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What Theology Are You Now Going to Teach Us?

A Letter from Bob and Kristi Rice, serving in South Sudan

April 2019

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“What theology are you now going to teach us?” are the haunting words of a young theology student studying at the Faculty of Theology in Butare, Rwanda, in the aftermath of the horrific and cataclysmic 1994 Genocide. Not only was he responding to the fact that the country lay in shambles, but most poignantly, the young man’s question related specifically to the fact that several of the graduates of the Faculty of Theology had participated in the mayhem, the violence and the killing.

The church leadership in Rwanda made an urgent call to Elisé Musemakwelie to return from his doctoral studies in Belgium. Under Dr. Elisé’s leadership and guidance, the institution regained its footing and defined itself in relation to the context of a broken nation and a broken people. The new program he initiated sought to teach theology to people traumatized by war and genocide. It sought to help students speak to people about God when they had experienced his absence. It sought to address the question of evil in relation to God’s sovereignty, God’s justice and God’s goodness. Addressing these issues and questions was a very difficult task. Two important theological conclusions they came to were that our God is a God who stands in solidarity with those who suffer, and humans bear the responsibility for causing others to suffer. Dr. Elisé and his colleagues introduced a very special course called “The Rwanda Seminar,” a course that emphasized identity, asking questions such as, “What is our true identity?” “What does it mean to be Tutsi?” What does it mean to be Hutu?” The course looked at all the affiliations that make us who we are, how one affiliation such as “ethnicity,” when lifted above all others, can cause us to justify killing others. This landmark and transformative course was part of a “fast track” program, seeking to graduate pastors as quickly as possible so that they could be made available to come alongside a suffering population pastorally. Most recently, they have initiated a Department of Peace and Conflict Studies to continue this legacy of addressing the pain and divisions that continue to beleaguer the population of Rwanda.

In 2017, when the Regional Gathering for Presbyterian Mission personnel serving in Africa was held in Kibuye, Rwanda, Dr. Elisé shared the above story in relation to the institution he continues to serve and guide as vice chancellor, now called the Protestant Institute of Arts and Social Sciences (PIASS). After Dr. Elisé shared with our plenary at the Regional Gathering, Rev. Shelvis Smith-Mather, a fellow mission co-worker and now a good friend, had the brilliant idea of gathering mission personnel serving in South Sudan together with Dr. Elisé and other Rwandan colleagues to learn more and dig deeper into the Rwanda experience. Towards the end of our lunchtime fellowship, we all decided that it would be best for delegations from RECONCILE and Nile Theological College (NTC), the partner institutions to which Shelvis and I are attached, to make a visit together to PIASS in Rwanda to learn more. While we did not have a precise date in mind, we prayed for an opportunity when such a vision and plan could be fulfilled.

In February of this year, our vision and plan to visit PIASS in Rwanda was fulfilled. I was able to travel to Rwanda with Shelvis and his colleague, Mr. Geri Moses, both of RECONCILE, and three colleagues from NTC, including Rev. Santino Odong, the principal. In Rwanda, we saw, heard and experienced the story of Rwanda and the Genocide and how PIASS has responded and continues to seek to respond with God’s healing and redemptive power. While our time in Rwanda was short, our days were packed with wonderful learning opportunities. After worship on Sunday morning, we visited the National Genocide Memorial in Kigali, the capital. Walking through the National Memorial was like walking back in time, learning about the Belgian colonial legacy, which in many ways created an environment of hostility and enmity between Hutu and Tutsi that led up to the 1994 cataclysm. Seeing images and hearing stories, seeing the faces of children who were slaughtered, walking above cavities where 250,000 people were buried, was almost more than the mind could comprehend and the soul could bear. On our way to Huye (formerly called Butare), where PIASS is located, we had time to debrief after our time at the National Memorial with Rev. Kay Day, a mission co-worker in Rwanda who served as one of our hosts. Kay gently allowed us to share our reactions and thoughts.

The following day we were greeted at the Institute by Dr. Elisé, who presented more deeply about the history of PIASS and the development of its peace and reconciliation program. When he shared the testimony of how their institution was devastated and destroyed during the Genocide, Rev. Santino remarked, “Ahhh, your story is our story!” Hearing about how the Rwandans had suffered and were now recovering gave Rev. Santino hope that we too can rise up from the ashes of devastation and destruction in the context of South Sudan and its continued conflicts, divisions, struggles and tragedies.

We were also so grateful to learn from Dr. Kazu Sasaki, who serves alongside his wife Megumi as a missionary from Japan. Dr. Kazu heads the Program for Peace and Conflict Studies at PIASS. We were awed and inspired to see all of the incredible work that Dr. Kazu and his colleagues and students are doing in initiating programs of peace and reconciliation, healing and development across Rwanda and across the Great Lakes Region of Africa. A highlight of our trip was visiting fourteen women, seven genocide survivors and seven wives of genocide perpetrators who have come together to share life and help one another by means of various micro-enterprise businesses done together to sustain and support their families. They taught us one of their trades and shared with us their story of reconciliation and love for one another.

The Body of Christ is vast and wide; we have so much to learn from each other. As Presbyterian mission co-workers, we are privileged not only to walk alongside global partners, but to resource and connect them to one another in ways that are life-giving and healing. Thank you for standing with us as we stand alongside our partners here in Africa. May our God of wonders and majesty lift you up on eagle’s wings as we celebrate the glorious Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. “Imana ibahe umugisha” (may the Lord bless you).

Bob and Kristi

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