By Heidi Thulin, Photography by Josh Thulin
Unpredictable, reserved, hostile—these are the words a Rwandan used to describe her people to me. Considering Rwanda’s damaged history, these characteristics, though undesirable, come as no surprise. The genocide of the Tutsi people and the resulting war in 1994 left nearly one million people dead, 100,000 children orphaned, and countless families separated. Nearly twenty years have passed, but that horror and pain is still very alive in people’s hearts and memories.
Rwanda, as well as many other African countries, is considered “a young nation,” because so many of its citizens are children. Researchers have discovered that most people who come to Christ do so when they are between the ages of four and fourteen, concluding that this is an age group that is the most receptive to the gospel. In Rwanda, there are six million people between the ages of 5 and 25, making this young generation a huge mission field.
It was into this difficult and young environment that AIM missionaries Gilles and Myriam Bonvallat moved nine years ago. As they settled into their new home, they quickly realized that, though Rwandan children and youth make up more than half the population of the country, there were very few ministries dedicated to teaching and mentoring them. For some reason, children had become one of the most neglected people groups in the country.
While growing up in Switzerland, Gilles and Myriam experienced pivotal faith moments whenever they attended church youth camps, and they began to wonder if camps like the ones they remembered would be effective in their new country. As they prayed and sought guidance, God confirmed that, in order for them to reach the young people of Rwanda, they indeed needed to develop a youth camp ministry—something that had never been attempted in Rwanda before.
The Birth of a Ministry
To many Africans, the word “camp” does not elicit feelings of excitement; the only camps they know are either army or refugee. Therefore, a church youth camp with a dorm lifestyle, communal meals, and group activities is a foreign concept. But as Rwandans learn more about them, youth camps are becoming ministries they are embracing. “Camp is a tool,” Myriam explained to me. “It is a platform that provides an environment for people to be away from their daily life challenges and to spend a lot of time before God and to experience new things that really impact and hopefully influence their life for eternity.”
Very quickly, the Bishop of Kigali’s Anglican Diocese captured the Bonvallat’s vision and saw the potential for these camps to influence the faith of the children in his churches. To help Gilles and Myriam launch their 3-D Christian Camps, he generously donated an old vocational school on Mount Bihembe, an hour east of Kigali, to be converted into the camp’s kitchen, dining hall, classroom, and dormitories.
“Three-D means three-dimensional relationship,” Myriam said. “Relationship with God, with myself, and with others. And [about] helping people see that if they want to have good relationships with others, they need to start having a good relationship with God.” The vision for these camps comes from Ezekiel 11:19 which says, “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.” Through 3-D Christian Camps, Gilles and Myriam hope young people will experience transformed hearts, establish personal relationships with Jesus, and become models for the rest of the nation on how to live in unity with one another.
Once church leaders supported the Bonvallat’s vision, Gilles and Myriam’s next task was to train would-be counselors and staff members. Most Rwandans have no idea how to build a camp, what activities to plan, or how to develop the special relationships between counselors and children that make camp life so uniquely special. “We decided that the best way to show them what a camp is like was to do one with them,” Gilles said, “to have them be part of a camp as a camper. “ That was the inspiration for creating Forma’Camp, a training (or formation) camp for counselors, and the camp that I had come to visit.
The main goal of the camp is that each Forma-Camper will develop into leaders and counselors of future camps. “We want to hear their testimonies and learn about their experiences in children’s ministry,” Jessica, one of the camp’s Servant Team members and a fellow AIM missionary, explained. “We want them to be passionate about teaching children and passionate for God’s kingdom. We want them to be committed to use what they learn here. We make it clear that this knowledge is to be shared.”
Chosen campers are asked to pay a small fee to help offset a little of the camp expenses. “They don’t pay much,” Myriam insisted, “but we want to make sure they take the camp seriously.” Even though the cost of the camp is much more than what the campers pay, the sharing of the expenses helps everyone take ownership of what’s happening. And it is one of the initial ways that the Bonvallats teach these young adults about successful community living.
Splitting the expense of the camp is not the only shared component. “Camps are a very holistic time for everyone,” Gilles said, “and everyone is doing a little bit of everything. We’re not just playing or teaching. We take part in all the activities of the camp to make it run, which means you do the dishes, you clean the toilets, you clean your rooms, you help each other by serving. It’s all part of the life in the camp.” These lessons on servant-leadership teach the campers how to work together in their small-group teams. They encourage campers to communicate effectively and to practice trusting each other. One young woman, Claire, who learned a valuable lesson about trust during July’s Forma’Camp told me, “It’s important to learn trust, because we live in a world where we are not alone. There are people all around us… If you want to live peacefully with them, you have to trust them.” Her new friend, Capitoline, added, “Learning trust is very important, because when we live in society, we need each other. We need to be complete. I can do something, and you can do other things. I need what you can do, and what you need, I can do.”
Not surprisingly, trusting another person is one of the hardest things for a Rwandan to do, especially if that person is from a different tribe. Manasseh, a young man who has attended three different camps—once as a camper, a counselor, and the camp director—described it to me in this way:
For Rwanda’s young adults, who were small children when they saw their country devastated by war and genocide, teaching trust is incredibly important. It is the first step in the process towards national and cultural reconciliation.
The Trust Fall
It’s very difficult for people who struggle to trust their own families, fellow human beings whom they can see, to take the steps toward trusting in God, whom they cannot see. To address this issue, Gilles, Myriam, and the whole Servant Team attempt something radical—experiential teaching—to give campers the opportunity to trust people in small ways (and perhaps for the first time) in the hopes that these Rwandans will open themselves up to trusting people in bigger ways. But most importantly, the Bonvallat’s hope the campers will see the necessity to place full trust in God.
Throughout the ten days of Forma’camp, the counselors-in-training are thrust into challenging situations that encourage teamwork and communication. Victor, this Forma’camp’s Rwandan Director, chooses games and creates ropes-course activities that are unfamiliar to everyone, so that all campers are on the same page. They all need to help each other in order to understand and succeed.
All of these sometimes-silly games and activities build up to the climax of the camp experience: The Trust Fall. For several days, the campers prepare for that pivotal moment. They learn how to spot each other, they practice releasing control of their bodies, and slowly, they gain confidence in their teammates. “This is the final testimony that ‘I trust you,’” Myriam explained. “’I have experienced enough unity in this group that I can let myself fall into your arms and know that you won’t let me go onto the ground.’”
Arriving at this testimony is no simple task. Victor and his assistant stack two tables on top of each other, and after giving one more pep-talk to each member in the group—which includes the words of Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”—Victor helps each person climb to the top of the tower. From there, an unnerving five feet from the ground, the camper breathes deeply and crosses his arms in front of his chest, waiting for the call from his friends below that they are ready to catch him. A moment of tense silence. And he falls backwards, right into the unseen arms awaiting him.
I watch this scene over and over again. One camper after the next. And each time, the screams of laughter and delight grow louder, and it is impossible to not be infected by their intense joy. Claire, shortly after falling into the arms of her new friends, told me, “Before I came here, I couldn’t trust any person that came across my path. Here at the camp, [though], we came close to each other and built up these kinds of relationships that are so mutual. You see yourself as a brother and sister to anyone. I love the people here even more than my own family.” For these beautiful reasons, she was willing to let herself fall into her friends’ arms and proclaim her unity with them.
The Path for a New Generation
Many of the Forma’camp attendees, after such a dramatic display of genuine trust, gained a renewed vigor in his or her passion for teaching children. They realized that the path towards national reconciliation begins with them and that they are responsible for passing that knowledge down to the youngest generation. One counselor-to-be, Frank, said, “Young people [like me] are an emotive force; they can change things and make things happen… If we are well guided as youth, we can achieve something amazing in our lives. I want to be the change that I want to see.”
No Rwandan wants to relive the horrors of nineteen years ago, and the best way to start the journey towards a united nation is to plant the seeds of trust into the newest generation. “[Children] have not experienced quite as much pain as their parents have,” Manasseh said, “so it’s easier to help them learn this trust at an early age.” Rwanda’s children will be the leaders of tomorrow and the ones who can truly change the nation.
The Promising Future of the Camps
When the Bonvallats first came to Africa, they were inspired by Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 2:2: “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” The Forma’camp environment fits that model perfectly. It teaches new counselors how to be models of Christ to the younger generation.
July’s Forma-Camp was the Bonvallat’s last camp as residents of Rwanda, and though they were exhausted and a bit sad to send the campers back home, they expressed gratitude that God let them start this camp ministry and that He inspired young Rwandans to get involved. “It’s all a process of passing on the baton,” Gilles told me, “and of being sure that you will have people behind you to continue what you started.”
There is a proverb in Kinyrwanda, the mother tongue of Rwandans, that says, “When the tree is small, you can make it straight.” So many children in Rwanda are eager to learn and are in desperate need of proper biblical teaching; they merely need guidance. The 3-D Christian Camps are just the beginning of Rwanda’s movement for children. As more young people discover glimpses of unity and place their trust in Jesus, they will grow into a strong generation, one flourishing with hope, and one with the potential to become a mighty force for the gospel.