I wrote this a few years ago following a Compassion-sponsored mission trip, but didn’t have a blog at that time. So I’m sharing it now.
Rwandans call their country “the land of eternal spring.” Temperate and lush, it is a physically beautiful country, patterned everywhere with neatly terraced slopes bottoming in mist-shrouded valleys. Hard to believe that a few years ago, those gentle green hills were the setting for the slaughter of nearly a million people, killed in the genocide of 1994, as a bored, distracted world looked the other way.
My daughter and I went to Rwanda as part of a Compassion International church engagement trip. During our time in Rwanda, we were blessed to spend an afternoon with two boys we sponsor, Ishimwe and Julius. We visited projects, delivered school supplies, toured a fair trade coffee cooperative, met with the US ambassador to Rwanda, and delved more deeply into Compassion’s mission to rescue children from poverty in Jesus’ name.
Rwanda has little international importance, with few resources to interest the Western world. Just people, lots and lots of people, at least nine million in a country the size of Maryland. Most of these are subsistence farmers, trying their best to scratch out a living from their tidy little patches of farmland. Rwandans take great pride in their homes. Even the humblest little shack is bordered by a well-kept living fence made from “umuyenzi,” a rubbery green plant with milky juice that stings if it gets in your eyes.
The president of Compassion came to the airport to meet our plane, greeting each of us with a warm hug, introducing himself simply as “Samuel.” At every church and project we went to, we were invited to sit in special chairs on a stage as if we were dignitaries. It was embarrassing. All we wanted to do was play with the kids and practice our terrible Kinyarwanda from the little phrase books we had been given. (I never got much past “Muraho,” which means hello.) It was enough to drive over hill and dale, taking in the gorgeous views and waving to the friendly, curious people working out in the fields, occasionally even getting to shake hands out the window.
We just wanted to show our love and appreciation to these humble people. We were so grateful for their warmth and hospitality, grateful to share their soul-filling worship and their exuberant love of the Lord. But it was as if the Rwandans, so deeply wounded by the world’s abandonment in their hour of need, so irrevocably scarred by the horrors of war, needed to love us and show us their appreciation just for coming to see them. “The gift of presence,” someone called it. Sure, we brought them some school supplies, and we sponsor children. I know they appreciated all that. But that wasn’t why the Rwandans were so happy to see us. We finally began to understand what our visit meant to them when we visited the coffee cooperative way out west, almost in the Congo, a project supported by Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana’s Shiyra diocese.
We had driven for hours over treacherously narrow, deeply cratered switchback roads till I began to suspect we were going in circles. At long last, we pulled up a long dusty drive to the “coffee plantation,” as they had referred to it, which turned out to consist of little more than a primitive-looking contraption for processing coffee beans, surrounded by rows of wooden drying tables where a few young ladies carefully sorted the beans by hand. The people who worked there were immensely proud of their modest enterprise and apparently thrilled that we would come all that way to see them. Women were dancing and singing joyously as we walked up the hill, and we had to negotiate our way through a long, long receiving line of people who waited eagerly to kiss us and shake our hands.
The manager of the coffee cooperative was a tall, handsome Rwandan named Tom who spoke excellent English. As he showed us around, he told us proudly that here, Hutus and Tutsis worked side by side, former enemies now united in the daunting task of rebuilding their country, truly from the dirt up. He spoke to a deeply felt need the Rwandans have to be remembered: “We thought the world had forgotten us. As if no one cared about us. By coming to visit us, you have given us hope. You have made us feel loved. Please come back and visit us again. It brings such joy to our hearts. It lets us know we are not forgotten and that there is hope.”
At last we understood: by visiting, we showed them better than any amount of aid or supplies could ever have done, that we love them, that we are proud to call them our brothers and sisters in Christ. We showed them that we want them to live again, now that their long national nightmare has ended.
Later, the pastor of that parish, Pastor Agnes, gave us a simple lunch of sandwiches and lukewarm soda in a copse of trees a mile up the road from the coffee station. She echoed Tom’s profound appreciation for our visit, saying that our presence made them feel so loved. Pastor Agnes introduced some ladies who are served by the Anglican Mother’s Union, which has set up support groups for women victimized by the war. Through the support groups, women can get health care, micro-loans and other forms of assistance. Many Rwandan women and their children are infected with HIV. The grace of God emanated tangibly from Pastor Agnes, who lives to comfort those who have suffered unimaginable grief. We could scarcely bare to say goodbye to her, as she stood by our little bus and blessed us with uplifted hands.
Probably the hardest part of the trip for all of us was our visit to the Genocide Museum in Kigali, which is apparently de rigeur for visitors to the country. As we walked through the morbid exhibits, I became consumed with anger. I was angry at the idiotic waste, and the lunacy of mankind, so intent on annihilation. As I got angrier and angrier, a small voice spoke to me: “You don’t think you are capable of such hatred and cruelty? Oh, but you are.” This is what God showed me: we are all guilty, “none is righteous, not one.” There is no hope without Christ.
“Never again!” we cry defiantly. Yet, in Rwanda, we did indeed let it happen again.
The last part of the museum is devoted to a summary of the genocides that occurred during the twentieth century, a particularly murderous time in our blood-stained history. The Turkish slaughter of the Armenians, the Nazi Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, all documented in gruesome pictures. “Never again!” we cry defiantly. Yet, in Rwanda, we did indeed let it happen again.
There is no governmental solution to prevent genocide from happening again. The UN was worse than useless in Rwanda. The only hope is to change the hearts of the people through sharing the gospel. The seething resentment that gives birth to genocidal rage can only be vanquished by the love of Jesus Christ. The church, partnered with Compassion, can accomplish what no governmental agency could ever do. If children are raised to believe that they have eternal worth and a purpose here in this life, how can they grow up to become thugs or terrorists? Just as important, the Compassion projects we visited have successful malaria reduction programs, AIDS initiatives and early childhood interventions. As all these programs are ministered through the local church, people learn that the body of Christ truly cares for them and their families.
“Someday soon I believe that the world will call Rwanda greatly blessed,” he has said.
Bishop Rucyahana believes that the healing of Rwanda is an example to the whole world. “Someday soon I believe that the world will call Rwanda greatly blessed,” he has said. And I believe that the Rwandan people will share that blessing with the world, as they live out the gospel of Christ through forgiveness.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of the genocide, please read Bishop John Rucyahana’s book The Bishop of Rwanda: Finding Forgiveness Amidst a Pile of Bones. Caution: this book does not spare the reader from the horrors of the genocide, but it is ultimately deeply inspiring and uplifting. Click here if you would like to learn more about sponsoring a child through Compassion International.