together to save a million lives, rather than just rescuing the Westerners, calling the mission a success, and getting out?
I think of watching Beyond the Gates, a fictional movie about the Rwandan genocide, and listening to a white journalist compare her experiences seeing death in different countries. “When I was in Bosnia, I cried every day,” this character said. “I looked at the white faces of women dead in the gutter and thought, ‘That could be my mother.’ In Rwanda, I look at the bodies and I think, ‘It’s just dead Africans.’”
Looking back at what happened in Rwanda, I can’t help but wonder if a similar lack of empathy enabled the rest of the world to turn its back on Rwanda, reasoning that the people they left behind after the evacuation were “just dead Africans.” Has American culture become so numb to the suffering of Africans that it sees their continent as a lost cause? How can we help Americans see Africans as brothers and sisters in Christ, people who could be our family?
As I left the genocide memorials, I often felt empty, dead inside. I wasn’t sure I was capable of feeling even a fragment of the horror that happened there—let alone put it into words. Because there are some things that can’t be put into words, that are so mind-blowing that to even begin to describe them would be to trivialize the truth.
In such moments, it can be tempting to shut down emotionally, because although we may feel empathy, it seems that there’s not much we can do to put it to use. And so it’s all too easy to discard it, and move on.
I wonder what would happen if we instead clung to our empathy, aching and trusting that God can understand even when we have no words and don’t know what to do. As Romans 8:26 puts it, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
Because if we hold on to our empathy and cry out to God when we feel helpless, maybe we won’t give up so easily. Maybe we’ll open our eyes and see that a million lives could be saved. And then maybe we’ll use our voice as a church to do something about it.
CONFLICTS IN AFRICA TODAY:
• South Sudan’s foreign minister is warning that Sudan and South Sudan are “on the brink of war” after border violence, and the UN said Tuesday the fighting has displaced about 417,000 people. “If that conflict explodes, it would easily become the largest conventional war on the face of the earth,” wrote George Clooney and John Prendergast in a TIME article about famine as a weapon in Sudan.
• In Somalia, 250,000 people are still facing famine. The Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab has worsened the crisis, recently ordering 16 humanitarian aid agencies to leave Somalia, including the World Health Organization and UNICEF. The New York Times has disturbing photographs of the crisis—and one glimpse of hope, a photograph of one child giving another child a drink.
What’s the duty of the American church now? Is your church taking action to help stop violence and famine in Africa?