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.