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One hundred days of mission and ministry in Rwanda

Presbyterian Church of Rwanda looks to God for trauma healing and needs related to church growth

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Children enjoy a Sunday school service of Kabeza parish in Gitarama Presbytery. (Photo by Ndererehe Alphonse)

LOUISVILLE — The Presbyterian Church of Rwanda (EPR) is a few weeks into its annual 100 days of remembrance of the genocide against the Tutsi, which extends from early April through July 4. Each year these days are devoted to helping bring healing to survivors of the genocide who continue to struggle with poverty, unemployment, sickness and other issues. All 212 parishes in EPR’s seven presbyteries are focused on the transformational power of the gospel to bring unity, reconciliation and restoration to all who have been traumatized — from one generation to the next.

According to the United Nations Outreach Program on the Rwanda Genocide, Rwanda’s population before genocide in 1994 stood at more than 7 million people comprising three ethnic groups: the Hutu (approximately 85%), the Tutsi (14%) and the Twa (1%).

On April 6, 1994, the deaths of the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda in a plane crash caused by a rocket attack ignited several weeks of intense and systematic massacres. More than 1 million people were murdered during the 100 days of genocide in 1994. The dead were identified primarily as Tutsi, but also moderate Hutu. The EPR lost 16 of its pastors and many members in the genocide. Now the church sets aside 100 days each year not only to mourn but also to turn ashes into beauty, hopelessness into hope and tragedy into triumph through mission and ministry.

An ordination service for new pastors in Rwanda, held in Eastern Province in 2019. (Photo by Epimaque Unyankindi)

Growth is evident in all areas of the EPR, including evangelism, Sunday school, youth, diaconia (care for the poor) and ministries for women and families, which benefit from all ministry areas. Each year, as more church members are added, the EPR finds itself faced with a need to create new parishes and the need for additional well-trained pastors, elders, deacons and other leaders to minister to the people in those new parishes. The EPR is committed to increasing the number of pastors through university training and theological studies. Currently about six students who are completing their bachelor’s studies at the Protestant Institute of Arts and Social Sciences (PIASS) have expressed interest in pastoral internships. PIASS trains students in theology and religious studies, education, development studies and environmental studies. It also hosts seminars on societal concerns, including domestic violence and human trafficking.

Last August, the EPR held its annual churchwide evangelism rally for four days. It is hosted by a different presbytery each year, draws about 3,500 people and culminates in an ordination service. Ten new pastors were ordained during the 2019 rally, held in the Zinga Presbytery, in the eastern region. Seven of the pastors had been students of mission co-worker the Rev. Kay Day, who teaches practical theology and English at PIASS.

The annual ordination of new pastors is a highlight of the year for the EPR. (Photo by Jean Baptist Nkurunziza)

“I had preached at five of their weddings, baptized two of their children and been on the dissertation team for four of them as they completed the requirements for graduation,” Day said. “I was delighted to watch as they raised their right hands to pledge to serve Christ and the church and to see the presidents of their respective presbyteries place robes and stoles on them. Then all ordained pastors in the congregation were invited to come forward and lay hands on them as they were prayed for. What a joy to be a part of these bright young men and women accepting the call of Christ on their lives.”

On March 14 the first case of coronavirus was discovered in Rwanda. The government acted swiftly, closing all churches and gathering places of more than 10 people. Funerals could be held but only with a few mourners. All schools were closed, including universities, so PIASS students were sent home. Handwashing and social distancing were enacted.

The country is now in full lockdown as the number of coronavirus cases have increased to more than 150 but, as of late April, no deaths have been recorded.

Since 2018, the EPR has devoted much effort into the building and renovating of churches to meet new requirements of the government. In addition, prior to coronavirus, the church held training seminars for teachers and facilitators of the Sunday school to ensure they understood the objectives of the Sunday school program in the areas of praise, worship, offering and application of Bible study in daily life.

Training of students supported financially by the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda and its partners, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (Photo by Rose Marie Ibyishaka)

With continued growth in the church, many parishes need more space. In addition, materials and teachers are needed in the Sunday school program, which leaders say it is a good challenge to have. Along with Sunday school needs, youth programs for ages 16 to 30 have their own needs, particularly for sustainable employment, so youth can support themselves and contribute financially to assist their family. The church has great need for continued training in entrepreneurship and job creation.

The EPR helps prepare its youth for leadership by including young people on decision-making bodies, committees and commissions.

Proclamation of the Word of God in Rwanda is always accompanied by helping the least of these through ministries of diaconia. Those in need do need prayer, but also action. The EPR treats diaconia as an important component of evangelism by providing small livestock, social assistance and reintegration into school. The church’s diaconia mission assists the most vulnerable, such as giving to secondary school students from poor families who cannot afford school fees or providing access to school for people with disabilities. During the coronavirus lockdown the church has been distributing food to the poorest members who have not been allowed to work.

In Rwanda, children with disabilities may at first appear to be forgotten, said EPR leaders. But society is becoming relatively aware that the inaccessibility of the school environment for people with disabilities, especially children, is a factor in their discrimination. The EPR and its partners provide health, education and social rehabilitation services for children in poverty up to age 25 through the church’s ministries of diaconia.

The Presbyterian Church of Rwanda seeks to edify and engage women in the church through mentoring — spiritually, socially and economically. This mentoring helps build the entire family as women work to improve their living conditions, taking charge of family responsibilities and contributing to the life of the church.

Gender equity efforts after the genocide have left behind a majority female population and have resulted in Rwanda being one of three countries with a female majority in parliament, according to New Parline rankings, updated monthly, on the Inter-Parliamentary Union website. Female representation in parliament currently stands at 61.3% for the lower house and 38.5% for the upper house. Women in Rwanda are earning college degrees, starting their own businesses, serving in parliament and on the supreme court and lobbying to get gender-discriminatory laws amended or repealed. In the EPR, there are 22 ordained women pastors serving parishes. Eight more have completed theological training but have not yet been ordained. While one of the women pastors is heading the Rwandan Bible Society, three are presbytery leaders, either as president or vice-president. The Rev. Julie Kandema is the second-highest church officer in the EPR.

Kandema, EPR’s vice president and deputy legal representative, said women are represented in different spheres of the church as members, deacons, elders, evangelists and ordained pastors.

Rev. Julie Kandema, vice president and deputy legal representative for the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda, prays at a National Prayer Breakfast event. (Photo by Jean Baptist Nkurunziza)

“After the genocide there was a need of more people committed to the work of God,” Kandema said. “EPR has opened doors for women and men to study theology and serve in different parishes. Women found themselves in different roles in decision-making positions. Today the number of women in leadership position is increasing. They are represented in the top leadership of the church, in the leadership of presbyteries and parishes, as well as in the leading of committees. The church is encouraging women to apply for theological studies, so that in the coming years we can send the same number of men and women, or even more women than men. The church appreciates its partners for the support in this area of educating women,” Kandema said.

“Women’s and children’s interests are a matter of concern for the whole community, not just women,” said mission co-worker Christi Boyd, Presbyterian World Mission’s facilitator of Women’s and Children’s interests in five African countries, including Rwanda. “Often there are systemic societal issues at the root of the problems that women and children face. There is a need for a common plan as a church to ensure underlying causes of these problems are being addressed.”

Despite the difficulties the EPR has encountered, such as closing of churches that did not meet conditions required by the state or closing of churches due to the global coronavirus pandemic or the deep scars left by genocide, the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda has faith that God will help the church members and partners overcome day by day.

“The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and EPR are working together to strengthen interpretations of peace, reconciliation, capacity building and church growth/evangelism,” said the Rev. Paula Cooper, World Mission’s regional liaison for East Central Africa, which includes Rwanda, Kenya, Malawi and Zambia. Cooper serves as a connection between Presbyterians and mission partners in the U.S. and Rwanda. “We believe that we can walk alongside our Rwandan brothers and sisters to learn and teach one another and be inspired and motivated by one another, so that the world never has to witness such a period of extermination ever, again,” Cooper said.

Kandema said the genocide against the Tutsi has taught the Rwandan people some important lessons.

“It taught us that life belongs to God alone and we are all [God’s]. While the genocide perpetrators’ aim was to destroy lives, this didn’t happen the way they wanted it to be; genocide survivors were left to tell the world what happened. One day the genocide perpetrators had to face survivors in the court. Most of them were punished for the killing of their neighbors.”

After the genocide, the government began the healing process by teaching people to live together in unity, Kandema explained.

“The government’s main work was focused on saving lives, bringing Rwandans together, while rebuilding the country which was, by then, destroyed. This kind of work also was achieved through sessions of teaching the Word of God of reconciliation by the church. Genocide perpetrators who were convicted of their wrongdoings sought forgiveness. People’s minds changed little by little, leading to forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Today the nation of Rwanda is reconciled, Kandema said. “Rwandans have learned that division of people over ethnic groups has led to death, and that unity and reconciliation lead to life. Today Rwandans have made a choice to identify themselves not as belonging to any ethnic group but simply as Rwandans. This helps a lot in the church’s mission because church believers look at themselves as people of God, reconciled and united in serving the same God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Learn more about the work of PC(USA) mission workers and partners in Rwanda.

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