Written by Bruce Rossington
Muhammad Ali once boasted: ‘I float like a butterfly, but I sting like a bee’. I was reminded of these words as I sat listening to Phanuel’s interview. I was beginning to think that I had become desensitized to what happened here in 1994, but the softness of his voice and the apparent absence of emotion as he spoke belied the enormity of what he was saying: ‘During the Rwandan genocide, I lost my parents and most of my brothers and sisters. It was a terrible day for me.’ The juddering impact of these sentences rocked me to my senses, and I began to feel a horror that mind-numbing statistics – a million dead in three months – and visits to memorials had not stirred in me for a long time. As Phanuel continued, the strength of my feelings was put into perspective as he recounted how his own horror and fear had quickly turned into despair and resignation: ‘I wanted to be killed too, because I didn’t want to keep on seeing… keep on remembering my brothers being killed. It was painful. I wished I was killed at that time.’ And as the interview drew to an end, I found myself asking the same question that Phanuel had asked himself many times during those days: ‘How can we not lose heart?’
Rwanda has come a long way since 1994. As you descend into Kigali international airport, the sun glints off the corrugated roofs that decorate rolling hillsides, and many people on the plane will leave the country a couple of weeks later convinced that Rwanda itself is a glimmer of light in a ‘dark continent’ that often seems to make the headlines for the wrong reasons. Significant aid money and foreign investment are driving an ambitious development programme that is producing tangible results in health, education and infrastructure, but those who stay here for any length of time soon become aware of a heaviness in the atmosphere that cannot be solely attributed to the sub-tropical climate. Clouds of a different variety still hang over Rwanda. The annual week of mourning remembers the dead but also traumatizes many of the living, and there are daily reminders of the genocide in the war of words with France and the war of attrition a few miles over the border in Eastern Congo, where the humanitarian catastrophe caused by ethnically-motivated fighting has claimed 5,000,000 (yes, that’s five million) lives since 1998. How can we not lose heart?
Perhaps a better question is how can we lose heart, when Rwandans themselves – who have suffered so much – refuse to do so? Rather than blame God for their problems, they look to Him for solutions and recognize the need to depend on Him in a way that they never have before. ‘We are in God’s hands now’, they reason. Nominal Christianity has had its day here. 90% of the country was ‘Christian’ before 1994, but too many churches now serve as memorials for that statistic to be taken seriously.
Here’s a statistic that should be taken seriously – only 5% of the country’s proliferating evangelical churches have a pastor with any kind of theological training. This is a problem in most African countries, but it seems to be particularly acute in Rwanda where the very events that led to a new spiritual openness have deprived the country of the people best placed to fill in the blanks. A generation of pastors who were not prepared to condone genocide either fell or fled in 1994.
By 2001, the Church was starting to look forwards instead of backwards, and the scale of the task ahead of them became apparent. ‘We realized that we needed our own college’, says Pastor Karangwa, President of the Evangelical Alliance of Rwanda, a grouping of thirty different evangelical denominations. In a country infamous for division, this bold demonstration of vision and unity was something that AIM felt compelled to encourage, and we agreed to partner with the Alliance as they developed a facility to equip church leaders for the unique challenges of ministering to post-genocide Rwanda. Slowly but surely, the Faculté de Théologie Evangélique au Rwanda (FATER) has grown in size and effectiveness. It is now in its third set of rented premises, teaching evening classes in the classrooms of a local school and using the conference room of a neighbouring church for office space and a library. The plywood partitioning gives our accommodation a very temporary feel and it will soon be time for us to move on again. With a growing library, faculty and student body (now up to 62) we are working closely together in every sense, and we desperately need our own set of premises. You have to see the funny side when your lesson is drowned out by a rainstorm or when you see the older students using torches to read their exam papers in the gloom provided by a couple of 60W bulbs, but if we are serious about training men and women to lead Rwanda’s churches, then we have to aspire to something better than this.
And so we find ourselves on the brink of some momentous changes in the life of the college. As Rwanda joins the East African Community and the Commonwealth, we are having to teach in English as well as French and we are now known as The Rwanda Institute of Evangelical Theology, as well as FATER. To make this transition we need to recruit English language teachers and we are also looking to take on additional theology lecturers. We are keen to maintain the balance of Rwandan and ex-pat staff that we currently have, with a view to the college being led by a Rwandan principal within a few years.
Other challenges include the need to pursue accreditation and to move ahead with the building project. We currently have a piece of land and a set of plans, but the realization of those plans is in the Lord’s hands. We are keen for the Evangelical Alliance to be the driving force behind the college’s development, but as they seek to raise money from local churches, we recognize the need to partner with them and give Christians from around the world the opportunity to invest in something that will help to establish God’s kingdom in Rwanda and to empower the Rwandan Church to look beyond its own borders to the unreached peoples of Africa.
At times the challenges that lie ahead seem daunting and I am tempted to ask myself that question: how can we not lose heart? But then I look at one of my students, Gratien, a pastor in his fifties, who did not lose heart when the militia hammered on the doors of his church and demanded the lives of the 300 people that he was sheltering there. I remember what Gratien told me about how his time at the college has transformed his ministry and given him a new confidence to teach God’s Word to those who are often tempted to lose heart. And I look at Phanuel, who found the answer to his own question and is now back in Rwanda.