A letter from Bob Rice serving in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
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From July 6 until the 25th, 27 of us gathered for the 4th annual International School of Reconciliation (ISOR) facilitated by Mercy Ministries in Rwanda. We represented these countries: Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Kenya, South Sudan, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Hungary, Ukraine, the United Kingdom (Wales) and the United States. We were a diverse group bonded by our love for Christ and a desire to bring peace and healing to our communities and to our nations. The first week began with the Healing the Wounds of Ethnic Conflict (HWEC) workshop. Together we rediscovered God’s original plan for relationships, the bitter roots of prejudice and division, our restored identity in Christ, and the role of the Church as an agent of change. We also took a hard look at the seemingly dichotomous relationship between our sufferings and a God of love. We came to a deeper knowledge of God as a loving Father. As we continued, we analyzed what “the Thief” (Satan) has stolen from our communities and from us. We looked at some of our false beliefs about God and ourselves. For instance, our South Sudanese brothers described God as “a woman with only one breast.” God seems to help some but neglects others.
We then took time to reflect on our inner wounds, personally and communally, and then considered God’s response to human suffering. God’s response, in its simplest and most profound form, is found in the Cross of Christ. Christ not only takes all of our sin upon Himself but He also takes all of our pain upon Himself as well. In Isaiah 53:4 we read “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…” In Psalm 34 we read that God is close to the brokenhearted. We spent an hour in groups of two or three in which we shared with each other the deep wounds of our hearts. I was paired with Gabriel from South Sudan. As I shared a deep inner wound from my youth, he was able to put into words better than I could what was inside my heart. Each of us had written down on a piece of paper our deep inner wounds. As a symbolic act of faith we then took our pain to the Cross and nailed it there. It was a gut-wrenching time, yet our tears can be our greatest teachers. We learned and experienced that the Cross is not just a place of transfer for our sin, but a place of radical exchange. God will exchange our anger and bitterness for joy. God will exchange our pain for peace.
After this time of healing we began to look at our need to forgive. Forgiveness is not condoning wrong but giving our offender an undeserved gift. When wrong has been done against us, we must not retaliate but imitate Jesus who placed Himself in the hands of the One who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23). Forgiveness is costly indeed, but unforgiveness is more costly. We watched a drama of a man who was trying to fulfill his destiny but could only move in fits and starts because he was tied by a rope to a man behind him. The rope represents unforgiveness; he cannot move forward and fulfill his destiny until he ties his rope to the Cross, giving his pain to Christ and forgiving the person who harmed him. We can know that we have truly forgiven when we can pray a prayer of blessing over the offender and seek their welfare.
Forgiveness, it must be noted, does not necessarily include restored relationship. Yet we were challenged to consider the role of the church in reconciling and restoring broken relationships. The church can help the offender admit wrong and seek pardon; the church can help the offended meet with the offender and forgive. All of this is possible at the Cross of Christ.
We also learned what it means to “Stand in the Gap.” As Jesus was willing to be numbered with sinful humanity and now acts as our High Priest, we also can stand in the place of our people who have done wrong and ask forgiveness. Jesus serves as our model and scripture is replete with examples. For instance, after Israel’s idolatrous action of making and worshipping a golden calf, Moses marches back up the mountain and asks God to forgive the Israelites for their wrong or block his name from the book of life (Exodus 32:32). When the gates of Jerusalem were burned down and God’s people were living under reproach, Nehemiah numbered himself with sinful Israel and humbly sought forgiveness on their behalf (Nehemiah chapters 1 and 9). God is heartbroken when His priests and representatives are not willing to stand in the breach for sins committed (Ezekiel 22:30).
Our group witnessed “standing in the gap” during the HWEC workshop. A pastor in Kigali came and candidly confessed Rwanda’s wrongs against the people of Congo and asked forgiveness. One of our facilitators asked forgiveness on behalf of Hutus in Rwanda who committed the Genocide against the Tutsis. Rhiannon Lloyd, who initiated the HWEC workshop in Rwanda 21 years ago, asked forgiveness for the horrific wrongs her people have committed in Rwanda, Congo, Kenya, and South Africa. She then washed the feet of her brothers and sister from these countries. In all of these examples and others the response was enormous, fostering restored and renewed relationships based on humility, love and repentance. We concluded with the King’s Table, when we were all invited to a special meal. We were given crowns and entered the banqueting feast. We served each other special drinks and food. Each nation and people group came forward and we shared with them all of the positive and wonderful aspects of their people. Each nation shared a special song or dance to bless the group. We then pronounced a blessing upon all members of each nation.
During the second week of ISOR we were trained to be facilitators of the HWEC workshop. Not only were we trained but we were then commissioned to go out and do this very work that very week! We were split up into four teams. Each team was given a real life situation in which to implement these teachings with groups of Genocide survivors and perpetrators and others who desperately need this message. It was an exhausting few days, but we did it! Each group came back with amazing stories of God’s faithfulness, having seen Rwandans young and old beginning and continuing their respective roads toward healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Why this conference? Why now? Healed hearts lead to healed communities and healed nations. The church can be an agent of change only to the extent to which its members have truly experienced the healing touch of Christ. Many of us, even in our churches, act out our inner wounds and in turn wound others. Kristi and I have been living under the dark and oppressive cloud of intense church conflict in Congo for two years now. When we visited Rwanda last December we realized afresh that our Congolese colleagues could benefit from these teachings. Their participation in ISOR could potentially bring a fresh wind of God’s Spirit into the Congolese Presbyterian Community (CPC), whom we serve.
Our two colleagues I went with were touched deeply. Elder Kalambayi from Mbuji-Mayi shared with all of us at ISOR, “I hadn’t imagined that such healing was actually possible.” After visiting the National Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Pastor Mboyamba exclaimed, “Wow, after this experience and after receiving these teachings I feel the weight of responsibility to do something.” We continue to pray that God would use this experience in profound ways to bring forth forgiveness, reconciliation, unity and peace.
On that note, thank you so much for your role in making this happen. We could not attend the International School of Reconciliation in Rwanda without the generous gifts of folks like you. Supporting trainings of this nature for partner church leaders in Africa brings forth lasting, eternal fruit. We thank you for standing with us in this way. Your continued financial gifts in support of our ministry make it possible for us to continue to serve as PC(USA) mission workers here in Africa. Please give. In addition, if you are interested in giving a financial gift to support initiatives of this nature, please follow this link. We pray God’s healing in our hearts, in our communities, and in our nations. Jesus, a man of sorrows, carries our sorrows and replaces our mourning with dancing (Psalm 30:11).
With Love and Gratitude!
Bob and Kristi
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