I Rejoiced the Day you were Baptized

I’ve spent countless hours playing city builder computer games. SimCity,Pharaoh, Skylines, whatever you name, chances are I’ve played it. I think the reason I love playing these games so much is that the way we build our towns tells a lot about the things we value as a community and as a culture. For instance, one of the most striking things about my travels in Central America is how – almost uniformly – the town center is composed of a Catholic Church spilling out into some well-manicured park or football pitch. For most of that part of the world, the Catholic Church has been (and will continue to be) the life blood of the community. Even those who don’t identify as Catholic (or even Christian for that matter) will often point to that building and say something to the extent of “welcome to our town; what have you seen? Have you visited the church?” Pride means a lot for human-beings. And here in Rukira – half the world over – the community has chosen to place the church directly in the center of their lives.

On Sunday, the LCR celebrated a baptism. To many in the United States, this may not seem like a terribly unusual thing – after all, we (Lutherans) baptize our members periodically throughout the year whenever the parents (or the baptizee(??)) decide it is time to baptize. The LCR tends to do baptism differently. The church almost always baptizes (and confirms) exclusively on Christmas Day. This year, the Rukira Parish baptized almost 30 children and confirmed around 20 young adults. I’m not sure if there is any theological reasoning for the church choosing to do baptisms/confirmations on Christmas apart from Christmas being a time for celebration and why not continue the celebration by welcoming more folks into the fold. After all, we understand Jesus to have entered the world on Christmas Day what better way to welcome Jesus’ arrival than to welcome the arrival of new children into the family of God.

Yet Sunday’s baptism was special and so, the church chose to do it apart from the others.  Today the church baptized an 11-year-old local kid who lives across the street from the church and comes from a Muslim family. The dude is an awesome kid. He plays a lot of soccer (I love soccer), he is funny (I enjoy funny people), he is friendly and kind (everybody should like friendly and kind people) – naturally, I think the world of the him. I don’t know 100% why he found his way to church (he doesn’t speak English so I couldn’t ask), but there are some pretty self-evident indicators which almost certainly explain at least part of his presence.

  1. The LCR is very, very, VERY, very He lives directly across the street; I would be concerned if he was not aware of the presence of the church. Likewise, many of the people in the neighborhood (his neighbors) attend the LCR parish.
  2. The LCR partners with Compassion International and has a Saturday school for local kids which he attends.
  3. The LCR is open to talking with – and is friendly with – people from different denominations and religious backgrounds. This is not true of many of the Christian denominations in Rwanda, sure, but also denominations across the world who have an unfortunate “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” reputation.
  4. People take pride in having the Lutheran Church in the neighborhood. Even if they are not members, the LCR has created such a great image in Rukira that folks are proudto add the LCR to the staple of local church bodies.

The service itself was one of the best I’ve experienced since coming to Rwanda. During Rwandan church services the pastor will ask for visitors to stand up and introduce themselves (Rwandans love visitors). On a typical Sunday, the church will have anywhere from 5-10 people stand up, introduce themselves, their church history, give some sort of prayer/word of thanks (occasionally a song) and then sit down – the process lasts 5 minutes tops. However, on this last Sunday, half the church stood up and each person gave a different account of themselves, how they found their way to church, and a word of congratulations for the kid who was about to be baptized (clearly word had spread around the village about what was happening in the Lutheran Church). The most special moment came when the boy’s family stood up and thanked the congregation for welcoming him into their midst. Despite being a Muslim family, the mother and father were clearly delighted to see their son be accepted so wholeheartedly by a faith community; they even said they may start attending the Lutheran Church.

I was incredibly moved to see my friend’s baptism and his parents’ words. I couldn’t help but think about how this story fits in with my understanding of evangelism in the United States. What is particularly powerful to me about this story is the way by which this guy found his way to church and what that can say about reasonable evangelism. In the United States, there are many different ways of considering evangelism. To us mainline protestants we tend to approach evangelism cautiously, with schemes, plans, and contraptions meant to change the profile of our congregations to make us seem more appealing, cool, young, hip, diversethan we actually are. Moreover, some folks tend towards a zealous – “true Christian = true salvation” – model focusing on the promise of personal salvation as a means of evangelism. Yet, for my friend, it’s pretty obvious that these weren’t the methods which brought him to church. He came to church because the church did its’ job in the community – it existed. The church stood right in the middle of the village and let the people pray in it every weekday; it was a meeting place for government leaders; it taught the village children; and on Sundays it opened wide its doors and let the village hear the Good News being preached within. In Rukira, people take pride in the church –  they place their trust in the church – and the church delivers.

There is something to be said about placing your church in the center of town. People want to have somethingto take pride in; and why shouldn’t that something be the church? Sure, it’s awesome for a church to use dynamic preachers, young/diverse congregations, and songs with an electric guitar as a means of evangelism; however, if the church isn’t making it a point to be a community spacethen our evangelism is falling by the wayside. After all, the church grew in the past because the community cared about the church, likewise, it continues to grow in places like Rukira beause the community cares about the church. We cannot allow the word evangelism to be a synonym for being zealous or extreme, rather we should embrace it and make our churches an example of God’s Kingdom on Earth made manifest.

At the end of Matthew, Jesus gives his famous ‘Great Commission’ account to the disciples telling them to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Through baptism we welcome people into the community of Christ. Baptism isn’t aggressive, loud or controversial; its friendly, kind, and welcoming – something central to our lives as Christians and, for that, we should feel pride for our church.

I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old. I rejoiced the day you were baptized to see your life unfold.’ (Borning Cry, ELW 732).

Until next time,

Carter

 

 

 

Eternal Father, Strong to Save

There is something about the US Capital Building which inspires the most beautiful sunsets. Two summers ago, while I was working in Washington DC, I had the opportunity to attend the July 4thcelebration on capital lawn. Each year the celebration begins right before the sun sets and concludes under the light of the midsummer fireworks. All throughout the night the National Symphony – and its collaborators – play songs and lead the crowd in a celebration of independence. On this particular year an afternoon storm had blown in, threatening to put an early end to the celebrations; to avoid the storm, my friends and I ducked inside a local bar and planned on ‘waiting it out.’ Thankfully, the storm passed quickly and the city – which typically is unbearably hot and humid – was filled with cool, fall like, air and the sky was bathed in an awe-inspiring purple sunset. The perfect night to celebrate and recognize the country which I so dearly love.

On Monday night, Washington saw another beautiful sunset. As George HW Bush climbed the back steps of the capital building for the final time, the sky over the National Mall was flush with an incredible deep purple tint.

“Now rest beneath night’s shadow the woodland, field, and meadow; the world in slumber lies. But you, my heart, awaking and prayer and music making, let praise to your creator rise.” (Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow; ELW 568)

For those of you who may not know me well, I am a deeply patriotic person. I love my country, and I draw inspiration from a variety of role models from across the political spectrum. Since I have been in Rwanda, we have lost two of my most steadfast role models – George HW Bush and John McCain. I have to admit, there is something profoundly different about being away from home when people – such as these two – pass away. In many ways, it seems like these events are distant, perhaps even irrelevant to the time and place where I am living. I remember telling a Rwandan friend that a former US President had died, to which he responded, “so sorry” and continued on with what he was doing. As he should have done; news is different depending on where you live. Likewise, the events which are important to folks here are different than they are in the United States – and that is a simple fact.

Yet, at the same time, while watching Bush being laid in state in the rotunda or McCain’s casket being carried down the aisle at the National Cathedral, I felt closer to my homeland than I have throughout the past three-and-a-half months. Perhaps its seeing images of my heroes all gathered in one place; or its hearing the familiar hymns and patriotic songs; or the prayers we lift up and the stories we tell; or maybe it’s the text messages my dad and I rapidly send each other whenever an event like this is taking place. These things are enough to make the hairs on my arms stick up for minutes without end; it’s beautiful, it’s haunting, it’s sad, and its joyful.

McCain and Bush were both navy pilots; each of whom had been shot down in the Pacific and bravely stared death in the face, informing it that they had much more still to do in this world. As is typical of many navy member’s funerals, the seafarer’s hymn Eternal Father Strong to Savewas sung by the congregation. I love this hymn; partially because it’s just a great tune, but also because it reminds me of my grandfather – Poppy – who served in the US Navy during the Korean War. There are many things which can draw people together – stories, sports, music, faith – and the beautiful thing is that each of these is different and unique. Eternal Father Strong to Save allows me to remember and feel close to Poppy, despite him passing away two years ago; likewise, seeing the sky above the capital awash with purple draws me closer to my beloved home. And all this makes me wonder “what,” once I leave this country, “will draw me closer to Rwanda?” I probably won’t know the answer to this question until after I leave this place; but I’ve got a lot of work still to do until then.

“Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm does bind the restless wave, who bids the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep; O hear us when we cry to Thee for those in peril on the sea.” (Eternal Father 756).

Until next time,

Carter

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P.S. I’ve seen a few YAGM’s posting about songs they listen to on their way to work or whenever they feel homesick. So, I figured I’d continue in this vein, and give y’all a list of songs which I’m learning on the guitar that make me feel closer to home. For those of you who don’t enjoy country music, camp songs, bluegrass, and classic rock (AKA good music) now is your chance to click that little red ‘X’ in the upper left corner!

In no particular order:

  • 2 Places at 1 Time: Zac Brown Band.
  • Die a Happy Man: Thomas Rhett.
  • Carolina In My Mind: James Taylor.
  • Take Me Home, Country Roads: John Denver. (AKA ‘Country Rhodes’ – please start calling him that lolololololol).
  • Borning Cry.
  • As the Deer Pants for the Water.
  • Gather Us In.
  • Dixieland Delight: Alabama.
  • Carolina Can: Chase Rice.
  • Sweet Baby James: James Taylor.
  • Fire and Rain: James Taylor.
  • Colder Weather: Zac Brown Band.
  • Day that I Die: Zac Brown Band.
  • Rocky Mountain High: John Denver.
  • One Love: Bob Marley.
  • Roll On: Alabama.
  • Rise: Eddie Vedder.
  • I’ll Fly Away. Traditional.

River of Life

Growing up some of my best memories have been sitting on the porch with my grandmother (Nanny) watching storms form over the ocean at Garden City Beach. It is a beautiful scene. Dark clouds swirl overhead as the (typically) calm riptides intensity, turning the ocean an eerie shade of emerald green. The wind begins to pick up and somewhere off in the distance heat lightning flashes, briefly illuminating the landscape below. The lightning always seemed so far off; so distant, in fact, that for a long time I had convinced myself that the lightning was actually striking across the ocean, in Africa. It made sense, after all, to young/adolescent Carter. I had always heard that it rained all the time “over there” and, anyways, how else could Giraffes and Elephants grow so tall if there was no rain? No storms?

Right now it’s early rainy season in Rwanda. This is the time when you can see images of dramatic rain storms washing the dehydrated earth with life-giving rain. Standing at the top of the ridges it is possible to see rainstorms hitting the hills in the distant and hear the clap of thunder. It is a beautiful scene. Of course, in a society that relies so heavily on subsistence farming the rain, quite literally, islife-giving.  Farmers here wait months for the first sign of rain so they can begin preparing their crop for the harvest. When the rains come, beans, sweet potatoes, and cassava quickly sprout up underneath the shade of the banana palms which stand year-round.

I have been in Rukira for a month now and have learned so much about the economy of Rwandan villages (which, of course, I am very interested in). Around 80% of families in Rukira primarily farm for a living, while nearly everybody else has some plot of land that they farm in order to feed their families. Farming isat the center of everyday life in rural Rwanda. Farming in Rwanda is an incredibly labor-intensive job. The Green Revolution hasn’t hit the country yet (although there are parts of the country where farming is becoming more mechanized), so farmers use handtools and brute-strength to get the job done. For many, a day in the field begins before dawn (5:30 AM) and doesn’t end until the sun goes down at 6:00 PM.

While some crops, like bananas, can be harvested year-round, many other crops are only grown during the rainy season. This makes the coming of rainy season even incredibly exciting for local farmers; when the rains come they can plant new varieties of crops which means more money from sales and greater diet diversity.

I spent a lot of my down time walking around the village. I really love it; walking gives me time to relax, think, daydream, and rehab the ol ACL. The other day I walked particularly far (perhaps too far) down the road and came upon a “typical” vista of the Rwandan landscape. Spread out in front of me were endless hills; their sides covered with banana plantations while the hill’s crests were peppered with small villages and hamlets. It was a beautiful scene. Up above, however, dark clouds were forming and I could hear thunder begin to grumble – a storm was coming in.

I turned back around and began the hour walk back to my home, as the sky increasingly darkened. When it became obvious that I wasn’t going to make it in time with my current pace, I began to jog (albeit clumsily on account of my recovering ACL #TheRecovery), and then run. Naturally, I was not able to outrun Mother Nature and massive rain drops began to fall on and around me; drenching me and quickly turning dust into thick mud. I don’t enjoy getting caught in the rain but, as I’ve learned to do when things don’t go my way, I just laughed at the situation, turned on some music, and continued trudging on.

I’ve always liked the expression “God is in the rain” because rain refreshes, rejuvenates, and causes things to grow. In the exodus story, God causes water to flow from a rock to quench Israel’s thirst (Ex: 17:6); in John, Jesus tells the woman at the well he will give her “living water” (John: 4:10); in Revelation, the author tells of a river of life which flows “from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city” (Rev: 22:1-2). Likewise, at baptism we are washed in the waters of God and claimed part of the congregation of believers. In Rwanda, rain washes the ground, causing things to grow and ushering in a new season of life. Yes, rainstorms can be beautiful and inspiring, but more importantly they bring water – they allow for life to happen.

 

Until next time,

Carter

Karibu, Rukira

Ever since I was young, I have loved traveling. Some of my best memories from childhood was when my family would take trips to different places in the United States. When I was really little, this meant going to visit grandparents, going to the beach, or the family mountain house at Lake Lure. As us kiddos sprouted up, Mom and Dad took the family on trips to Maine, Utah, Yellowstone, and the Pacific Northwest. I was absolutely wonderstruck by my first international trip to Antigua, Guatemala (so much so that I would return another 3 times), a high school trip to Europe, and an Outward-Bound expedition on the Kenai Peninsula, in Alaska. I believe the reason I love travel so much, is that by traveling I am exposing myself to places and people that are different from where I come from. Likewise, by traveling I better appreciate my own story, where I come from, and learn a little more about how I fit into the world. Perhaps you feel the same way.

So, I guess it makes sense that I was absolutely pumped when I was assigned to serve in Rwanda by the YAGM leadership. Rwanda seemed so incredibly different from everything I knew and, for the first time, I would actually be living for longer than three months away from the southern part of the United States. Upon arrival to Rwanda, the YAGM cohort (there are 7 of us) had a 3-week orientation period in Kigali, when we had Kinyarwanda lessons, learned about the culture, and generally got acclimated to life in Rwanda. When orientation was over, my host father, Pastor Murisa, met me in Kigali and rode with me on a bus ride to my site placement, Rukira village.

After a four-hour ride, the bus dropped us off at a small cluster of roadside huts and farmer’s sheds standing next to a path which climbs the steep hillside straddling the road. Pastor Murisa and I hopped on two motorcycle taxis (the main/cheapest form of Rwandan transportation) and began to climb the hill. Up, up, up. We rode through the endless groves of banana plants (they are not trees, shout out to my banana plantation obsessed professor, Dr. Schramm) which surround Rukira as the motorcycle kicked up dust from the road in our faces. The sky above growled and the wind blew, signaling that an early rainy season shower will be in the immediate future. In Rwanda, the early rainy season storms bring on a season of change as the country prepares for the coming of the rains. Dusty dirt paths turn to mud, wells fill with water, and the countryside explodes with green as the rains fall on Rwanda. It is interesting that I should arrive in Rukira during a time that the landscape is in such a state of change. After all, I am living in a part of my life that seems to be split between two minds – not quite a kid, but also not quite an adult.

I’ve been in Rukira for a week and a half now and every day I have experienced something new or looked at familiar practices, things, or people from a different perspective. In order to save you from the ramblings of my mind, I have a quick list of some observations of Rwanda.

  1. Never challenge a Rwandan to an eating contest. They eat WAAAAAAAYmore than Americans do. However, because Rwandans live such a physical lifestyle and don’t eat as much processed foods many are quite skinny and fit.
  2. The stars in Rwanda are the most beautiful on the planet, hands down. During the middle of my first night in Rukira, I went outside to use the outhouse (more on this to come) and was absolutely amazed by how clear the night sky was. Ever since I heard the song Southern Cross, by Crosby Stills & Nash, I have wanted to see the famous “crux” constellation. Sure enough, there it was, and there it has been every night since during my midnight outhouse trips.
  3. Contrary to popular opinion, a banana isn’t just a fruit.Rukira is surrounded by banana trees, but not the type of banana that we eat in the United States. Rwandans mostly eat Ibitoki, a type of banana which is more like a potato-ey starch than a fruit.
  4. Toilets?What are those? I’m not sure there is a functioning toilet in Rukira, and if there is, I would like to pay it a visit. Everybody does their business in outhouses (Uncle John Trump would be proud).
  5. Rwandans walk slowly. Or maybe American’s just walk fast, I can’t tell. One thing is for sure, everybody is on African time (also known as Guatemalan or Costa Rican time for my Central American friends). By this I mean if you are supposed to meet somebody at 3, they probably won’t arrive until around 3:30 or so. This will take some getting used to.

Yes, Rwanda is a very different place from the United States and while it has been fascinating to learn what makes my culture different from Rwandan culture, I have found the most comfort in uncovering the things that we have in common. As has so often been the case in my life, I have felt most connected to people through music. When a group of people sings a song, they sing the sametune and the samelyrics, regardless of the different backgrounds within the group – in my case this is a pretty serious linguistic barrier – to create music. It sounds obvious and simple (of course it is the same, songs have lyrics), yet is profound to think about. There is genuine powerto be found in singing, a power which brings people together.

I mention this in order to lift up two moments when music has brought me closer to the community. The first moment came on my last night in Kigali when, on the way to a restaurant, a Rwandan friend mentioned that he liked country music. Of course, this immediately peaked my attention, as I had been starved of country music for the past month (turns out its not terribly popular in Rwanda), and we began to discuss our favorite songs. He asked what my favorite song was and I immediately told him my favorite song was the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity house top 10 hit and unofficial National Anthem of the Woolly Household, John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. Walking down the road we began to sing together about backroads, the Shenandoah River, and West Virginia.

The second moment came a few days ago when, while teaching English to a group of adults, I was asked to sing some American songs so they could practice speaking English quickly. I told them that was a fantastic idea, but it would have to wait until the next day so I could prepare some songs. For whatever reason, that night I simply could not get songs from my time as a counselor/camper at Lutheridge out of my head; Lord Prepare me to be a Sanctuary, I’ll Do My Best, Light the Fire, and Lord I Lift Your Name on High (to name a few). I knew I had to show them one of these songs so I chose Lord I Lift Your Name on Highand played it for them. To my surprise, some of them knew the song; while those who didn’t quickly caught on. I was amazed.

We live in a big world, with so many people, so many cultures, and so many languages. But there are things in this world which draw us together, which make us feel closer, which make us feel as one. Call it the Spirit, call it music, call it globalization (heck, it’s probably all those things). But I believe it’s God at work in the world, helping us to connect and find meaning here with God’s people among God’s Garden.

Until next time,

Carter

There, In God’s Garden

I’ve always heard that you can tell a lot about a place by the way it sleeps. Kigali is an absolutely beautiful place at night. Throughout orientation we have been all over the city – visiting, learning, and appreciating what the city has to offer – but not yet at night. This is not because Kigali is not a safe place, rather we have packed so much into the day that by the time the equatorial sun sets (6 PM every day of the year) the group is exhausted and ready to head to bed. Last night was the exception; last night we stayed out past six and were greeted by the most beautiful city scape I have ever experienced. Unlike the grid system of the United States, the orientation of Kigali’s roads is the commercial centers which are set upon the crests of the city’s hills and ridges. On the hillside surrounding the hilltop centers are residential neighborhoods which spill into the fertile, arable valleys below. Driving back from dinner last night the city lights set upon the hills and valleys shined luminously, merging into the brightness of the Rwandan starscape beyond.  It was a truly magical scene.

“I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.” (Gen 22.3-22.24)

I find it grounding to go back to the early biblical accounts of God’s promise to Israel when I struggle with tough topics. This week we have focused much of our energy on the events leading up to, surrounding, and following the genocide of 1994. Admittedly it has been a rough week in terms of ethos (emotions), yet a fascinating week in terms of gaining knowledge about the backstory to the land which I will call home for the next year. It’s difficult to pinpoint a single reason for the genocide, simply because there is a cacophony of reasons as to why it occurred. Precolonial feudalism, ethnogenesis and the creation of a rigid class system separating Hutu and Tutsi under colonial Belgian rule, a bloody independence from Belgian rule, and 30 years of de facto dictatorship – among other factors – set the stage for the horror of 1994. I’m not going to delve into the details of the genocide (there are countless sources out there to look into), instead I’d like to discuss the memorials, museums, and places of remembrance which our cohort has visited this week.

On Tuesday (9/4) we visited the memorial to 10 Belgian soldiers who were killed on the first day of the genocide. Having been taken from their station at the Prime Minister’s house and facing a mob of Interahamwe and government forces, the soldiers (equipped with two small side arms) took shelter in a one room outbuilding at Camp Kigali – the infamous pre-genocide training ground for the Interahamwe militia. They resisted for 7 ½ hours until they were overwhelmed by the mob. The most striking feature of the memorial is that it hasn’t been touched in the 24 years since the killings took place; unlike the rest of Kigali, which has experienced a remarkably visible transformation since then genocide, the building still sports bullet holes on the walls and grenade crevasses on the floor. Outside are 10 unpolished stones arranged in a circle, identical (because death does not distinguish file and rank), each carved with notches identifying the age of the soldier, and broken at the top representing the brutal end to their lives.

The Belgian memorial was a tangible example of destruction, but also a symbolic representation of one of the reasons the UN, and other world powers, did not further intervene in Rwanda. When they saw the death of the 10 soldiers, the major powers quickly evacuated diplomats, expatriates, and military forces from the country. The UN (who had a significant presence in Rwanda) withdrew its forces to the point that only a few hundred soldiers remained. The soldiers who remained continued the UN policy of non-engagement, thus sitting idly by as the country descended into hell around them. While the preeminent international peacekeeping organization (the UN) was withdrawing, individual hegemonic powers (such as the United States) refused to send troops out of fear of repeating disaster at Mogadishu, Somalia the previous year in which 18 US soldiers died (this is the premise for the movie Black Hawk Down). All this makes you wonder: What ifthe UN had a less strict mandate? What ifthe UN did not withdraw? What ifthe US and other powers had intervened in the conflict? What if……

While the Belgian memorial was powerful because of the evidence of destruction and the questions revolving around “what ifs”, visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial was overwhelming because of the scope of the stories and tragedy packed into the two-story museum and gardens. The walkthrough of the museum’s bottom floor shows the history the genocide set around statues of dancing, faceless figures and stained-glass windows with skulls and machetes on the wall. For an hour and a half, we wandered through the museum, coming across displays each with unique, sad, and terrible stories – the bones, the photos, the clothes, the children’s room. For those of us who have not experienced such unthinkable violence we tend to look at such experiences as impossible or otherworldly. We focus on facts, figures, and numbers without considering reality because, quite frankly, reality is too horrible to comprehend. Stories… Stories are what bring us close to reality, and at the museum the stories of the horror are what struck us the most.

Below the museum is the gardens which contain the burial place of an estimated 250,000 victims of the genocide. It is a peaceful, beautiful place in which the smell of flowers and sound of flowing fountains contrast with the starkness of the concrete tombs. Walking among the tombs there is a sense of finality and mortality, yet there also are stark reminders of the vibrancy of life. Sitting on the hill across the valley is the skyline of downtown Kigali – full of skyscrapers and bustling with business – a true testament to the way Rwanda has bounced back from the horrors of the genocide to build a new, growing society.

As I wandered around the lower levels of the garden I came upon the most recent tomb. This one was different from the rest as it had a hatch which allowed for newly discovered victims to be laid to rest (as is still happening across the country). I stood there for quite some time, looking at the tomb, processing the day’s events; I wondered why and how something as terrible as the genocide could have happened. A Rwandan man came down to the lower level asking about the whereabouts of his friend, I said that I hadn’t seen him and he back went up the steps searching for his friend. It struck me that I didn’t know anything about this man; what was his story? Was he a survivor? How does a place like this affect him? Does it tear him apart or does he find peace among the tombs? I don’t know anything about the man, but he reminded me (perhaps) of a gardener, tilling the soil among the tombs as visitors come and go.

In the Gospel of Mark, Mary Magdalene and Mary mother of James are visiting outside Jesus’ tomb when they are approached by a gardener, who reveals to them that “he is not here, he has been raised” – the promise of the resurrection. The 1994 genocide was horrible, evil, and unimaginable for those who did not live through it; I don’t know how I would be able to find a way to reconcile with the killers, I would probably be bitter and set on revenge. Every day I walk the streets of Kigali with the group and I have almost certainly passed (unknowingly) both perpetrators and victims of the genocide. The man who I ran into at the tombs, could he have been a victim? I will never know. Yet I do know that something inside of him brought him to that place of remembrance, of reconciliation. Perhaps in God’s Garden we are all witnesses to the promise of resurrection.

“Thorns not its own are tangled in its foliage; our greed has starved it; our despite has choked it. Yet, look! It lives! Its grief has not destroyed it nor fire consumed it.” (There in God’s Garden, vs. 3).

 

 

P.S. During this year I’ve been reading books at breakneck speed and I’d like to recommend a few of the books I’ve either finished or am in the middle of reading. Some are about Rwanda, some about East-Central Africa, some are non-fiction, and some are just darn good books. We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow we will Die With Our Families is probably the best book I’ve read about the genocide; The Last King of Scotland is the first hand account of Idi Amin’s (the 1970s dictator of Uganda) doctor; Into Thin Airhas nothing to do with Africa and is Jon Krakaeur’s deadly 1996 ascent of Mt. Everest; How Soccer Explains the World is about the soccer’s impact on globalization. Also, I bought a guitar and am learning to play (watch out St. John’s Contemporary Service, I’m coming for you).

Praising My Savior, All the Day Long

 

Ever since my parents returned from a trip to Tanzania when I was in elementary school, I have been fascinated with East-Central Africa. As a youngster, the region was more of a fantastical myth than a real place; it was a place where I knew life surely must exist, but it only really existed within the swirling mists of my own unknowing. Its culture was more myth than reality, its history was more legend than fact. I must admit that during the past few months the reality of spending a year in Rwanda hadn’t quite dawned on me. This is not to say that I wasn’t trying to mentally prepare myself, I watched every documentary, read every book I could get my hands on, and thoroughly vetted the ‘Rwanda’ Wikipedia page at least 5 times, yet none of these left me feeling adequately prepared for the tangible realness of the country.

 

I’ve been in Kigali for two days now, and – although I don’t admit being an expert on Rwanda – I can report that it is, in fact, a very real place. On August 23, we flew into the Kigali International Airport around 4 PM local time (9 AM EST) and the group was absolutely exhausted. After checking into our guest house (where we will be staying for the three-week orientation), we ate a dish prepared by Pastor Janelle (our YAGM Country Coordinator) and Pastor Veronica (Janelle’s best friend and soon to be Seminarian at LTSC) consisting of curried peas over rice – yum! We spent that first night decompressing, asking questions of our hosts, and participating in a spirit filled devotion on being welcomed into the community.

 

If day one was meant to decompress, the days which followed have been meant to compressRwandan culture, language, and practical skills into an intensive three-week long orientation. While all our days have included at least one 90 minute Kinyarwanda lesson (more on Kinyarwanda to come), we have participated in a variety of activities and devotions which have been meant to focus our minds and spirits on Rwanda.

 

One of the fascinating aspects of Rwandan culture is the intense sense of community which exists on the grassroots level. In the past 25 years, the country has made strides to decentralize society so that the smallest unit of administration, the village (think of an American neighborhood), has immense cultural and political importance. One cornerstone of the Rwandan structure is the practice of Umuganda, which translates to “coming together” and takes place on the last Saturday of the month. During Umuganda, the country shuts down in order for citizens to participate in work projects, clean the community, and come together in local forums to discuss pressing topics and issues. On Saturday (8/26) we participated in our first Umuganda by helping Janelle out with various tasks around her house before discussing our own pressing matters, such as applying for visas and acquiring a ‘Foreigner ID’ card.

 

Now, back to learning Kinyarwanda. I have taken classes in most of the so-called “romance languages” which has led to my understanding of different languages as being related to one another, rather than an outright separation. Kinyarwanda, however, is not a romance language (or a Celtic language or any Indo-European language for that matter), it is a local tongue whose relation to languages familiar to me is next to none. It is part of the Bantu language group native to central Africa and has been spoken for countless generations with only slight outside influence – namely Swahili. Kinyarwanda is a unique and beautiful language; in just three days I have discovered at least five new sounds (which I had never heard). Yet it also is a hard language for non-native speakers to learn (cough cough English). My hope is that I will pick up enough of the language this year so I can have deep conversations with my new Rwandan friends.

 

Lastly, some of you have asked to hear a little about the Lutheran Church in Rwanda (LCR). Despite initially being colonized by Germans (of whom many are Lutheran) there is next to no German influence in the country. Many of the members of the LCR are former Rwandan refugees from Tanzania – where Lutheranism is one of the most prominent Christian denominations – who returned to the country in the mid-late 1990s. Because of this, the LCR is a fairly small, although rapidly expanding, church.

 

On Sunday (8/26) we visited the Kigali parish to attend the 8:30 English service. The crowd was small and made up of a hodgepodge of the church’s elders, Ugandans, a few Americans, a Malagasy family, and some Rwandans who had arrived late (or perhaps were just early for the Kinyarwanda service). In all the service lasted an hour, followed the traditional liturgy, and included a few familiar songs. It was beautiful, intimate, and admittedly quite emotional to experience such a vital part of my own upbringing (the old tried and true Lutheran liturgy) being offered in this setting. Immediately following the English service, the clergy and laymen begin the process of preparing for the very lively, and very loud Kinyarwanda service which wildly contrasted the somber service that preceded it. They plugged in speakers/keyboard (shout out to Rob Durocher), tested the microphone, opened the doors and begin an hour of singing in which the sound is projected out of the building and into the street. What is fascinating about the Kinyarwanda service is that when the singing begins, the church is not quite full. The congregants, enter the worship as songs of praise spill out into the street, sending out an open invitation for all to enter the space.

 

The English service’s gospel for the day was a familiar passage in John (6:25-69) in which the disciples ask Jesus what they must do to perform the works of God, to which Jesus says “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in my will never be thirsty.” There could not be a more appropriate gospel introduction to the faith we witnessed at the LCR. There seems to be a genuine hunger to be fed by the spirit, to know God, or to know more about God’s church. I saw evidence of this in the people who, despite some not knowing a lick of English, gathered for both the English and Kinyarwanda services searching to find a holy place, where God and earth. We didn’t get to stay for the Kinyarwanda service (that will be next week), but as we left the choir sang, in Kinyarwanda, the familiar tune to Blessed Assurance.

 

This is my story, this is my song. Praising my savior all the day long. This is my story, this is my song. Praising my savior all the day long. What a way to begin the year.

 

 

Until next time,

Carter

Rwanda Beckons

Excitement, nervousness, anxiousness, and a little fear – its difficult wrap my head around the idea that in less than a month I will be headed on the greatest (and longest) journey of my life so far. In many ways a year in Rwanda is not a long time (after all modern medicine suggests the average millennial may live 90 years), but in other ways it feels like a mountain of time. Here in the US, life and time will go in a similar manner to the way it always has in my 22 years – just without me being physically in it. What will I be missing? Who will I be missing? Friends, family, stories, the like….. there is the fear.

But I also wonder what I would missing if it was not for the possibility of Rwanda? I’ve been told Rwanda is a beautiful place. Rwanda is called the “Land of a Thousand Hills.” Most of the country sits on the foothills which lead to the towering western diversion of the Great African (Albertine) Rift. If you google image “Rwanda nature”, you will see photos of rolling green hills, deep lakes, and mountain gorillas (that’s right, Rwanda is one of two places in the world where mountain gorillas can be safely viewed).  In the past three months I have read the ‘Rwanda’ wikipedia article at least three times, watched every documentary I can get my hands on, and looked at hundreds of pictures of the country. You could say I have become obsessed – and you wouldn’t be wrong…. there is the excitement.

In the past century the Rwandan people have been to hell and back, to a point that many have seen the worldly face of the devil himself. Rwanda is unique among modern African countries because Rwanda (as a country) has existed for a long time. When the first contact was made with Europeans (Germans), the Kingdom of Rwanda was a regional force, ruling the lands surrounding Lake Kivu. During the 20th century, Rwanda was never partitioned or borders demarcated which separated the country in pieces (such as is the case in most other African countries). As a result, almost all Rwandans speak the national language (Kinyarwanda) and adhere to Christianity (although the denominational demographic has diversified as Rwanda has moved away from its colonial past).

Despite relative homogeny, disaster struck in 1994 when tensions between Tutsis (the pre-colonial ruling class) and Hutus (the former farmers and laborers), which had become strained due to years of forced ethnogenesis and separation under Belgian colonial rule, burst leading to the genocide agains the Tutsi. During the genocide an estimated 800,000 people were killed in a three month span. Today Rwanda is an incredibly young country; nearly half of its population is under 18 years old. Following the genocide, the country has experienced massive economic and political growth. Foreign development, an opening of the economy, and the expansion of political rights for minorities have led The Economist magazine to call Rwanda “the African success story of the 21st century.” As such, Rwanda has unique challenges and opportunities. Its youthfulness and drive to expand its economy place Rwanda at a key junction in the development of social ministries and education; issues which the Lutheran church is committed to meeting head on.

I suppose this is where I come in. The purpose of YAGM is to send young adults on a mission of accompaniment alongside the residents of the host country. What is so appealing about YAGM’s ministry is that we are not sent to go and create new mission, rather we are called to experience and walk alongside the work of the church catholic. I am not yet sure what I will specifically be called to do in Rwanda (stay tuned, site placements are coming soon), but I do know the YAGM Rwanda cohort (there are seven of us) is called to live among God’s people. Wherever we may find ourself tending the soil of God’s Garden I hope we can stay connected throughout the next year. If we are best friends or even if we have never met before, I would love for this blog to be a way for us to talk and learn about one another and the world we live in.

Until next time,

Carter

 

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