Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Lutheran Church of Rwanda

Nov 22, 2014

Time for a little history lesson on an organization that flavors my experience of Rwanda in a big way, and the institution which invited me to serve in their country: the Lutheran Church of Rwanda.  In no small way, it is also Martin’s history: he was one of the founders of the LCR.

The history begins in the 1950s, when violent anti-Tutsi massacres caused many Rwandans to flee to the neighboring countries of Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and— most pertinent to our story— Tanzania.  As it happens, Tanzania has more Lutherans than any other country in the world (or, at least, it’s near the top of the list).  Martin has described the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania as being “like a state religion”: it has power and wealth, and a huge percentage of membership.  (Kinda like Minnesota, maybe; but without any of the Scandinavian ethnic stuff we often associate with American Lutherans, and with a lot more high-energy dancing choirs.)

Among those who fled to Tanzania was Martin, then a teenage boy.  He and many other Rwandans began to worship at Lutheran churches.  They became part of the social fabric of Tanzania.  For the next forty years, they tilled the land, bled, sweat, made love, raised families, lived, and died in Tanzania.  But always, they looked back to Rwanda, waiting for the day when it would be safe to return.  Kiswahili could never quite replace Kinyarwanda; the country next-door would never quite pass for home.  Never has a Biblical term like “exile” seemed to me so befitting of real people in the 20th century as it did for so many Rwandans.

Of course, looking homewards was a gloomy sight.  The violence of the 1950s escalated until its culmination in the 1994 genocide.  Over the course of a few short months, the entire nation was all but destroyed.  It finally ended when an army of mainly Tutsi refugees, called the Rwandan Patriotic Front, captured the capital of Kigali and overpowered the genocidaires.  Almost immediately, tens of thousands of Rwandan exiles flocked back into the country, eager to return home— despite the lingering danger, chaos, and destruction.  

Re-enter Martin et al.  Like many other bright young male Rwandan exiles in Tanzania, Martin decided to attend seminary and become a Lutheran pastor.  He attended Makumera Theological College in Arusha, was ordained, and served for nearly thirty years as a pastor in Tanzania. He was content there.  But when the genocide finally ended in 1994, a small group of other Tanzanian Rwandan pastors asked him to return with them to minister in a country with a deep need for healing and grace.  Martin reluctantly agreed, largely to heed the requests of his wife.  In November 1994, Martin and six other pastors founded the Lutheran Church in Rwanda.

This week marked the 20th anniversary of the LCR (and, I’m told, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation).  For the occasion, all the Lutheran pastors in the country— perhaps thirty or forty of them (one of them is a woman)— assembled in Kirehe, a town near the Tanzanian border where the first congregation was founded.  I attended.  There was a festive six- or seven-hour service, complete with choirs, lots of prayers, speeches about the history of the LCR, and the main event: the planting of two trees.  I was tired by the end, but it was special to be there— especially to see Martin and the other living founders of the Church, witnesses of God’s enduring power and faithfulness to God’s people in the most despairing of times and places. 

Today, the LCR is very small, and has very little institutional power.  All but three of its congregations are in the eastern side of the country, close to Tanzania.  Many people seem to see it as a “Church for Tanzanian exiles,” and not especially welcoming to anyone outside of the particular shared history of its founders.  It has problems retaining youth.  It is criticized by the growing East-African Pentacostal movement for its liturgy and songs as being “boring” and “uninspired,” and for its use of theology as evidence of “relying on the head instead of the heart to have faith in Jesus.”  (The Anglican and Catholic churches face similar criticism.)  The biggest difficulty that the pastors express, though, is financial.  The LCR is unable to offer any kind of salary to its pastors, and the weekly offering monies are typically so meager each week that the small percentage which is given to the pastor usually equal less than a dollar.  For this reason, pastors are usually unable to minister anywhere except their ancestral hometown, where they have inherited land for growing enough food to subsist— precisely the reason why most of the churches are close to Tanzania.


Living with Martin, and having met and spoken with many of the LCR pastors, I often wonder how I can help them build a stronger institution.  I have done some little things I know how: I teach child and adult English classes at the church.  I teach guitar, piano, and music skills to church choir members.  I typed up a digital copy of the Kinyarwanda liturgy for the pastors to cheaply print for their members (instead of buying expensive hymnals).  But as for how to solve the bigger problems they face, I can only listen and offer my ideas and foreign perspectives with a few grains of salt.  It is one of the ways that my year as a Young Adult in Global Mission has been an exercise in “living the questions.”  It can be frustrating, but it’s also somehow liberating to admit that I don’t have any answers.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Church Choir

8th November 2014

Several weeks ago I wrote about my first week at church.  Since then, I’ve had many more weeks to figure out a few things about the way things work in the church.  Of particular interest to me has been the music.  (Watch out: I’m about to get nerdy about music.  If that’s not your thing, you might skip this post.)

Choral music is a major component of church in Rwanda.  I’ve visited a number of churches around the eastern part of Rwanda with Martin, and every single one— even the tiny one that meets under a tattered tarp hanging from tree poles on a grassy hillside— has not one, but two choirs: one for the adults and “youth” (people ages 18-35) and one for the kids.  The size of the choir depends on the size of the church, and also on the time time of the year.  (For example, our choir in Rukira swelled in size a week ago, when several youth returned home after National Exams in their final year of secondary school, the Rwandan equivalent of an ACT or SAT test.)  The Rukira Lutheran Choir, known as “New Life Choir,” has about twenty or thirty members.  Most choirs have only a couple of men, but New Life has five or six on a good day. 

Each choir sings an average of two songs during the church service, each of which have approximately twenty-eight verses.  Or, at least it seems like twenty-eight, because they all have the exact same simple melody around four chords.  It gets a little tedious to listen to, especially when I haven’t mastered Kinyarwanda well enough to catch the lyrics.  As they sing, they step together in simple patterns, and use a handful of different hand gestures with the lyrics: raising their open palms as if pleading to God, waving their pointer fingers so as to say “no,” and waving in praise. 

What’s truly remarkable is that nearly every number has original lyrics.  Yes, that means that the choir members somehow memorize two-dozen verses of lyrics which were written by their peers.  (I’ve been trying to fathom how they do it, but I don’t have the slightest clue just yet.)  Sometimes they forget and awkwardly pause to re-group mid-“performance,” but it works out.

I think I subconsciously expected that there would be rich four-part harmonies and elaborate drum beats in African choirs— probably from my experiences singing choral arrangements of African songs in high school and college choir. But in my church, the choir is accompanied by an Yamaha electric keyboard, played by a hip twenty-year-old dude called Umunezero (“Happiness”); and with the keyboard behind, the singers seem to prefer not to harmonize (a huge pity, I think!)   Umunezero is an expert at navigating the settings of his instrument, laying down bombastic synthetic drumbeats and heinous synthesized instrumental voices, and rapidly firing through the successive inversions of I, IV, and V chords with the occasional vi and surprise I7 leading to IV, all in complicated rhythms.  But most of the time, his chord changes and rhythms are completely out of sync with the choir, making for a confusing (sometimes painful) aural experience.  What is most agonizing for me is the process of selecting the settings at the beginning of each song: as a soloist leads off a song (without having pre-determined a starting pitch), the keyboardist shamelessly bangs on one key as he transposes the keyboard into a key he can easily play (i.e. Middle C sounds an E-flat), and then messes around with drumbeats as the singer continues.  Almost every time, the singers suddenly stop after one or two verses as their leader strolls over to the keyboardist, explaining that the rhythm or key he chose aren’t what they were looking for.  (I’d like to suggest they just plan out their settings before starting.)


Having been deeply embedded in American choirs, where we read music and plan out our starting pitch and definitely do not dance and use cheesy synthesizers, my understanding of music is not the same as that of the New Life Choir.  But I’ve realized that the singing isn’t really the point of the choir here.  You’ve probably already guessed: it’s the community.  Which is lucky for me, because I have no better opportunity to make friends with the church youth.  I attend choir rehearsals on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, not because I can actually sing along with their twenty-eight verses (although I do get a kick out of standing in the group to do the dance moves and make the kids laugh).  I do it for friendship.

Monday, November 3, 2014

100 American Shirts

3rd Nov 2014

One of the most bizarre and sobering things I’ve observed in Rwanda is the endless supply of American shirts.  Every day, everywhere I go, I see familiar images and distinctly American names and slogans on people’s clothing.  Those shirts which don’t have logos or text or pictures are probably also from America.

It is evidence of an economic cycle in our globalized world, where Americans (and probably not Europeans, as far as I’ve observed) buy new clothes in American stores or on vacations, get tired of them, and take them to the thrift store, from which they are soon shipped on palettes on barges to poor countries, where people find them in the most remote of villages and buy them for a very low price.  In the sense that poor people are able to clothe themselves at very little cost, it may seem a very positive thing.  But, on the other hand, a constant supply of unwanted clothes from the States also inhibits the possibility for Rwandans to produce and sell textiles in Rwanda: they can’t compete with free clothes from the States!  This causes problems for Rwanda’s economy at large: some studies claim that it is nearly impossible for a country to build a strong economy without a strong domestic textile industry.

It’s a complex global issue, and there’s not necessarily a right way to feel about it.  You can think it’s morally right or wrong, or “intellectually stimulating,” or funny.  But I’ll tell you how I feel: I’m sickened.  I think that Americans need to be less wasteful.  Read the list, and decide for yourself!

100 American Shirts

1.   Maple Grove T-Ball
2.   Wauwautosa Parks and Recreation
3.   picture of animals from Madagascar wearing Santa Claus hats
4.   John Cena (photograph and text)
5.   Phineas and Ferb (picture and text)
6.  American flag (girl’s dress)
7.   picture of American football, text: “Don’t Give Up Ground”
8.   One Tough Cookie (picture of Cookie Monster)
9.   Flight Squad Ace demolition pilot
10. Cleveland Clinic Police Safety Fair
11.  West Pine Middle School presents Mulan
12.  The Sushi Room (blue waiter’s polo)
13.  LOVE
14.  picture of Sonic the Hedgehog covers entire shirt
15.  Brooklyn
16.  picture of USA map on top of an American flag
17.  San Francisco (text above a tye-dye peace sign)
18.  Little Rock CTC (picture of dueling guitars)
19.  Union Catholic Alumni (polo shirt)
20.  Kelloggs (polo, picture of Tony the Tiger)
21.  FISD physical education
22.  Mountain Dew (vintage logo)
23.  Practically Perfect (pictures of small butterflies and tropical flowers surround text)
24.  Sweater: “When will I be famous?”
25.  Holiday Park Zoo
26.  A baby romper covered in UK flags
27.  full-shirt picture of Superman, Flash, and Green Lantern
28.  IBM
29.  Reading Road summer reading program (picture of a mouse in a care, USA flag behind)
30.  LSU Tigers
31.   Chicago Blackhawks (jersey)
32.  US Coast Guard (button-up shirt)
33.  picture of the Grinch and his dog Max
34.  “Life is a game, TWIRLING is serious”
35.  I always give 100% at work (pictures below, probably with a joking message)
36.  ARMY
37.  Pike Place Market
38.  Mexico
39.  Smithsonian National Zoo
40.  San Pedro Racing Hand-Grooved Wheels
41.  University of Michigan College of Engineering
42.  Athens Middle School Blue Hornet Band
43.  Noah’s Ark Summer Camp 2010
44.  ALBION
45.  American Eagle (gray polo)
46.  ProTec Safety First (fleece vest)
47.  GAP (90’s-style half-zip fleece)
48.  Polo Ralph Lauren (red polo)
49.  Newcastle Brown Ale (striped referee style jersey)
50.  Samsung
51.  Irish Whiskey
52.  Spongebob Squarepants
53.  Life’s a Game; Hunting is Serious (pictures of hunting weapons behind text)
54.  Mickey Mouse
55.  Dolce & Gabanna
56.  GAP
57.  Mark Zhen Designs Spokes
58.  “The Drums” (hoodie with picture of trapset)
59.  Crown only a king wears (zip-up sweater)
60.  RVCA
61.  The Avengers (animated comic book characters)
62.  Your Brain in the Game (basketball silhouette)
63.  BMX Motorcross (motorbike exploding from shirt)
64.  J├Ągermeister (worn by little girl)
65.  Pretty Little Cowgirl (cheesy cartoon)
66.  Biscuit Shop (cartoon pictures of baked goods)
67.  Abercrombie (below text, a winged shoe bearing the number ’72)
68.  USPA (giant logo)
69.  Basketball (silhouette of a male athlete)
70.  Full Speed Sport
71.  The Avengers (picture from the recent movie)
72. Yu-Gi-Oh (picture of one of the main characters)
73.  TROY (picture of a boyish Zac Efron from High School Musical)
74.  Time to Sleep (pajama shirt?)
75.  Animatrix 06.03 (advertising a movie release)
76.  Kauai (picture of flip flops)
77.  Pembina Trails School Division
78.  FOX (brand name with a fox head silhouette in place of the letter O)
79.  Crestview Schools
80.  Imperial Valley College
81.  Jersey: Urlacher, Chicago Bears
82.  “Stop pretending you don’t want me”
83.  “Punk Princess Rocks the Future” (pictures of various punk-style things, like plaid hearts with wings)
84.  Alvarez Harvesting— Wimoma, Florida (snap-button jacket)
85.  Shaun of the Dead
86.  Batman (seal)
87.  Obama-Biden (their faces imposed over stars and stripes)
88.  Bart Simpson
89.  Forever Love (punk hearts)
90.  Amherst soccer
91.  Bart Simpson on a skateboard
92.  Snoopy and Woodstock
93.  Alaska Adventure ’86 (fleece jacket)
94.  Levi Strauss & Co.
95.  Iowa State
96.  MN Vikings jersey: #84 Randy Moss
97.  Solid Rock Christian Summer Camp
98.  “I’m Bad, Meaning Good”
99.  Hello Kitty (at least three)
100.  Spider-Man (at least five or ten unique shirts)