A Lesson from Rwanda

I recently spent several days in Rwanda as part of a teaching team for the Shepherd’s Leadership Conference, a weeklong conference for Rwandese pastors and other church leaders. There is much to share, especially having been there so close to the 20th anniversary of the genocide (April 6th). I hope to post several reflections on my time in Rwanda. This first is not about the genocide, but about my interactions with a pastor who attended the conference.

Pastor Vincent sought me out after one of the teaching sessions. He appeared to be young, maybe not yet 40 years old. He smiled broadly, eager to greet me. I listened as he reflected, in English, on the session entitled, “The Church and Social Justice,” where I had been the speaker. Pastor Vincent embraced the ideas of my message and wondered how he could help his many members who struggle just to survive. Pastor Vincent serves people who barely have enough food and whose daily lives are more difficult than most of us can imagine. I felt somewhat helpless at that moment. I thought about the things we often talk about in the USA regarding urban ministry, such as strategic partnerships where churches with more resources can share with those who have less.

Pastor Vincent said that his small church outside of Kigali does not have a “mother” congregation and he often feels isolated. Much of what he was saying reminded me of my first church-planting experience. Twenty-five years ago, I struggled to start a church in Brooklyn, NY. My wife and I burned out trying to meet the practical, emotional, and spiritual needs of a young congregation with limited resources. I developed some partnerships with suburban churches so that some money came in to help us, but I still had to work as a teacher to supplement my income and not be a burden to my congregation. My struggles in Brooklyn allowed me to relate—even if just a bit—to Pastor Vincent’s predicament, yet I knew his situation was much harder than mine was.

Sadly, much of my experience with churches in the USA reflects how spoiled many American Christians are. We fuss over things like musical styles, the color of walls and carpets, and whether we were duly entertained on some particular Sunday. Church has become—at least in many evangelical sectors—a contest. Church leaders struggle to be hipper, cooler, and more entertaining than other churches so they can find their niche in the marketplace formed by Christian consumers. At times I have become very cynical over such ways of doing church. Many American Christian writers and bloggers pontificate over how the contemporary church needs to be more like the early Christians seen in the Book of Acts, but honestly, we are far from that picture. We are simply too affluent and self-centered to be like that community of sharing, caring, learning and growing that we read about in the New Testament.

This is not to say that contemporary churches lack charitable enterprises. Some give a good deal of money, food, clothes, and other practical things away to those who have less. But even in the midst of our generosity, we are slow to share our lives with others—particularly with others who are different from ourselves racially, ethnically, and economically. Sometimes even our financial generosity is a way of saying “You stay over there, while I stay over here.” The power dynamics are reinforced even though we think we are helping.

Perhaps the simplest thing is for me to send Pastor Vincent some money. But I know from my experiences that money is not always the best solution. The real solution, the biblical dynamic that is often missing from our contemporary churches when compared to the early Christians, is community. It is connection. It is being sister and brother, across the lines of geography, ethnicity, nationality, gender, economics—whatever.

Pastor Vincent and I have already been in email communication. His broken English is better than my non-existent Kinyarwanda. Am I willing to see how God will let us be brothers, and not just me be a benefactor? Am I willing to learn from Pastor Vincent and not assume that I have answers to his questions?

I never got to take a photograph of Pastor Vincent, but in my mind’s eye I see his smiling face and how happy he was to have a conversation with me. I know how it feels to have someone listen when I am struggling in ministry—especially someone who has been speaking to a large group and appears to be an expert. Those sorts of people never had any time for me when I was a younger pastor. I wanted to make sure Pastor Vincent had my time and interest. Maybe that’s the place to start. I will trust God to guide Pastor Vincent and also to guide me. But at this moment, I am simply grateful that God allowed me to meet this brother in Rwanda.

In light of the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, we will likely hear more news over the next few days. As you do, please take that as an opportunity to pray for Rwanda: the nation as a whole, the leaders, the churches, and for pastors like Pastor Vincent.

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