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Rwandan renewal

By Michael D. Kerlin

As a Roman Catholic, perhaps aided by an unforgiving press, I’ve regarded evangelical Christianity as different, almost threatening. But when an academic project led me to Rwanda, I lived for two months in the home of an evangelical Christian Hutu family, active in the Assemblies of God church.

On my flight from Johannesburg, South Africa, media images of Rwanda’s genocide — in which Hutu militias killed roughly 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus — overcame me. Could the fighting break out again?

My hosts, Celestin and Josephine Gatera, lived with many of the same fears. Worse yet, they lived the real pain of memory and loss. But prayer was their solution.

“Heavenly Father, we thank You … we adore You … we praise Your holy name,” began Celestin before my first meal in Rwanda. “We ask You, Lord Jesus, to protect and watch over Mike in his time with us and to protect our country, Rwanda, that has known genocide.”

It was as if Celestin had read my fears, matched them with his own and sought God’s help for us all. Lying under my mosquito net that first night, I realized I had no idea what might come of that summer, but I knew I would somehow grow closer to God.

Throughout the summer, I accompanied Celestin and Josephine to several church events. They insisted I could go to a Catholic church if I preferred, but I chose to integrate myself in their evangelical Christian experience.

On one occasion, I joined the family for services at their local community church. Our hilly neighborhood was home to a mix of Hutus and Tutsis as well as a socioeconomic mix that ranged from newly rich to destitute. But the Assemblies of God church seemed to transcend everything.

Tutsis and Hutus, housekeepers and politicians, sat beside one another, raised their hands in prayer, raised their voices when they felt moved and listened attentively to the preacher. Celestin and Josephine’s housekeeper, wearing her best — and only — Sunday dress, smiled broadly as she swayed with her fellow choir members at the front of the congregation.

I left that church service and several others energized by the formal aspect of Celestin and Josephine’s religious life. It was their private lives, though, that showed me how their spiritual life inspired them far beyond words and songs, to action and compassion.

As the sun went down on my second evening in Rwanda, Celestin called me out to the front porch, a place reserved for adult conversations of the serious type. We gazed out at the lights of Kigali’s rolling hills. It was hard to imagine anything but tranquility in this beautiful country, known as the Land of a Thousand Hills.

“You know, Mike,” Celestin said softly, “that in this country we have had genocide.” He proceeded to tell me his genocide story. Every Rwandan of a certain age has one.

Celestin and Josephine married in January 1994. When the genocide started just three months later, the interahamwe militia was killing not just Tutsis, but also moderate Hutus, so Celestin and Josephine had to flee to Congo. But they were separated from the onset. Celestin was up north and Josephine, back in Kigali. For 45 days, Josephine, newly pregnant with her first child, walked past checkpoint after checkpoint.

“You look like a Tutsi. Prove to us you’re not a Tutsi,” the militia members would say, and proceed to take her measurements, just as Belgian administrators had in colonial efforts to divide the groups.

Prayer kept the newlyweds strong when they were apart. Celestin and Josephine eventually found each other in southern Congo. After the killings had stopped, the couple returned to Rwanda to help with the recovery, even though many Hutus, fearing Tutsi reprisals, remained in Congo. Celestin became director of a home for mainly Tutsi genocide orphans.

One day, a journalist arrived at the orphanage with a 1-year-old Tutsi girl he had found lying between her dead parents. After watching Celestin and Josephine at work, the journalist asked them — two Hutus — to adopt this Tutsi orphan. They accepted and raised Claudine as if she were their own.

The genocide wasn’t the only tragedy to affect Celestin and Josephine. One day, as I helped Josephine’s niece make passion fruit juice in the dusty courtyard behind our house, I asked about her parents.

Ils sont morts,” “They died,” she told me. So had almost all her brothers and sisters.

Was it the genocide, I wondered? But the niece was Hutu. I decided not to pry.

As if she could read the questions in my mind, Josephine later explained. “AIDS has affected almost all of my family.” Josephine had lost her parents and almost all her brothers and sisters to AIDS, and now had only three living nieces and nephews. Celestin and Josephine adopted these AIDS orphans and gave them the same love, discipline and guidance the orphans had hoped for from their own parents.

One of the brightest spots in the family’s life came from their deep friendship with their next-door neighbors. Celestin and Josephine, orphans of AIDS and poverty, would walk up the hill almost daily to visit Kabano and Patricia, Tutsis, and themselves adult orphans of the genocide. The couples prayed together, traded parenting advice and simply enjoyed one another’s companionship.

When I left Rwanda, I learned that Kabano had an opportunity to work for UNICEF in New York. I hoped to meet him there and continue our friendship.

Back home, I began embracing my American evangelical friends’ religious life, accompanying them to church at times and engaging with them in thoughtful discussions about faith.

But a few months later, tragedy struck again for my Rwandan friends. Kabano died suddenly of a mysterious illness. Rwandan Christians in New York offered frequent flier miles, those in Rwanda dug into their savings, and Celestin traveled with the head of Rwanda’s Assemblies of God churches to New York for the funeral. The funeral was a spiritual and personal tribute more beautiful than any I have seen. It rebuilt some of my own faith, which had wavered over the years.

I thought about my last night in Rwanda. Celestin, Josephine, Patricia and Kabano held a small going-away ceremony for me. We all made speeches. I told them of my first night under the mosquito net and my belief I would grow closer to God. I assured them I had indeed grown closer to God after witnessing their spirituality and the actions that sprang from it.

That summer in Rwanda taught me how much I have to learn from evangelical Christians — my best friends, my cousin, as well as co-workers and acquaintances. I continue to practice my Christianity in the Catholic Church, but I now embrace the energy, diversity, good-heartedness and deep sincerity of my evangelical friends and loved ones. I am grateful for Rwanda, but I now see that I didn’t need to travel to the hinterlands of Africa to find evangelical inspiration. It is all around me here at home.

MICHAEL D. KERLIN lives in Washington, D.C.

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