Parish and Poverty


We heard the sound of music as we made it up the hill by way of the rugged dirt road. The people were singing and praising God with their voice and the beat of a single drum.. We were visiting Nagatary Parish, a congregation of the Lutheran Church in Rwanda (LCR). What we were told by Bishop Evariste Mugabo was that this was one of the poorest parishes in the LCR.

We could tell that the community was poor as we got closer and closer. We were coming from Kayonce where we had slept at an Eco-Lodge in fancy safari tents. But the further we drove away from that tourist spot, the more poverty began to show. We turned onto a dirt road and we left electricity and plumbing behind. The mud brick homes got smaller and rougher as we climbed the hills. In this land of a thousand hills there seems to be a disparity between those who can barely make it and those who aren’t making it. I thought we were visiting a poor congregation at our last stop when I saw the decorations in the church. There were streamers of toilet paper to make the church look festive. Yet, the top of this hill was different.

The dire poverty showed even in the accommodations for relief. Pastor Kate and I after a 4 hour car ride had to use the necessary room. In Rwanda outside of homes and public buildings in the cities the ladies room is a deep hole in the ground with bricks around on three sides and if you are lucky a wooden door, today no door. Women wear long dresses because it is the culture but also because it is convenient to squat over a hole if you don’t have to drag your trousers over what has been left around the hole. I have seen many of these “rest rooms” in my travels yet there was little rest here.

Anyway, the drumming and singing continued as we made our way into the church. We were met by the pastor and a congregation sitting on crudely crafted benches on each side of the room. We sat up front as honored guest in wooden chairs. It was the parish pastor, Kate, Bishop Mugabo, myself and the district pastor Rev. Rihinda.

The pastor introduced the district pastor and the program began. We were there to learn about the congregation and its members. After formal introductions, the pastor of the parish told us the history of the church and the background of its members. This place had not been developed as much of Rwanda had after the genocide. It was in the Eastern part of the country. There was no running water, no electricity and some of the members of the congregation particularly those who were orphaned didn’t even have shelter. Two women shared a space out in the open; they had not even a roof– thatched or otherwise over their heads.

From grants received by ELCA, the LCR was trying to help the members of this parish. They had benefited from the church’s Self Reliance training and we heard stories of members receiving goats and pigs in order to have manure to sell to buy food. Can you imagine having to collect the waste of animals for your next meal? We heard of the parishes commitment to the health and well-being of children by raising funds to pay medical insurance cost so that sick children could be cared for.

It was hard not to be appalled by the conditions of the children.  You could tell by the clothing and continence that the people had little if anything. Yet we heard testimony of the goodness of God along with the stories of heart ache and brokenness We heard stories of fathers leaving their children and even a story of one mother leaving a father to care for five young children. In this part of the world, certainly life can be too much.

As is the custom in many places, we were brought sodas to drink. Though they had little, they went out and purchased drinks for their guests Coke, Fanta and Sprite were offered up. We sat there and drank while the congregation watched. This is always awkward but in this pressing poverty it was almost unbearable. Then we were brought a second drink, this time we could share with members of the congregation so we each picked a person and gave them the drink. Those given drinks automatically began to share with their neighbors, so that not only the person receiving the gift were refreshed, others were.Parish 2

The delegation gave an offering of 55,000 RWF which is about equivalent to $73. It was divided up, 5,000 each for the two groups that were formed for self reliance, 5,000 for the church and 20,000 for medical insurance. For us this is not much but for this parish steeped in poverty this little bit will go to touch a life or two, at least that is my prayer. Seeing this breaks your heart, at least it breaks mine . . . And I think, why Lord?

I am extremely privileged to do the work that I do. I hope I bring with me the sensibilities of a parish pastor who knows and has experienced the walking with people in various stages of their lives, the sensibilities to say yes faithfully, and to say no when necessary. It’s hard; my heart is torn open many times. Despite the heartbreak I have been privileged to see joy in small accomplishments, celebration as major goals are achieved and worshipping of God in a most profound way. In this small parish in Rwanda that is what I saw; that is what I experienced.

My deepest desire is to be who God has called me to be in this role, to truly walk with companion churches in the 10 countries I have responsibility for. I know that poverty, oppression, injustice in the world is not fixed instantly by grant money, we do what we can. The systems that would unevenly distribute God’s abundance exist everywhere. What we can do is keep speaking, keep praying and keep giving.

I am Rwanda and westafricabound.



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