All posts tagged Suffering

On Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017, Jan and I had the privilege of attending worship in the small village church in Musave just East of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. Our friend and colleague, Justin Uwubuntu (AEBR’s director of Education) started as pastor of the church just six weeks earlier. Together with his wife Esperence, they have seen incredible growth: from 16 people to 108 people in just six weeks (including children). The following is a short photo essay of our wonderful experience. 

Photo: The church in Museve. The roof was erected without proper supports, so it will probably have to be torn down. But for now, it keeps people dry when it is raining.

When Justin asked me to preach on Easter Sunday, I was very excited to say “yes!” I always consider it a privilege to preach and it is always wonderful to meet new people and encourage them. This Sunday, however, presented some unique challenges. Justin explained that this region was deeply affected by the 1994 genocide and many people continue to struggle. He asked if I could speak about that in the sermon. 

Photo: Jonathan preaching with his translator Simon Tumushime

The genocide against the Tutsis began on April 7, 1994. That was the Thursday following the Easter weekend. People who had been sitting next to each other in church, turned against each other just four days later. Even though 23 years have passed, the scars run deep. Every year on April 7th, people gather in memorials set up in villages and cities around the country and remember.  

Photo: Pastor Justin leading the service. The congregation is seated on 6 rows of benches. 

I decided to preach on John 20:1-18. It’s the story of Mary Magdalene as she visits the garden tomb. The focus was not on the joy she experienced when she saw Jesus, but on her grief and sorrow. While the rest of the world celebrates Easter as Christ’s victory over sin and death (and this is true), Rwanda’s Easter services are inextricably connected to the genocide, and Mary’s grief reminds us of the tragic suffering of Christ and the devastating loss experienced by His disciples. 

Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden, and he speaks her name, “Mary.” At once, she recognized him, and cried out “Teacher.” There is great intimacy in this moment — a distraught disciple, discovering the truth of the resurrection through this one word. For the congregation in Museve, the message is that Jesus comes to us in our time of grief and speaks our name. Like Jesus, we always carry the scars of life’s tragedies with us. But we do not carry them alone.

Photo: The Sunday School being held in a field next to the church

Watching the Sunday School children outside in the beautiful Rwandan countryside it is hard to imagine the violence that broke out in this country 23 years ago. We pray that the trauma experienced by their parents and grand-parents will never repeat itself in Rwanda or any other country. 

Photo: Janice & Jonathan with Pastor Justin Uwubuntu and his wife Esperence

It is hard to put into words the privilege we feel being able to worship in Rwanda on Easter Sunday. Not only do we have the opportunity to work along side such fantastic colleagues (and friends) as Justin and Esperence but we also represent Canadian Baptists here in the field bringing hope and encouragement on behalf of churches from coast to coast. 

May God grant peace and joy to you and your family this Easter Sunday. 

In Canada, Easter holds special significance for the church since the Crucifixion and Resurrection are the central events observed in our faith. While Easter is important to the Christians in Rwanda, it is overshadowed by the memorial week which follows. 

When people think about Rwanda, most think about the genocide. Even though 21 years have past since that outbreak of ethnic violence it continues to tarnish the image and reputation of this tiny central African nation. It is impossible to sum up the causes of the genocide in a brief article but the roots of those 100 days of bloodshed trace back many years.

Easter 1994

If we could go back to Easter Sunday 1994, we would see a country much like any other with families gathering for worship in their ‘Sunday best’ clothes. Community is very important here and so Easter week would feature extended family gathering in homes to share meals together, pray and sing together, and encourage each other with the good news of the resurrection. With the majority of the population in Rwanda being Christians, Easter weekend was a time of spiritual reflection and inspiration.

[Photo: Sunday morning at the church in Nyangahanika]

By Wednesday of the following week, the spark that ignited the genocide was lit and the country descended into chaos. The same people who had worshiped together on Sunday were now killing each other on Wednesday. It was the beginning of 100 days of horror. Neighbour against neighbour; friend against friend; and sometimes even family members against one another. Many have described the widespread feeling that it was “kill or be killed.”

A Pastor Remembers

Just this week I was visiting with a Pastor in the AEBR named Simon (not his real name). Most of the time, people do not talk about the genocide because it is painful and it’s not the sort of thing that is normally included in the course of day to day conversation. However, Pastor Simon began to open up and share with me some of his life experiences including the genocide.

Pastor Simon is Tutsi — the minority tribal group targeted by the majority Hutus in the genocide. One of the incidents he recalled was the day the soldiers came to his home. Many killings were done by soldiers under orders from the government. Three soldiers entered his home and confronted the Pastor saying, “One of your neighbours said you have a gun. You need to give it to us at once!”

The Pastor went into the bedroom and returned saying, “This is the only weapon I have in the house.” In his hand he was carrying his Bible.

One of the soldiers grabbed it and said “He’s cut out the pages so he can hide his gun inside it” and he turned the book upside down but there was no gun.

After ransacking the house, there was a tense moment as the soldiers stood in the living room trying to decide what to do next. In many similar situations, the soldiers simply killed the family members on the spot. But in this case, Pastor Simon could see that the commander was uncomfortable at the idea of killing a pastor. Eventually, they decided to leave. Pastor Simon praised God for the miracle of deliverance from harm that day.

Pastor Simon’s story is long and involved and he recounted several miracles as he told of the times he should have been killed but his life was spared.

After the Genocide

When the genocide ended, Pastor Simon returned to his home town to search out his relatives. He was devastated to learn that most of his family had perished. His parents; aunts and uncles and cousins; his brothers and sisters and their spouses; nephews and nieces … they were almost entirely wiped out.  When he made a list of family members killed, including his wife’s family, 106 relatives perished.

Pastor Simon retreated to the church where he was Pastor and he poured out his heart to God in prayer. For days he prayed and wept. Images of his relatives being murdered flashed through his mind. And in his heart he heard God whisper to him, “Forgive.”

Several months later, he began visiting the jails to provide spiritual care to the prisoners, most of whom were involved in the genocide. He told me about the day he was talking with one prisoner who confessed to him, “I killed your brother.”

He replied “I forgive you,” and he prayed that the man would be released from the burden of guilt from his crimes. As to told me this story, he said to me that he knew that it was only God who could enable him to pray for that man.

Building a New Rwanda

Twenty years later, Rwandan Christians continue to celebrate Easter, but it is a much more sombre observance than in the rest of Christendom. The message of Easter is one of hope, but it is always mingled with the sorrow and suffering of Christ. Perhaps Rwandan Christians have much to teach us about Easter because nowhere else in the world does the Easter message of suffering and hope collide so powerfully.

Rwanda is not the same country it was 21 years ago. It isn’t even the same as it was 5 years ago! The pace of change in this country is staggering. Out of the ashes of a devastating human tragedy, a new Rwanda is being built with careful attention to the importance of peace and reconciliation among tribal groups. And although the peace today is under the watchful eye of police and the military, we continue to pray for a strong, united and prosperous Rwanda where the Gospel will bring about lasting change in human hearts.

1 Corinthians 15:19-20

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead …