A Tragic Anniversary
For Palm Sunday last weekend, John Schenk of World Vision was a guest speaker at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Muzizi, Rukara parish, northeast Rwanda. He had been in that village church 10 years ago in the midst of the genocidal killing of more than 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi and moderate Hutu.
Schenk was one of the few photojournalists to videotape that genocide as it happened, and his footage later aired on major television networks in North America, helping to alert the world to the unimaginable carnage in a tiny African nation previously known mostly for its mountain gorillas and, among Christians, for the famous East African Revival of the 1930s.
During the first service, Schenk shared his story of how witnessing the genocide had left him emotionally overwhelmed. He left Africa, after four years of intensive work there, and returned to the United States for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I spoke to the first mass and the intention was actually to speak at the second mass," Schenk told me during a late night phone call from his hotel room in Rwanda earlier this week.
"But we were approached by a young man, Robert, who is the president of the local chapter of the survivors association." Robert was eager to share about their preparations for the tenth anniversary. "We got into a long conversation. He turned out to be this really hurting, deeply wounded young man, who lost his parents, lost five aunts, several uncles." Robert is now 32 and takes care of nine orphans, all children of his murdered family.
"I hate God," the young man said. Schenk told me, "He didn't say that with anger, but complete resignation. He's just done in, broken.
"While I saw much hope and heard stories about genuine forgiveness and repentance, at the same time this young man is emblematic of so many people in the country. Things are not wrapped up here. There's no way that it's all wrapped up with a neat ribbon. It's going to take decades and decades. Some Rwandans say that it will take 100 years to really heal this country completely."
Schenk stayed with Robert through St. Xavier's second service. "We ended up sitting there praying for him. He couldn't pray for himself. I missed speaking to the second mass. That's where we were supposed to be."
Nowhere in Africa is Christianity more complex than in Rwanda, which represents both a missions success story and a nightmare of what can happen when some of a nation's most influential church leaders sell out.
Anglican Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini told me during an interview last year in Kigali that a "spiritual genocide" preceded the physical genocide. He said, "We killed our people. The physical genocide was a reaction to spiritual genocide, spiritual emptiness. Some people don't think sin is real. Rwanda is a witness. Sin is real. It is bitter. It's a fire. Rwanda has helped me understand the depth and weight of sin."
It's so important for us North Americans to understand that Christianity in Africa is not a carbon copy of our experience 6000 miles off our shores. Recently, Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom, was speaking to top evangelicals at a meeting in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He said, "At the start of the 20th century, in 1900, Africa probably had around 10 million Christians, around one-tenth of the continent's population. Between 1900 and 2000, that number rose from 10 million to 360 million. From about 10 percent to just under half. In pure numeric terms, that is the largest religious change of any sort in human history."
In Rwanda, that transformation has been even more dramatic, and the effects of the Gospel even more penetrating. Rwanda's remote location in the Great Lakes region of Africa in part delayed significant interaction with Westerners until the late 19th century. Although the distance between Kigali, Rwanda, and Nairobi, Kenya, is about 600 miles, the terrain was difficult to traverse, unexplored, and heavily populated by unfriendly tribes. According to one report, Henry Stanley, the famed explorer, was turned back in 1875 from crossing the Kagera River along the eastern border of Ruanda-Urundi by a hail of arrows.
About ten years later, the region got caught up in the legendary European 'scramble for Africa.' The 1885 Conference of Berlin awarded to Germany the region that was then known as German East Africa, a vast area including Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanganyika. On their arrival in Rwanda, the Germans found that existing Tutsi aristocracy held the country under tight control and the Germans exerted their influence through the Tutsi rulers.
In 1900, the White Fathers, many of them French-speaking Catholics, set up the first Christian mission in the country. While Tutsi royalty for decades were suspicious of Christianity, Hutu were more receptive to the Gospel.
Protestant missionaries, including many Anglicans, were not far behind the White Fathers. By 1913, all four gospels were available in Kinyarwanda, the common language of both Tutsi and Hutu. After the defeat of the Germans in 1917, Belgium took over administration of Rwanda.
Up to the 1930s, evangelism in Rwanda made huge progress. One source reports that local Christians would comment that the Holy Spirit was blowing across Rwanda "like a tornado." A defining moment for Protestants throughout East Africa occurred through the ministry of Joe Church, a missionary physician, and several Christian converts, including Simeoni Nsibami, his younger brother Blasio Kigozi, and a hospital worker Yosiya Kinuka. An account of the East Africa revival is chronicled in the new book, "Rwanda: The Land that God Forgot?," by Meg Guillebaud, currently a missionary in Rwanda. A shorter account may be found in Christian History Issue 79: The African Apostles.
In Gahini (eastern Rwanda), Dr. Church established a school and hospital, but he faced discouragement about Rwandan churches, some of which had become nominal in their beliefs. He and local church leaders began a slow work of renewal and revival. But a breakthrough began in June 1936 with a revival at the Gahini school for girls. Over the next several years, this charismatic revival spread through East Africa and was accompanied by controversy and charges of "devil-worship."
The revival was also marked by confession and a renewed commitment to "walking in the light" of Scripture. And, by the 1940s, Rwanda had a Christian majority. Some reports have shown that 90 percent of Rwandans called themselves Christian, with 50 percent or more Roman Catholic.
From the 1940s through the 1990s, Rwandan's secular history of independence, warfare, and ethnic blood-letting between Hutu and Tutsi overpowered the church's mission. Hutu-Tutsi killing began as early as the 1950s. The accounts of wrong-doing in 1994 and in earlier yearsare better known than the accounts of bold witness and martyrdom. One exampleof the latter dates to 1964. Yona Kanamuzeyi, a church deacon in Nyamata,had been asked to aid refugees fleeing ethnic violence. As a child of a Hutu-Tutsi marriage, his work of providing sanctuary earned him the label "Tutsi sympathizer."
As author Guillebaud recounts, five soldiers in a Jeep came and took Yona away for questioning in the middle of the night on January 23, 1964. Two others were also in custody. Yona grabbed his diary and the keys to their church. The jeep stopped suddenly alongside a river. Yona scribbled in his diary: "We are going to heaven." Yona questioned his fellow prisoners about their own salvation. Then, they all sang, "There is a happy land … where saints in glory stand." Soldiers took Yona into the bush and gunfire was heard.
The soldiers returned "amazed" that Yona sang as he walked along to his death. Minutes later, they released the other two prisoners. Years later, the dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London inscribed in the cathedral's book of modern martyrs the name Yona Kanmuzeyi.
The long road back
Today, Rwanda is a society of survivors living alongside the killers of their family members. For World Vision's John Schenk, forgiveness is not an abstract concept. He's in the process of gathering new stories for a web-based, multi-media project. But returning to Rwanda has helped Schenk understand, "It takes a lot longer to undo the devil's work than it does to do good."
He said, "We're trying to restore normalcy to human hearts before we rebuild communities. In the end, what do you do with your grief? You got to hang it up on the Cross."
Timothy C. Morgan is deputy managing editor of Christianity Today.
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