"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
Tuesday, March 20, 2007 Connecting the Communion in the Mountains of Rwanda
Through a mutual friend, I was put in contact with the wife of the bishop of one of the Province of Rwanda's 10 dioceses and was warmly invited to come up for a day to visit. Today was the day, so I went to the bus park and crammed myself into a matatu (a mini-bus that probably should hold 12-14 people but in this case carried 20) for a bumpy and curvy trip into some of the most beautiful mountain country and agricultural regions I have ever seen. We are just entering the rainy season here, and this part of Rwanda is lush and green and beautiful.
When I arrived at my destination (a little unnerved by the policeman with the automatic weapon sitting in the seat in front of me the last part of the journey), the bishop's wife was waiting for me. After a quick stop by the office where she works (an organization that provides two meals a day for children orphaned by the genocide and HIV/AIDS), she took me by the Cathedral and (attached to it) a diocesan training centre. The centre is used by the whole community for vocational training and also training of leaders for reconciliation work. We then walked back to their house, many people stopping to greet us along the way (everyone here speaks Kinyarwanda, quite a few people speak French and almost no one speaks English. I've spent the whole week wishing I had retained more of my college French and speaking Berlitz-level Kinyarwanda -- I do know that "muraho" means "hello" and "murakoze" means "thank you" -- it's amazing how far those words and a smile will take you!) and also stopping by a class where orphans were being taught craftwork for sale in the market.
The Bishop joined us when we got to the house and we had a wonderful conversation and lunch. I was full of questions and they were both very patient with me -- and also eager to talk about their church. I'm very hesitant to talk about the genocide because I have only been here a week and even though it feels like I have seen so much, I am such an outsider and know I'm only seeing a few pieces of the puzzle. But one thing is for certain and that's this is a land and a people who have been through hell. The genocide hangs over and undergirds everything about Rwanda. The bishop and his wife were forced to flee during the genocide, and afterwards he spent time in refugee camps in several countries figuring out who among his clergy and others were alive and who was dead. Then as soon as they could, they came right back home and started rebuilding the church.
Both the diocese and the mother's union are a huge part of the social structure there. The primary school is run by the diocese, as is a secondary school many kilometers away from the diocesan center. There is a great deal of intentional ministry around HIV/AIDS, family planning, education, and health care. Most of all, the church plays a huge role in post-genocidal reconciliation -- helping those who were imprisoned for helping commit the genocide re-integrate into society after going through the local gacaca courts, bringing together survivors with the parents and spouses of the genocidaire. I have seen this ministry in other places in Rwanda. There is an organization called REACH/Rwanda (the diocese of SW Florida has been a big supporter of them) that is based out of the Kigali Diocese that trains religious leaders of all faiths in reconciliation and trauma healing. In a nation where there are THREE psychiatrists in the entire country (yes, that's right THREE), the church is providing ministry that is life-saving and life-giving.
We talked about the importance of women's leadership in the church -- and how the ordination of women had enriched both our churches.
And then over lunch, conversation turned to the current situation in the communion. And my experience talking with this bishop was the same experience I have had talking with other bishops and clergy and laity in Ghana and Sudan and South Africa. We disagreed - but we listened to each other. I heard him speak of how America loves to make big splashes and announce it is changing the world. How there is an arrogance about our country that assumes that others should fall in and follow behind us. How he thought the Lambeth resolution in 1998 was a wonderful thing because in his mind it affirmed homosexuals (his term) as children of God -- which absolutely is something we should do ... and which was a huge leap from where much of his society was, casting them out and calling them horrible sinners. How he interpreted General Convention 2003 as us taking us off that point of Lambeth -- a place he was happy to go, but was culturally a big stretch -- and forcing "our issues" on them.
And I tried my best to listen -- and to really hear him. This is a good man and a good bishop. He has risked his life for his people and continues to give his life for his people. He is not hateful - not toward gay and lesbian people, not toward Americans, not even toward the people who slaughtered his clergy and people. Even though part of me kept wanting to raise my hand and say "what a minute .. you don't understand" by grace, I was somehow able to restrain myself (those who know me will recognize a minor miracle!). He deserved a listen. And more than that, I realized I needed to really listen to what he was saying.
When it came my turn to respond, I knew I needed to be as straightforward with him as he had been with me (and he had warned me he would be blunt!). I told him how I voted at GenCon 2003 and that I thought the sin we (and I) needed to repent of was not what we did but not recognizing the deep effect it would have on the Communion. I said I agreed that we come off as arrogant and at times really are arrogant, that we have a cultural self-assurance and conviction and that it is too easy for us to confuse self-righteousness with God's righteousness. I said we are a culture that emphasizes individual rights and that our actions come out of that framework -- our concern for the rights of GLBT people, and our primary understanding of autonomy in the communion vs. their primary understanding of community in communion. I said that most Episcopalians I know really want to be part of the Anglican Communion. That we feel torn between wanting to honor these relationships and following what we really believe God and Christ would have us do with the GLBT people who are full parts of our church.
We disagreed. But we agreed that eventually, what was of God would stand and what was not of God would not. We agreed that we need each other and that there is so much we can do together. And when conversation turned to kicking the American church out of the communion and I said, "but let's say for the sake of argument that I am wrong and in need of conversion ... how can that happen if you push me away?" he laughed a great, booming laugh and said "Yes! That is good! I must draw you closer!"
And then conversation turned to more important things -- the great work he was doing. The training of lay catechists for their 300+ congregations. Education. Care for widows and orphans. Spreading the Gospel. The work EGR is trying to do bringing the church together around God's mission of global reconciliation in the MDGs.
As he left for a meeting, I asked him for his blessing -- and he laid his hands on my head and asked God's blessings on me, on my travel, on my work and on our relationship.
This is not the first time I have had a conversation like this, and I doubt it will be the last. I believe this is the true face of the Anglican Communion. Honest and even passionate disagreement? Yes. But disagreement while gathered (literally, in this case) breaking bread around the table. Disagreement while celebrating each other's missions and dreaming how we can labor together. Disagreement while greeting with a hug and parting with a blessing. No ultimatums. No threats. No walking out or dueling press machines.
Tomorrow I leave for home ... and I've actually spent a refreshingly little amount of time talking about issues of schism in the Anglican Communion during my week in South Africa and my week here in Rwanda. But I have spent a lot of time with Anglicans of many stripes. And the one thread that has run through all those encounters was a commitment to common mission. Through proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed.
That is the real face of the Anglican Communion -- "alive and well" as Archbishop Ndungane says.
EGR resources and connects the church to embrace what one person, one congregation, one diocese and one church can do to make this mission of global reconciliation happen.
Want to find out more ... check our our website at www.e4gr.org.
"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."