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
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
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
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
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
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
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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