This is a piece I posted on my first blog. It is about a life changing trip I took to Rwanda 6 years ago. I was asked to write for a journal called Seedlings, a monthly newsletter from an organization called Mustard Seed. So I pulled from that blog, copied some pictures from that time, and put it out there.
If you have read that old blog of mine, not much has changed in this version. It is about 2,000 words (far longer than most bloggers like to read). It's OK to pass on by if you don't have the time. But I'll be writing again soon now that I am on summer break.
It’s been almost 6 years since I went to visit Rwanda with some folks who were strangers but became good friends. I was led to Rwanda partly by reading Immaculee Ilibagiza’s amazing book of survival and forgiveness, Left to Tell. It was one of the few books in my life that when I finished reading it (in tears) I immediately opened it and read it again. Then my good friend Cindy Charles asked if I wanted to go to Rwanda with her and some others, including Immaculee. While we were only there for about two weeks, the trip changed my life in some significant ways. The people I met there are so beautiful and peaceful, the country so serene. It was incredible to see the changes that occurred there in the 13 years since the genocide. When I went there, in 1997, the people were well on their way to reconciling one of the most devastating genocides in history. The forgiveness and grace in that place left me humbled. It all makes me feel that if Rwanda can forgive then what can’t I forgive?
What follows are some excerpts from a journal I kept of my travels to Sonrise.
We are now at Sonrise School in Musanze. Conditions are pretty rough here compared to American schools. The people are very nice and extremely welcoming. We toured Sonrise yesterday. Compared to US living standards the conditions for children seem bleak. Compared to the country as a whole, these children are very lucky. Twelve kids to a room. Every child has a small plastic bin (maybe 1.5 cubic feet) for personal belongings as well as a small carry on size suitcase, which is kept at the foot of their beds. We toured the entire school from the kitchen to the dorms. Three fourths of these kids are the poorest of the poor, in a poor country. Most are from orphanages. Many of the younger ones were street kids, many of their parents died of AIDS.
When we got there it was Saturday evening. The sun had already begun to set (6:15 – 6:30). The kids were playing and socializing in their play area, which is simply a large clay courtyard. It was very slanted and filled with ruts. Many were playing soccer (futbol) with a homemade ball. It was made of old plastic bags tied and twisted together. All of the children have extremely short hair so it is difficult to tell the young boys from the girls unless they are wearing dresses. They go to school six days a week. The upper school kids study until nearly bedtime (lights out). Forty kids to a class. Two classes per grade level. Subjects are taught in English but the kids also learn French and already speak Kinyrwanda.
Joy, the woman who toured us, is very direct. Things are simple. Kids wash themselves outside (probably just the little ones). They wash their own clothes, make their own beds. I think they get a lot of visitors.
What they have done with what they have is nothing short of amazing. Their test scores have been among the top in the nation since they have been in existence – which is only a few years. They are truly saving these children and helping them to be the best and the brightest in the country. I am very impressed.
Sunday 12:50 PM
We just got back from a very long Sunday of church. First we went to Sonrise for the service conducted mostly by the students. There was almost an hour of the loudest and most spirited music I have ever been in the middle of. It ROCKED! It rattled my bones. There was a lot of dancing and swaying and stepping in place. The children sang from the depths of their souls. I mean it. I’ve never heard anything like it. Our church at its most prayerful and engaged was never anywhere even close to this. Someone would begin a song and in a few bars everyone in the place was singing in full voice. When the song ended, someone else would begin another. It was practically seamless.
The only song in English was “If You’re Happy and You Know It”. A translator came and sat down next to us and told us these phrases to translate some of the songs for us:
*When Jesus is in your heart all is well
*We will all be happy when Jesus returns
*We are thankful that the Lord is our savior
*All the good people in the world will be with him in Heaven
So much was lost in the translation! The walls of this place were shaking with the spirit of these children.
The sanctuary was very simple (as almost all things are, simple but elegant). The crosses on the wall were aluminum foil and construction paper. There were strings across us over our heads with dried flowers. The benches were simple wooden boards with legs. The only instruments were big skin drums. Animal fur still clung to the rims (goat?). The only fancy decoration was a glass cross on the table that served as an altar.
My most powerful memory was the joy and power that went into their worship. Can you imagine singing and dancing absolutely full blast for an hour before any words were even spoken at the service?
The service itself was in Kinyrwanda and English. I am not sure if it was because we were there or if they do that so that everyone can hear both languages together to reinforce their language skills. Once again I am left with this really uplifting feeling that the stuff in a place of worship really means nothing. The comfortable benches, nice lighting, stained glass windows and all of the finery means nothing without the spirit of God. It was in this place with these wonderful children. God was within these plane brick walls, in the sound of these worshipful voices and in the hearts of these children. Again, we have so much to learn from Rwanda.
We had lunch with bishop John Rucyahana. He was very gracious and shared the considerable progress that has been made in Rwanda and how far they have to go. He was funny and endearing and really proud of the school. Visiting the school and worshipping with the children as well as the adults at the Cathedral brought home to me how very far Rwanda has come in thirteen years. Just thirteen years ago this area of the country was in complete turmoil. Richard told us that this was one of the most violent areas. Now people worship God together so completely. It’s amazing
At 4:00 we went back to Sonrise not really knowing what to expect. At first we sort of just hung around. I took some portraits of beautiful children. Then we split up into groups. Cindy and I were with the children who wanted to sing and dance. We went to the sanctuary where we attended church yesterday. We taught a pretty big group of girls some praise songs. “Open the Eyes of My Heart”, “Awesome God” and a few more. They learned them so quickly and sang them back more beautifully than you could imagine. Breathtaking. I played some blues and changed the tempo. I asked them to clap and to move along with the beat. Cindy taught a couple of line dances. They took to these quickly and naturally since singing and movement are both a part of song to them. Then they sang some songs for us. Most were in English, it was clear that they chose these especially for us as the songs they sang in church yesterday were in French and Kinyrwanda.
I videotaped them singing “Step By Step” by Rich Mullins. Inspiring. I can’t wait for you to hear and see it on tape. We left feeing real joy. It wasn’t that we developed any deep relationships – there wasn’t time for that, but because there was real fun and fellowship. And they were grateful enough to give back. And it was in the language of music.
Others in our group played soccer with the kids (futbol), told stories and did crafts with the children. We all had a good time, but I think Cindy and I really felt good about our connection today.
These children are so intelligent. We taught them the sign language for the chorus on “Love Can Build a Bridge” and they learned it in about 3 minutes. I’m not exaggerating. When I sang and taught them songs it seemed that they snatched the songs from my scrawny voice and gave them back ten times better, a hundred times better. Subtle harmonies, slightly changed melodies but, to me, even better than what I offered them. So many children shook my hand – which they do so often and sincerely here. They look right into your eyes. There is graciousness and sincerity and hope. It’s palpable.
Little did I know that one of the little children whom I met at Sonrise would become a long time friend. Through the sponsorship program, Mustard Seed, I was able to reconnect with one of the children who sang for us in the small church. Her name is Sophia and I have been sponsoring her for around 5 years. It is an honor to know that in a very real way I can make a difference for her and for the people of Rwanda.
When I am balancing my checking account and writing my checks for bills, it is a wonderful feeling to write my check out to Mustard Seed. It is a concrete reminder that even when I feel some stress, I am so blessed. I have SO much compared to so many in this world. God has taken care of me and it is a pleasure to pass some of my many blessings on; to help take care of Sophia’s spiritual and educational needs. Because she WILL grow up to change Rwanda. And Rwanda is changing the world.
I’ll end this article with another journal entry written the day after leaving Sonrise. It reminds me of just how blessed I am.
Monday 7/9/07 7:00 AM
I woke up early. About 5:00. The birds here are really loud at this time. Mainly these huge white-breasted crows and plenty of roosters.
I woke up this morning to my little morning prayers. When I have said, “Bless those less fortunate than us,” in the past it was sort of rote. Not that it wasn’t sincere, it was. But I didn’t really know what I was talking about. Now I see a little Rwandan girl wearing a tattered dress and nothing else, standing in the cold mud while her mother toils away hoeing a vast field with a baby on her back. When I, “Bless those who are victims of violence and oppression,” now I think of a beautiful old woman who stayed at Mother Teresa’s orphanage with only one arm, or a man at the market with machete scars across his head, or Richard’s parents and sisters who died in a church or his brother who was murdered in front of him and him feeling helpless to do anything. Before I prayed for pictures on TV or in the newspaper or stories like Immaculee’s or The Bishop’s. Now I pray for Rwanda.
My prayers of gratitude are also stronger – better informed. Now when I get in my car to drive to work or to the store I will think of those lucky people here who have bikes to carry their heavy crops and wares. And those who must walk great distances every day to carry enough water on their heads to wash and cook. When I go to the grocery store and spend so much on food I will think of those whose food comes from the earth they till and of the hours of hard physical labor it takes to get the potatoes and beans they eat every day and are so grateful for. When I wake up to my beautiful family I will think of those who lost everyone they loved and had the strength and will to survive, go on with life and, especially those who can forgive. When I pray I will ask that the world may be more like Rwanda.