Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Farewell

 Each year the small English Chapel I serve bids a special farewell to the departing students. They host a dinner and an elaborate celebration for those who have grown in faith, knowledge and leadership capabilities. This year the celebration was larger because the chapel was saying goodbye to the pastor who had led the group to transfer from a French speaking congregation to an English speaking worship center, as well as saying thank you to the one who served as treasurer for two years. It was a big event, especially for a relatively small group of students – only 32 in all. Six of them are leaving us.
Preparations began weeks ago as a carefully selected committee planned a budget and held a fundraiser to meet that amount. By God’s grace, they exceeded their target, so they were able to add the extras they had cut from the initial budget and sent out more invitations than they thought they would be able to. Preparations escalated last week as committee members prepared programs, purchased gifts and gathered non-perishable materials. The preps crescendoed on Saturday and Sunday morning.
Saturday afternoon and evening students were in and out of my house hourly. I house the “bank” for the chapel. I hold the money for safekeeping since the chapel does not yet have a bank account. (It is coming soon.) The treasurer “withdrew” money for the open market shopping, then for the vendors’ shopping, and finally for the final payment for the gifts. She did not want to carry large amounts of cash or leave it unattended in the dorm, so each time she completed one transaction, she came to get money for the next. Then those who had speeches to give came with them for me to edit. The chair of the function came for me to review the agenda. The chair of hospitality came to arrange to borrow my flatware and dinner plates. She made the same arrangements with a number of other faculty families to provide enough wares for the food service. The president of the elders came to check on details of the worship service. About 10 p.m. I locked the door after the last of them.
Cooking on a 3-stone fire
Sunday all activities were centered at the chapel. To accommodate the guests of honor who had other responsibilities and were coming from Kigali, the time of the service was moved to 1 p.m. and the celebration was set for 3 p.m. This allowed the morning for decorating and cooking. This began in earnest at 8 am. The cooking was done behind the chapel in 3-stone fires, by the students, male and female. They were preparing for 75 people, so there as much to do. Even as the worship service began, many were still outside cooking and slowly joined the service as their responsibilities finished and they were able to prepare themselves for the celebrations.
After a Spirit-filled worship time, we took a break and readied the room for the celebration. Time is not the issue in Africa that it is in America, so the fact that the guests of honor were 45 minutes late in arriving due to long worship services and long distances to travel did not disturb anyone. People gathered and chatted until the festivities kicked off. A pleasant surprise for me was that the Edmondsons from Kiskiminetas Presbytery in US, who are here for 6 months, were able to join us.  The students had done such a good job of preparations that everything went smoothly and the food was delicious. The speeches and the appreciation of the contributions of those departing were heartfelt. It was a joy to listen, especially about my predecessor at the chapel who no only introduced worship in English, but who initiated a song book and who guided the furnishing of the chapel. He is now the President of Kigali Presbytery and will bring that same vision and energy to that task.

Departing students with gifts
The event was a great deal of planning and work but was worth every minute of is as it was well presented and greatly appreciated. The evidence of that is that after all was over, even as it was dark out, people stayed to visit and share with one another, even those who had traveled a great distance and had a distance to go to get home. Those departing the chapel were sent off with love and appreciation.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pentecost Poinsettia

There are lovely little twists on what we sometimes have come to expect that can make a celebration come alive or enable us to see it a bit differently and appreciate it all the more. That was Pentecost this year at the English Chapel in Butare.

This is my first year as “responsible” for the chapel, as the phrase is used here. So it was up to me to plan the Pentecost service. The elders insisted that I preach (which didn't make me unhappy.) I worked with the student who was to be the liturgist for the service, a second year student who is a bit unsure of her English, so this was a challenge for her to lead in English. We decided this would be a Pentecost experience for her, a kind of speaking in tongues. We had a laugh as we prepared the service.

Since we are an international community, we tried to include a number of songs from different languages about the Holy Spirit. Our international song book helped, since we have songs in French, Swahili, Kinyarwanda and English. We made use of those. Then the Kataria family (my colleague Dr. Faith and her husband and sons) were a “choir” from Tanzania, adding to the international flavor of the celebrations. We had worship participants from Canada, US, Japan, Tanzania, Germany, Congo and Rwanda, a fairly international cross-section.

Pentecost Poinsettia in worship
I had requested that everyone who was willing to, wear something red for the occasion and folks enthusiastically cooperated. We just had new cloths made for the communion table, so that was no problem, but, as is the case in many African worship spaces, the flowers are usually plastic, regardless of the fact that there are beautiful, fresh flowers blooming year round just outside the  chapel. I surveyed my yard for something to contribute to the communion table in the way of fresh flowers. I have bougainvillea, but it is more orange in color. My hibiscus is more pink than red, but as I moved to the back yard, I spied the poinsettia bush in bloom. The red was the perfect color. Now, I know that in the US, these are plants specifically cultivated for Christmas. I was informed that the same is true in Japan. But there they bloomed, ready and perfect in color for Pentecost. I couldn't resist the wonderful irony of Poinsettia for Pentecost. What fun! Then I justified it theologically. What better unity than to have the symbol of the incarnation (God with us) at the celebration of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (God in us). It seemed Trinitarian, or at least that is how I rationalized it, if, in fact, it needed rationalization. The simplest explanation is they were lovely red flowers to celebrate Pentecost. That is how the Rwandan members of my congregation received them, since they had no preconceived ideas that they were Christmas flowers. They brightened the communion table.
Congregation in red

So we celebrated with international celebrants singing in international languages in worship, dressed in red, and Pentecost poinsettia gracing the communion table. But most importantly, we experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit in the worship. That was the comment of many at the end of the service and was my experience as I preached. For that I praise God.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Monkey Business

Sweet face at Nyungwe
Another Nyungwe variety
Rwanda is known for its primates. First are the gorillas. They are found mostly in the north and are carefully protected. It costs dearly to go and see them, ($350 a day for foreign residents and $750 for visitors). This ensures their protection. It is more affordable to visit the smaller primates in Nyungwe Forest. That is only $60 for an hour hike. If you are driving through the forest, you may be treated to a glimpse of one, as I was several weeks ago when I went with some friends. There are reports of some on the other side of Butare, near the National University, but I have never seen them.

Monkey on my fence

I have had neighbors’ cats in my fenced yard, a squirrel with a bent tail and even a stray dog who had her puppies in my bamboo grove, but the other day, I had a monkey parade through my yard, bold as you please. I was sitting in my living room reading shortly after noon when out of the corner of my eye, I caught a movement in the yard. I looked up and at first I thought it was a dog. It was about 2 feet high, on all four paws, sniffing at my roses. But when I looked more closely, I recognized it was a monkey inspecting my flowers. He ambled around the shrubs and adeptly climbed the brick pillar that holds my gate and seated himself atop the pillar to survey the landscape. I ran for my camera, hoping he would stay long enough for me to snap a photo. I couldn’t get his face, but I did get a shot of him sitting on the pillar. Then as quickly as I snapped the photo, he hopped down the other side of the pillar, onto the walkway between my house and the campus. I went to the gate to see where he was headed, but by the time I got it open, he was nowhere in sight. One of my students was just approaching my gate and asked if I had lost my monkey. She said he scampered in front of her and over the wall onto the campus. We both had a good laugh. One of the joys of living in Africa is the variety of wildlife with whom we share space

Saturday, May 24, 2014

English Club

Learning English is important to most Rwandans, especially those seeking education, from primary school to university. I’m in Rwanda to teach in a university, but since I am one of the few native English speakers in Butare, I am in demand all around the neighborhood. I have been careful to limit my involvement outside of PIASS, since PIASS is my job. But my next door neighbor is teaching English at a local private elementary school and asked if I couldn't come to visit his students’ English Club. Joe, me neighbor, lived in the US for 5 years and is quite good at English and is a good teacher. He is eager for his students to improve. I know his heart for his students, so I agreed to a “guest appearance.”

Well, it has gradually grown from there. First I agreed to make a second visit. The students were so eager. He gave me just the upper division students, so they knew more English and it was easier to communicate. (Joe felt this would take them a bit deeper than he might be able to, as well.) They were engaging. So, with some persuading, I agreed to go twice a month, for an hour on Thursday afternoons. But Joe said, since I was there already, and only for an hour, couldn't I make it worth my time and add a second hour for the teachers who are also struggling with English. The school was begun as a French-speaking school and that is the language of instruction for most of the teachers but they need to know English. The government is moving everyone in that direction. So I agreed that I would give 2 hours, twice a month, dividing the time between teachers and students. That worked for about two visits. Then the teachers came with the suggestion that on the “off” week, I come to work with them. As teachers, they reasoned that twice a month for an hour was not enough time for them to learn a language. They were right. I knew that. If the time were to be used effectively, we needed to meet more often. This is a slow time at PIASS for me, so I have the time that I can give, so I agreed to add the Thursdays for the teachers. They are good negotiators. English Club meets every week for 2 hours, so they reasoned that should mean that on the “off” Thursdays, they could have 2 hours of instruction. Reluctantly, I saw their reasoning. Once again they were right that it would increase their learning time effectively. So I agreed. Now I go every week for 2 hours, one week with the teachers only and the next divided between the teachers and the students.

Teachers of the English Club
The teachers are so eager and they work so hard at their English. They are at a much lower level of understanding than the students, but that is all the more motivation for them. We are learning basic nouns and verbs for simple sentences, but they are grasping quickly and running with the vocabulary. It helps that they are teachers, so they understand the learning concepts and apply them to their language learning. Interestingly, while there are male and female teachers at the school, only the females come for English. There are, no doubt, a number of reasons for that, but regardless of the reasons, it makes for an enjoyable learning environment, since the ladies are freer to speak and take risks at forming sentences in the single gender environment. They are freer to laugh with me, as well. I’m finding that while I enjoy the time with the students, I look forward to the time with the teachers as much as they look forward to time with me. I am delighted with my “extracurricular” teaching.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Too Long

It has been too long since I have written. I am sorry for that. The time gets away from me, and to be honest, there are times I am too tired of looking at words to want to write any myself. I have been occupied with grading papers and editing manuscripts, on various levels. I have taught two beginners classes of English, and taught three sections of Introduction to Academic Writing in the last two months. All of this involves grading writing. For some of my students, it is a great challenge to express themselves in English, their third or, in some cases, their fourth language. They struggle with verb forms and verb tenses (difficult for many native English speakers), and with the use of articles and the placement of adjectives, things we native speakers take for granted. It takes time and care to correct these things so the students can learn how to use them properly. In addition, I have edited four bachelor level thesis, two master’s thesis and one PhD dissertation. The shortest of these was 53 pages, the longest was 238. There is always a deadline. I have been swamped in words and at the end of the day am content to listen to music or watch a movie, but not write.

This is not “exciting” work – like traveling to remote villages to see the rebuilding of homes or visiting orphan feeding program. It does not produce great stories, but it is important work. I am not complaining at all. I am enjoying what I am doing. I am the only native English speaker on the campus. There are others who have traveled to and lived in the US or the UK, but English is not their first language. As “the only one,” this gives me an opportunity and presents me with a responsibility since so many want to master English. As I help students and colleagues master English, I give them a better opportunity to communicate in a fast-changing world. In the process of editing, I’m learning about micro-finance opportunities, about conflict resolution within families, about peace building, about changes in Rwandan church governance, about Muslim-Christian conflicts in Africa, and the list goes on. My students can express God’s working for themselves. I am enjoying all that I am doing as a partner with them, but it keeps me busy. So if you do not hear from me as often, please don’t worry. I’m just immersed in others’ words.

Saturday, April 5, 2014


Kwibuka is "remember" in Kinyarwanda. April is the month of remembrance. April 6 marks the beginning of the Genocide 20 years ago. The month will be devoted to commemoration of the events, with memorial service at various locations around the country. This is a difficult time dealing with the past but it is part of the way forward for the future.

A colleague from Germany who taught with me in February and March understands the pain of remembering from a different perspective, from that of the child of German citizens who struggled with the memory and the guilt of the Jewish Holocaust of World War II. My colleague, Rev. Sylvia Bukowski, wrote a prayer after she returned to Germany, for her church to use during April, to be in prayer for Rwanda. With her permission, I share it with you and invite you to make it your prayer for Rwanda during this month.

Prayer for Rwanda

Lord of the Universe,
You promise to be near all who suffer
And to protect the defenseless and the weak.
But where were you,
When the great killing started in Rwanda?
Why did you hide your countenance,
Why did you keep silent to the cries of the victims,
Who remained without protection
Even in Churches?

Now 20 years later
We pray for the survivors of the genocide:
Until today they are wounded by the horror,
In which they have lost everything dear to them:
Beloved family and friends,
A safe home,
Their former trust in each other.
Give them comfort
When the wounds tear open in commemoration,
And place people at their side,
Who are willing to share their pain.

God, Judge of all nations,
We commend to you the killers and their accomplices,
Many of them still without remorse,
Still ensnared in lies and foul excuses:
Lead them into honest acknowledgement of their guilt,
And from true repentance let new beginnings spring
In the whole nation.

God, of Grace and Mercy,
we also pray for ourselves:
Yes we were shocked,
When we witnessed what happened in Rwanda.
But soon we forgot,
Because so many other things occupied our mind.
And so very often
We feel totally helpless
In the face of  the suffering,
Which still goes on all over the world.
Show us effective ways to prove our solidarity,
And keep our hearts from growing cold and from resignation.

Bless the peacemakers and those engaged in reconciliation.
Hold your gracious hand over Rwanda
And heal the wounds of all the nations
In our torn world.
God turn to us with the transforming power of your love.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Installation

Sorry friends for the long gap in writing. It is not because of lack of things to share but because of lack of time to do so. The last weeks have filled with teaching, grading, visitors, seminars, conferences and worship services. I will do my best to capture some of this for you in future writing. Today I want to focus on a first for PIASS – the installation of a chancellor.

New Chancellor in his chair
On March 7, 2014 Rev Dr AndrĂ© Karamaga was installed as PIASS’ first chancellor. This was in order to comply with the Rwandan government Law N° 27/2013 of 24/05/2013 that required all institutions of higher learning to have chancellors and vice chancellors. This was part of an educational reorganizational structure by the government. So our rector became the vice chancellor and the Protestant Institute of Arts and Social Sciences (PIASS) installed its first chancellor. The role is largely ceremonial, presiding at graduation ceremonies and the like. The installation sent the tone for just such occasions, with all the pomp and ceremony one could wish for.
The new chancellor is well-known in Africa. Presently, Rev Dr Karamaga is the General Secretary of All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC). From 2002 to 2008, he worked as Executive Secretary (African Desk) in the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. He served as the president of the Presbyterian Church in Rwanda from 1995 to 2001. He brings ceremony and experience to his position.

The festivities began early in the morning with a first-ever alumni meeting. Alumni of theology go back to the 1970s. The small chapel was overflowing as pastors kept coming. They represented all the protestant denominations in Rwanda and included bishops and denominational presidents as well as “regular” pastors. The present faculty was invited to make an appearance and be introduced but it was evident that there really wasn’t room for “visitors,” so after the introductions, those of us who were not alums we were given the opportunity to escape and we did. But we re-appeared for the luncheon before the installation service.

To begin the installation service, the faculty dressed in full academic regalia and processed in to the main lecture hall, followed by invitees, among them government officials, alumni and the PIASS community. After welcome speeches, we moved to the main event. The new chancellor was introduced and sworn in and then given his chair, an imposing seat that was especially carved for the event. This was followed by more speeches, first from the new chancellor and then the guest of honor, Rev Dr Samuel Kobia, the former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, and today, the Ecumenical Envoy to South Sudan, who spoke on “Eradicating Poverty.” The festivities ended with photos and a reception on the lawn. It was a gala event and promises to pave the way for more ceremonial celebrations.