Monday, August 10, 2009

A Walk to Forever Remember

Unbelievable. Indescribable. Ecstasy. Profound.
Last Friday I lived the dream,… a dream dreamt by Nathan Allen, Josh Rainey and me,… but I was privileged to live it out. It was actually living the subtitle of this blogsite.

I arose at 4:30 a.m. and soon thereafter met William, a former RPF soldier and now my dear friend. We were driven nearly halfway to Musanze/Ruhengeri. We got out of the car, thanked Patrick for the ride, and then fell off the edge of the road into totally uncharted fields and forests. We walked over hill and over dell, with no roads or vehicles in sight, back to the house in Kigali, with me joking that we were “on the march to free Kigali and our comrades in the Parliament building", (as William had done 15 years ago). It was 10+ hours of bliss, pain, and living life very close to the bone. I would have enjoyed the adventure alone, but with William serving as companion and interpreter, the experience was life changing, as we truly connected with the many people we encountered along the way.

Most of the mud and stick homes were empty and quiet early in the morning because everyone was out tending to their crops and cows. We are nearing the tail end of the long dry season, and after speaking with people watering their parched fields by hand, I comprehended for the first time the vulnerability, dependency, hope and prayers that characterize a poor farmer's patient wait for rain. I could easily visualize the jubilation that will come with the first good rainfall.

We came upon a home site from which the occupants had not yet left for their fields. The mother was an “older woman” in a country where the life expectancy is under 50. I have forgotten her name, but she was very warm and hospitable. With a wide grin, she explained that she had never seen a Muzungu (white guy) in this area. I asked how long she had lived in this home, but she did not know, nor did she know her own age (which I would estimate to be around 50). She did know that her 27 years old daughter, Beatrice, and her grandson, Ishimwe (“Praise”), were both born there. I asked if she had ever been to the City (Kigali), and she explained that she was last there more than 10 years ago to visit her husband in prison for crimes of genocide. He is now “out” and lives 1000 meters away with his new wife. William and I bade her farewell and asked if we may return to visit her again. She assured us that would make her very happy. Beatrice, with Ishimwe wrapped upon her back, led us approximately a kilometer down the path to her remote cassava field (actually a small patch), where we dug cassava root before William and I continued on our way.

We crossed a river and soon reached a village where we met partially clad Felecien, who is a particularly “unique” individual, but Rwandans would describe him as an “umusazi”, that is, a “crazy man”. (In this post-genocide country, many people, both killers and survivors alike, struggle with mental health problems, but there are no institutions and little treatment available.) When we first approached, Felecien had both ears covered with his hands and was talking quite loudly. Then he uncovered his ears and clung to me like white on rice. He asked “What does a man deserve who has killed another?” He DAMANDED that I baptize him. I looked at William. William looked at me wondering what I would do, but clearly hoping that I would do as the man requested. The village had gathered around us. It was a profound “moment of truth and testing” for me. So I participated in my second baptism ceremony, the first one being my own 30+ years ago. I apparently was a bit long winded (I know you are not surprised), and I mentioned something about God’s love and mercy for not only Felecien, but also his dead wife. Felecien popped up, again covered both ears with his hands, and spoke very loudly: “Hey, my Love. There is a white dude here and he says that Jesus loves you, and that you are well with Him, and that I am well too. COOL! He baptized me. I miss you. I love you, too. I gotta go now. This call is costing me a bundle.” (I made up only the last sentence about the cost of the call. The rest is all true.)

For anyone (perhaps most of you) who are uncomfortable with the thought of me baptizing someone, let me tell you, you are not nearly as uncomfortable or surprised as I. But one of my many spiritual and life lessons here in Rwanda pertains to the priesthood of ALL believers, that EVERY Christ follower is called and expected do things that we have heretofore consigned to “the paid professionals with M. Div. degrees”. Personally "doing" (and not forever observing) is an essential element of what it means to be walking and fellowshipping with Christ. It is neither difficult nor “weird”. It is actually surprisingly simple and should come quite naturally to every follower of Christ. One of the greatest lies we can believe, and copouts we can cling to, is: “I cannot do that. I am not qualified”. Jesus was pretty clear in Matthew 28:19. What part of “go” and “baptize” has been so difficult for me to understand?

Walking away from the village, William and I chatted about “What is it to be crazy? Who is normal? Who defines and decides?” I confessed that I do not know the answers to his interesting questions, but I do know that we must be very careful and not rush to confident conclusions. And we talked about John the Baptist and others being pretty odd ducks.

As we walked down the trail, we picked up local companions, pied piper style. We approached a young mother with her toddler. I crouched down and extended my hand to the child who had never before seen a ghostly “white guy”. The child shrieked in hysterical horror: “He’s SICK!” Everyone laughed, except the crying child.

Soon thereafter we encountered on the path another young woman. Her name is “Christine”. In her arms she was caring an adorable newborn baby,… which I estimated to be 4 days old. I expressed my delight in the sight of her newborn. She told me that the baby is 4 months old and is very sick and “they” are starving. She turned, and there was another frail “5 pounder” on her back. She explained that she did not have food, and therefore her body was not producing milk, … and then she began to softly sob. She asked for nothing, and I am convinced that she never would have. She was simply telling her very sad story, because we were obviously interested.

I must interrupt myself here. My greatest (and only) struggle living in Africa is discerning how I am to respond to the overwhelming need. I sincerely request that you read or reread my blogpost dated APRIL 28, 2008, and entitled “A Serious Dilemma. Counsel Please”. In that blogpost I asked for counsel, and some responded by posting a “Comment” and others by e-mail. Chris Kall wrote a brilliant 8 page thesis. Ed Kushins e-mailed: “Hey buddy, it was time [in the specific situation described] to just empty out your pockets”. I appreciated Ed’s advice as always, but I still am not certain it would have been the correct thing to do in that particular situation. It is very complicated, and a misguided action can easily exacerbate the problem. But now Ed’s advice really resonated. We had stepped into a critical emergency situation, and it was time to empty the pockets of money and the backpack of food. We loaded up Christine. (William and I would continue to hike another 8 others with neither food nor any hint of hunger. Miraculous.)

But our time with young Christine became even more memorable: Remember I told you that we had acquired some companions along the way? I put my right hand on the shoulder one young man, and my left hand on the shoulder of another, and said to them and others: “Friends, these two little babies are going to die unless somebody does something. YOU can be that somebody,… the one who saves their lives, and you will find great blessing in doing so.” I knew that one of the young men with us sold fresh peas, and I asked him if he would like to bring her a kilo of peas. I asked the other if he would like to gather her some firewood and bring her some water. I asked them all to urge the community leaders to rally and make it a “community project” to care for this young mother and save these babies.

I soooo hesitate to write this stuff which appears to be so self-aggrandizing. But I want to share my experiences and, more importantly, the important lesson that this stuff is NOT work reserved for great people. It is NOT difficult. It is very simple and easy,… the work for very average people like me, who are richly blessed (as I presently feel) because of a very simple response to a neighbor found along the road. Let us each pray for Christine and her babies. Our cries out to God may change their lives,… and our own.

Tugende. (Let us continue.) As we pressed on, we came upon a mass grave,... 30,000 people were buried together there in 1994. If I had not stepped into a primitive shelter filled with personal artifacts (rosaries, Bibles, crosses, I.D. cards, walking sticks, hats, garments, etc.), I might have successfully gotten away with what we all do: I might have simply thought, "30,000 died. WOW!" What we refuse to grasp,... what we cannot grasp without an emotional collapse,... is that genocide is not an act of murder,... here it was 30,000 separate acts of murder all within a few days, all within the same village,... 30,000 individuals, each made in the image of God, each with a name, each with a mother, each with a story,... 30,000 stories cut short,... 30,000 lives wasted and thrown into a common garbage heap. Interesting that I held their rosaries, their Bibles, their cross necklaces. So where was God in such a moment? HE WAS THERE, blood soaked, cradling each one of them, and it was NOT a "group hug", but rather an outpouring for His broken heart, a torrent of His love, grace, mercy, and compassion,... and 30,000 passionate, intimate, individual hugs of 30,000 individual children. I can calmly accept the unnecessary, premature deaths of hundreds of thousands due to genocide and famine, provided I consider it a single event and I keep them all nameless, faceless, storyless. This is something I can do that God Himself cannot.

I best lighten things up a bit. The young man who sells fresh peas continued to walk with us. His name is BIZIMANA Francis, and he lives in the village of Rurindo. I inquired of his dream (… always a good question that does not require a brilliant interrogator). He wants to own a chicken farm (layers). He has worked with chickens owned by others, and in response to my many questions, he persuaded me that he knows much about farming and marketing eggs. I just happen to be working with Tom Phillips, Jenise Huffman, and Dave Juenger, to support their efforts to improve chicken farming in Rwanda. I asked Francis how much it would cost to establish his chicken farm. Answer: $300. I asked if he would be able to pay the money back if someone were to lend him the capital. Answer: Absolutely. (This is a fundamental principle of good, sustainable development vs. dependency.) I would like to talk to my chicken farm friends about this “investment opportunity”. (Tom, you have my number. Please call.)

At one point in time we were walking along with two women and we came upon a funeral procession. One woman said to the other: “They seem awfully happy to be burying someone”. (I was thinking exactly the same thing.) But the other woman replied: “People have been dying for a very long time, and people will surely continue to die. Just what do you expect these folks to do? I’ll die soon, and you, too. Get used to it.” I appreciate the truth spoken, but I am still processing her perspective. Of course, she is correct, but something seems to be missing, something that makes us human.

The last two hours of our hike before reaching Kigali were spent with Catherine, who warmly greeted and spoke with everyone we met on the trail. I joked that she appeared to be running for Mayor. She has nine children, one of whom walked with us and sang the praise songs she sings with her church choir. Catherine was radiant and joyful (and was a challenge for me to keep up with,… her in her broken sandals and me huffing and puffing in my expensive high-tech hiking boots). She was very open in telling of her husband being in prison for genocide crimes. Everyone in Rwanda has been profoundly impacted by the genocide. No life is untouched.

Ultimately we reached Kigali and said “goodbye” to Catherine. Time to hop in a taxi or on a moto taxi? No way! We hiked another 90 minutes to reach home,… after 10+ hours, dead but more alive than ever, and well reminded of why I moved to Africa,... well reminded that life is a walk, an adventure and opportunity-packed walk from earth to eternity.