“New Creation is Dangerous”: Report from East Africa

I continue to be astonished by a powerful sign of hope forming amidst the beauty and trauma of East Africa, an emerging new community across divided nations, ethnic groups, organizations, and denominations.  In January the Duke Center for Reconciliation co-hosted the 7th annual gathering or institute of the East Africa Great Lakes Initiative, with 145 Christian leaders in Kampala, Uganda for six days from the surrounding countries (Protestant and Catholic, from grassroots to NGOs to bishops). Great pain was expressed, especially from eastern DR Congo and South Sudan participants suffering so much this past year.  And yet what a place of deep theological reflection, unexpected companionship, inter-confessional worship, and, I dare say, costly conversion.  As my Tanzanian colleague Wilfred Mlay said, “New creation is dangerous.”  I offer you compelling voices from the week.  May their cries of lament and hope speak loudly.

Dr. Katho, for whom Jeremiah is never far away

“What is the guarantee that we will have peace?  What if things get worse each year?  I suggest we prepare to be testimonies and witnesses in this corrupt world.  Jeremiah says we have to be present.  That is our vocation.  That is our call.” 
Dr. Katho Bungishabaku, president of Shalom University in Bunia, DR Congo, speaking on the theme of lament from the book of Jeremiah.  Later that morning a Congolese pastor told of 42 civilians killed eight miles from UN troops with armored vehicles; a three-year old girl raped old by multiple men; and thousands of women in north Kivu kidnapped by rebels and sold as sex slaves.  Another reported two hundred schools destroyed in eastern DR Congo in 2012, over 1,000 women systematically raped each month, and several million people affected or displaced by the violence.  Meanwhile the country’s natural resources amount to some 24 trillion dollars.  Several times Congolese leaders named U.S. support of regimes in the region as a factor in perpetuating violence.

“Everyone knew what to say to save their life.  And they refused to betray each other.” 
Father Zacharie Bukuru, founder of the first Benedictine monastery in Burundi, telling the story of the 1997 killing of 40 young Burundi seminarians because they refused to separate into ethic groups.  Said one seminarian just before he died, “Father, they ordered us to separate and we refused!  We have the victory.”

“Are you ready to die for a new creation in our region?  No politician will promise that.  The gift this initiative offers is learning to die.  This is not about skills and training but ‘come and die!’  If you are not ready to answer in the affirmative you have not begun the journey.  May God help us.” 
Wilfred Mlay of Tanzania.  Wilfred, who serves as GLI Ambassador in the region, served many years as vice-president for Africa programs for World Vision.

 “The beauty of Christianity is no two churches, no two masters, but only one Master, one Lord.  This institute should remind us there is no Congolese or Rwandan or Sudan or Ugandan church, but there is only the Church of Jesus Christ.” 
One participant, articulating a critical, emerging theological theme.  A Japanese participant in our December Northeast Asia gathering at Duke argued that a minimum requirement for a 21st century Christian theology is the ability to critique your own nationalism.  Randall Kennedy recently wrote in Time that “the most powerful form of political correctness in America is patriotism that revels in national idolatry.”

Maggy Barankitse

“Put down your gun.  You don’t want to kill me.  Come be my son, come find a purpose.” 
Burundian Maggy Barankitse, to a young man who came to kill her because of her work bringing Hutus and Tutsis together.  This young man now works for her.  Maggy established Maison Shalom, which serves over 30,000 young people and families suffering from the aftermath of twelve years of civil war between Tutsis and Hutus in Burundi.

“For Isaiah religion and politics are very connected.  You cannot imagine them separate in Africa!  But in U.S. they are separated.” 
Duke Divinity professor Ellen Davis in her seminar “Isaiah and a Prophetic Ministry of Peacemaking.”  What joy having Ellen all week along with professor Warren Smith, who co-led a seminar “Caesar and Christ:  Lessons from the Past for Church-State Relations in Africa.”

“The danger of our region is to get used to killing. When rebels kill in DR Congo it doesn’t hurt in Rwanda.  That is the problem.” 
Katho Bungishabaku.  (And, I would add, it doesn’t hurt in the U.S. either.)

“Yesterday was uncomfortable.  Yesterday was disturbing.  Some people were angry.  ‘What’s going on here?  We came to learn new skills and tools!  We did not come to hear I’ve been thinking wrong all these years!  What’s this worship where we are silent?  I’m used to shouting.’  My friend, this is what new creation means.  The journey from old to new is a painful process.  A birthing process.”  
Wilfred on day three, with three days to go.  Bringing divided countries and ethnic groups into a space of truth and lament, bringing Anglicans, Pentecostals, and Catholics into common worship – neither is easy, in Africa or America.

“I don’t meet these Burundians at home.  Why did I have to come all the way to Uganda to meet you?” 
The joy of a major Catholic leader from Burundi, after a long conversation with Burundi Protestants.

“If these two beautiful light-skinned women walk together in a market in Tanzania, Martha may be seized and killed and her private parts sold.  This is not acceptable.  This is what it means for us to be bothered.” 
Speaker Faith Mlay, who asked Martha (an Albino from Tanzania) and Rebecca (a white woman from the U.S.) to stand side by side before the plenary.

“What is the church in the U.S. doing about land grabs in East Africa?” 
 Question put to Ellen Davis after her lecture on Jeremiah and hope.  “Almost nothing” replied Ellen.  Later I was told about U.S., Indian, and Chinese companies vying for cheap land at the expense of local communities.

“I have sat with presidents.  Advised the UN Security Council.  Written resolutions.  Met with the EU.  Spoken in government Senates.  I have seen it all.  But it was not until I came here to the GLI that my heart and mind was moved to a new vision of hope that none of those things can touch.” 
Leader of a major organization in the region

“Take off your shoes right now.  This is holy ground, a holy moment.  God is here.” 
Wilfred Mlay, to a group of Rwandan and Congolese participants who experienced a profound breakthrough.

“Please, let us sing the theme song one more time!” 
Eight years since first gathering in 2006, we have a theme song out of our journey together, co-written by a Mennonite Central Committee and a World Vision leader who led worship.  The church surely needs more hymns like this.

Til All Things Reconciled

We your people sing your praises
As together we are sent
To reveal your new creation
In the shadows of lament.
Give us courage for the journey,
Shepherd Jesus be our guide;
Help us lead with hope and passion,
Til all things are reconciled

Text: 2013 © Rebecca Mosley and Josephine Munyeli
Music: African traditional hymn

About the Author:  Chris Rice is Director of the  Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School. He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes at the blog Reconcilers.

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1 Comment

  1. Chris, this is a powerful blog post and I’m sorry i didn’t see it sooner. thank you so much for lifting up the power of the 2013 Institute. Praying for you today as you meet in Arusha.

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