Finally A Trip to the Central African Republic

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One of my very first blog post in my role as a new Area Director  for ELCA Global Mission was about the Central African Republic. I was bemoaning the fact that rarely if ever was anything that happened in this poor country in the news. I was telling all who would read, that one of my first acts in my role in December of 2012 was evacuating missionaries from this African country. That was three and a half years ago.

I have been waiting for three and a half years to make this trip. I have been waiting to spend time with people, in their own country, that I have come to know in the Central African Republic. You see, up until just about a month or so ago the situation in the country was too unstable to travel into the country. We have been meeting with members of the church across the border in Cameroon for the last three years. Now after a presidential election and relative stability in parts of the country, on April 4, I finally got to go.

We crossed the border by land and had to sit and wait for the custom agents to stamp our passports on the Cameroon side and then on the Central African Republic side before we could enter the country. We then, on the Central African Republic side had to wait for a convoy led by United Nations Peacekeeping Troops to escort us into the country and on to Bouar where we would be staying.

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The first thing that struck me about the  Central African Republic is the beauty of the country. We drove through rolling hills with deep valleys; in April it is lush and green. The part of the country we were in seemed sparsely populated to me. There aren’t many people on the road or people moving around along long stretches of highway as there are in other places in Africa I have visited. I suppose people are still anxious about their “relative peace.”

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What you may not know, because there is usually not much in the news about this country is that the Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world. The land is rich in diamonds, gold, oil and uranium, yet the people live in poverty. The country has poor infrastructure, scarce electricity, rare access to water.

As a matter of fact there are places with no running water or no water at all. Electricity is a luxury and even in the Catholic Guest House where we stayed there was only electricity three hours a day by way of a generator. These are the conditions that many in our companion church the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Central African Republic live. That and the continuing reality of civil strife.

Yet although I saw evidence of the living conditions, the recent civil unrest and so much poverty in this place, I also witnessed so much beauty in the people I met. Faces with smiles that symbolized hope. Faces of determination that say that poverty, violence, and lack will not define them. Young women worked to learn how to sew so that they are able to make a living. Their sisters and mothers gather in cooperative to figure out how to improve their livelihoods. Life despite all that I describe is going on. I give thanks to God for the resilience of the people of the Central African Republic. IMG_20160406_131904

Besides this resilience, I was taken aback by the openness, the hospitality, the generosity that we experienced and I hope to visit again and again. We received gifts of honey, peanuts, and melon seeds. Why I wonder are those with the least often the most generous? Why I wonder does there have to be such a stark difference between those who have abundance and those who don’t? Why has the land and resources of this country been used by the world while its people have been neglected?

DSCN0534 [10085]I don’t have any of the answers, so, dear friends and readers of this blog, I am asking that you continue to pray for the people of the Central African Republic. Please pray for peace, pray for improvement in infrastructure, livelihoods and medical care. Please pray that those who work and do business in the country might do so in a fair and just way. And add a prayer for me as I continue to travel . . . as I am Madagascar, West and Central Africa bound!

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Parish and Poverty

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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.

 

 

What I Did on My Vacation, Try To Learn French

I was in Quebec in August; I thought I would take vacation and take three weeks of French Language Study. Some of you know I have been trying to learn French since I started this job and to my surprise it is much more difficult than I thought.

Conjugating verbs has gotten harder as I’ve gotten older….
and I use to be so good with language. I learned Spanish over 15 years ago and surprisingly every time I try to think of a French word, a Spanish word pops into my head. It doesn’t help that many of the students studying in the language school were from Latin America and when they didn’t understand what was happening in French they would break off into Spanish….I was so confused.Yet, I progressed.               11863357_10207669569646685_3927787318104798669_n

I took my vacation to do this. I had to admit: “je suis un peu fou.” I could have been laying on a beach somewhere. Yet it was a great experience. Quebec is beautiful. The weather when I was there was tres bon. There were a few days of rain, but only a few.

I was about a twenty minute walk from the school and a twenty minute bus ride from the old historic city of Quebec. During the week I went to class until 1:00 p.m., answered work e-mail and stuff (Global Mission staff really don’t vacation. There is always some crisis going on in the world). If I was not doing that I would visit rue Cartier and its many shops, and this wonderful place apelle Chocolat Favoris, go to the movies, or visit a museum.                                                                      11855812_10207628464219075_7568113856936811608_n

On the weekends I was able to visit the old city and sit by the port, enjoying a leisurely meal and soaking up the sun. So the trip had some aspects of vacation. I found an Anglican Church to visit on Sundays. The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. The priest there was a Lutheran from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bavaria….How cool is that? I went to the English service because the French service was at 9:30 and since I get up at six every week day morning I thought  since I was “on vacation” it might be nice to sleep in. The service did have some prayers and readings in French. That was nice.

I managed to learn a little French too. I left at the point that I could understand almost everything said. That seems to be where I am stuck. I can understand but not answer back. I can read, but not talk. So I am still struggling trying to learn French. Wish me luck!

Learning French helps in my work because as always, I am westafricabound.11898780_10207716036328323_3512698265057364125_n

Liberia is Ebola Free

I arrived in Liberia on May 5. As we got off the shuttle bus to go into the airport terminal, there were buckets set up and everyone was directed to wash their hands. You could smell the stench of chlorine in the water. From this I knew for myself that Liberia, the entire nation and all of its citizens were taking the fight against Ebola very seriously.

 Everywhere I went, whether a guesthouse, hotel restaurant or church, there were containers of bleached tinged water. At the meeting of the Lutheran Church in Liberia I washed my hands and had my temperature taken before entering the room. This seems to be standard operating procedure in most gatherings.

This way of being helped Liberia achieve the Ebola free status, the diligence, the tenacity and determination to put an end to this dreaded disease was evident everywhere. Leaving Liberia I heard a radio announcer remind the people that even though they had gained an Ebola free status they must not become lacks. He knows as he told the people listening that Sierra Leone and Guinea have not been declared free of Ebola and the borders are porous.

So, we all continue to pray as we walk toward an Ebola free West Africa. I am Madagascar, Central Africa and westafricabound.
 

Love One Another

Sign says "Never Forget"

Sign says “Never Forget”

Jesus says, I give you a new commandment….that you love one another….begins the Maundy Thursday sermon at the Kigali English speaking service. These words were spoken by Pastor Kate Warn as she told the congregation about the love God came to show us. I wonder what the members of the parish thought as we stood there five days away from the commeration of the genocide in Rwanda.

Many of us only know the history of Rwanda through the movie Hotel Rwanda and Don Cheadle’s performance of the manager of the Mile Collines Hotel and how he struggled to keep those being targeted safe.

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The Rwanda of 2015 is very different from the Rwanda of 1994. Rwandans are no longer divided by ethnicity or identy papers that marked their difference; there is one Rwanda and all its citizens are Rwandan.

I am learning this history and this move to love our neighbors as ourselves through the Lutheran Church of Rwanda founded out of the crisis of genocide. The church was built from the families of refugees who had left Rwanda for political reasons in the 1950’s. Now many of the children have returned from exile to help make a stronger Rwanda

When I hear the words “love one another’ in this context, I realize just how much these words of Jesus mean. They seem very simple Pastor Kate told us in her sermon, yet she reminded us of how difficult they are to follow… to live out…to keep. In Rwanda it was within a Christian context that horrific violence against neighbors took place.

Before we think how awful let me say that this reminds me of how violence happens in explicit awful ways and also how we do violence to one another in more subtle ways. In the U.S. no one is brandishing machetes but they are brandishing pens to make laws about who is in and who is out, who can be served and who cannot–deciding, how identity can be used to set apart and divide. The blanket on which these laws lie are religious freedom. So though good Christians believe that they have the right to make these decisions, all Christians are not in agreement. So there is division in the body of Christ even in the U.S.

I understand that the writing of laws and the brandishing of machetes are not the same. Yet, these are both examples—as we do harm to the love that Jesus has so freely given to us. That love that would always err on the side of loving the other, not harming them–including the other, not excluding them.

Jesus tells us “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

Let us remember no matter where we live and what our circumstances that God poured out his love for us on a cross, so that just maybe, as we deal with one another, we might consider Christ example of love.

Impressions of Rwanda

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I cannot help feeling that I must write about how I am experiencing the stories of Rwanda and its people. Especially as I visit the week of April 7 a day that marks the beginning of 100 days of horror so many years ago.

I read in books about the history  of  this beautiful little country in East Africa. This country that was harmed and then abandoned and ignored by the West. At least it seems so in my reading. 

I read books of prose and poetry about the genocide in 1994 and come to know that it did not happen by accident.

I hear the stories of those who were not present when the genocide took place, because their families sought refugee in Tanzania and Uganda years before. They left in the 1950s, because they feared the worst and the worst came true. The sons and daughters of those refugees are back seeking to be part of a rebuilt, better Rwanda. Some of these who have returned founded the Lutheran Church of Rwanda. 

 I have seen the bones and the clothes of victims soaked in blood and even a blood stained altar. I have seen an exhibit entitled “Portraits of Reconciliation” and I stared into the eyes of those who have been forgiven and those who have found strength to forgive. Their eyes are haunting. 

I see the evidence of a country being rebuilt. In my first visit I saw Mbingo and Rwmagana now the village of Ndego. This village and neighboring villages was once  Akagera National Park. Now instead of tigers, elephants and buffalo, there are people. The Lutheran World Federation helped to build this settlement for the many who were displaced.  

So, what am I a Western who until watching the movie “Hotel Rwanda” knew nothing of Rwanda. Until then Rwanda held no conscious place in my mind or my heart. I know that the more I know of this country and its people my heart is opened. Yet, what good is an open heart if it is not used to improve oneself or to make the world a better place? My heartbreaks at the thought of what has happened here but not to the point of despair. I  see hope all around, the hope of a people moving toward unity and healing.

My work brings me to Rwanda and now this lush green terraced country has found a place in my mind and my heart. The smiles of the children have warmed me. I am praying that the little I can do with the Lutheran Church in Rwanda might be beneficial. I am praying that twenty one years after the genocide the future for the people of Rwanda is a bright one and I hope to, return again and again to see that bright future unfold. 

I am westafricabound and now Rwanda bound.

Race, Ethnicity and Culture Part III

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Presentation during Lutheran Church in Senegal churchwide assembly, Anne Langdji is translating into French.

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Members of the Lutheran Church in Senegal including president of the church Thomas Diouf.

I was in Senegal recently. I was there for the purpose of continuing to build relationships with Lutherans in the country and specifically working with the Senegal Lutheran Development Service (SLDS) and the Lutheran Church in Senegal (ELS). I was asked to speak for the assembly of ELS and I was given the topic of “mutual submission.” (see the beginning of that presentation in an earlier post)

Using the text for the occasion I wanted to make the point about how we treat each other. It is as though the writer of the text says, wait a minute, I thought you were followers of Christ … so act like it. God loves you…so treat each other in the same love that you have been given…..and stop using power and authority to lord it over one another.   I used my relationship with my colleague Anne as an example. I told them that technically I was her boss, but because of her knowledge and expertise in the region where we work, I often have to listen to her advice and sometimes she has to listen to me because it is my responsibility to make certain decisions.

So, I finished my presentation, which by the way was translated from English to French and then to Sere, and then I was asked questions. One of the members of the church said that it was easy for us, Anne and I, because we come from the same culture. How were they supposed to do this when some of them were Sere, some were Pulaar, some where Jola? Looking at them I would say, if I didn’t know anything about Senegal, they were all from the same culture. They are all Senegalese. And it was evident to me that Anne and I are not from the same culture. So I laughed, because we are and we are not from the same culture and they are and they are not from the same culture. So, I tried to explain.

Seeing us  standing side by side, what they saw — two Americans. Standing side by side anywhere in North America what would be seen is an African American and a European American. Our histories on North American soil is very different, our experiences on North American soil are very different, our access to resources, power….. you name it, on North American soil could not be more different. Yet when I tried to explain, many looked at me with surprise on their faces.

Race, ethnicity and culture are complicated issues and are seen differently depending on where you are standing. I have learned this much and much more as I am westafricabound.

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