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Outlook - October 2005

Sharing Bread and Bibles in Rwanda

Elique Semaboye, Lawren Morrison, Jessica Blood, Tom Shepherd, Kerri Tory, (front) Robert Christensen, Jason Bohl and Christy Parfet visit a waterfall on a day of sightseeing.

by Kate Simmons
        Preaching 19 sermons in 16 days is an unforgettable experience in itself. Add to that being swarmed by children, “stealing” food and water, and encountering a seemingly supernatural illness. The outcome is exactly what happened this summer when 11 Union College students and two faculty traveled to Africa. Funded by Global Evangelism, the Quiet Hour and personal donations, the group presented a series of evangelistic meetings at 13 sites all over Rwanda.
        For some the experience was transforming. Kerri Tory, a nursing major who graduated just before she left for Rwanda, said if she hadn’t already accepted a position in the
United States, she might have stayed in Africa.
        For others the trip took place just as expected. When asked whether preaching in Rwanda changed his life, Malcolm Gaskin, one of the two faculty sponsors, replied, “The change happened before I went. That’s why I went.”
        For three individuals, the trip meant more than preaching, although that was a significant focus. Experiencing Africa meant trying to fill any need they encountered and mingling with people in their homes.
        On the surface Jason Bohl, Robert Christensen and Elique Semaboye have very little in common. Jason is a sophomore social work major born in the United States. Robert is a religion major originally from Honduras, and Elique, a theology major, lived in Rwanda the first several years of his life. What became apparent in Africa was their shared passion for interaction.
        Because of their activities outside the churches where they preached, Robert, Jason and Elique earned the appellation the Three Musketeers. Dr. Tom Shepherd, religion professor and faculty sponsor, gave them this title because, he said, “They had the wanderlust. They were adventuresome. They would go out into the community and talk to people wherever we went.”

 

A hungry woman
        Before commencing the evangelistic series, the group spent a week sightseeing in Ethiopia. There they witnessed the Blue Nile in Lalibela and visited 11 stone Orthodox churches in Bahir Dar. Ethiopia evoked more than aesthetic appreciation from a few members of the group.
        Jason and Robert ate at a buffet restaurant and ended the meal with more than they could eat. They had both noticed beggars lining the street outside, so rather than waste the extra food, Jason suggested they sneak it out of the restaurant and distribute it.
        He and Robert wrapped bread rolls in napkins and headed quietly for the door. When a waiter confronted them, Robert described their plan candidly. “The restaurant would have had to throw the food out anyway,” he later explained. “We told the waiters what we were doing, and they ended up helping. They gave us foil to wrap everything.”
        One woman had been slumped and despondent when the two had entered the restaurant. Now, as Robert put food in her outstretched hand, her face lit up. He remembered the verse in Matthew 25, which says, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat” (NIV). Robert said, “That verse kept ringing through my head throughout the trip.”

A boy and a Bible
        During the brief stay in Ethiopia, Elique and Jason were walking in the community when a group of children realized the two had candy. Elique told them to line up so Jason could give each of them one piece. One little boy, when his turn came, would whisper in only Elique’s ear.
        “I don’t want your candy,” the child said.
        Elique, thinking the boy was holding out for a dollar, reached into his pocket.
        “I don’t want your money.”
        “What do you want?”
        The boy answered, “I want your Bible.”
        Stunned, Elique dug into his backpack for his only Bible. “All the other kids want candy or money,” he said. “This kid wanted a Bible. He wanted the Truth. Stuff like that can touch your heart.”

 

The language of home
        Despite the excitement of his encounter with the little boy, Elique was disheartened by the poverty he saw in Ethiopia. He hadn’t returned to Rwanda since he left with his family after the genocide of 1994. “People in Ethiopia were nice, friendly. But it was so hard for them to find food,” he said. “I was thinking, is this what my country is going to be like too?”
        When the group arrived in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, Elique’s fears were dispelled. “Where there used to be huts, now there are houses,” he said. He reunited with family members he hadn’t seen since the genocide. Old friends and family brought him the African cuisine he had been craving for more than a decade. “Ogari,” he said. “It’s fish. I ate the whole fish by myself. And banana juice. Jason and Robert liked it, but nobody else did.”
        Early in the summer, before he left the United States for Rwanda, Elique had been nervous about preaching before so many people. “People in Africa want to hear about God,” he said. “What if I make a mistake?”
        Elique had preached before, but only in front of small audiences. In Rwanda, it was estimated that about 400 people would attend. Over the course of the meetings more than 3,000 people gathered to hear Elique’s sermons.
        At the first meeting, he walked to the microphone and saw the size of audience. “It was like there were a million people,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say. I just started praying in Kinyarwanda.”
        The other sites staffed an interpreter to translate from English into Kinyarwanda. Many assumed Elique would need one as well. They didn’t know he had lived nine years in Rwanda and could speak to the people directly. “I think they took me seriously because I could speak the language. They were thinking, he’s one of us.”
        Elique feels the people of Rwanda have moved past the genocide that drove his family out of the country. “Then there was no love,” he said. “Now—it’s beautiful.”
        Ninety-eight people have already been baptized as a result of Elique’s meetings, and 52 more are enrolled in baptismal classes. The goal at his site was to baptize 70.
        Combining the attendance at all 13 sites, about 16,000 people came to hear the Union College evangelistic team preach, and more than 1,200 have been or will be baptized as a result.

 

Blaise and Murakatete
        During the days, when they weren’t preparing for the evening meetings, Jason, Robert and Elique often walked outside their hotel in the surrounding area, which Jason and his friends dubbed “the village.” One day, a man named Blaise approached them to ask what they were doing in Rwanda. When they explained, the three learned through Elique’s translating that Blaise had been looking for “the true church,” but hadn’t yet found time for God. He invited them to his home to eat.
        “If people offer you food, you always eat it,” Elique said. “If you don’t, it’s disrespectful. It’s like you’re suspicious that they poisoned the meal.” So Elique, Jason and Robert ate with Blaise in his home, where they met Murakatete, Blaise’s wife, and Francine, their daughter. After conversing a while, they prayed with the family and invited them to attend the meetings at Jason’s site in Kabusunzu.
        After Blaise had attended a few meetings, Jason and Robert went to his home for their daily visit and found Murakatete in suddenly poor health. Robert touched her forehead and felt she had a high fever. Lying on a mattress in the candle-lit house, the 24-year-old wife and mother was buried under a coat and blanket. Not knowing what else to do, the young men put a cold cloth on her forehead, massaged her hands and sang to her, then prayed with the family before they left.
        Murakatete lay dangerously ill for several days. There was no clean water to give her because purified water is delivered by truck and very expensive. At midnight after days of sitting helpless by Murakatete’s bed, Jason and Robert devised a plan. They left with one of the family’s empty water jugs.
        According to their hotel’s policy, water was not to be taken off the premises, so Jason and Robert sneaked the jug past the reception area and up to one of their rooms. They filled the container in the shower, grabbed a few purification tablets and headed back toward Blaise and Murakatete’s home.
        This time the receptionist at the desk caught them. Again, as in the Ethiopian restaurant, they simply explained what they were doing and why. And again they were allowed to continue.
        When Blaise came to the door, his face lit up. “You got water! You got water!”
        Despite their efforts, on Wednesday night Jason and Robert found Murakatete getting worse. She seemed to have malaria, chest pains and something lodged in her throat. She was completely limp and had to be lifted up just to drink water. Robert believed Satan was attacking her because Blaise had been coming to the evangelism meetings.
        “She couldn’t eat,” Jason said. “She was screaming, moaning and crying. I couldn’t take any more of seeing my friend like this.” He gave Blaise money to take Murakatete to a doctor and at least get a diagnosis. The doctor predicted she would only get worse and die without medicine, which was expensive.
        As Murakatete’s condition had worsened, Jason and Robert had cried and prayed with the family. Because they shared the pain of Murakatete’s illness, they were also able to share the joy of her recovery.
        When Jason and Robert returned to the family’s home Thursday morning they were met with an amazing sight. After a week lying feeble in bed, Murakatete was now sitting on the porch, smiling and reading her Bible. She was able to speak and walk without help. That evening, when Jason and Robert arrived to pick up the family on their way to the meetings, she was still in excellent health and dressed beautifully for the occasion.

        By the end of the evangelistic series, both Blaise and Murakatete planned to be baptized in September. “We were there to preach to the multitudes, but mingling one on one has an impact too,” Robert said. “It touched Blaise that strangers wanted to help.”
        Looking back on the trip, Jason sees what happened with Murakatete as one of his fondest memories. Robert simply misses the people and wants to go back. Elique now wants to use a theology degree for global evangelism. And next time he travels, Elique says, “I’ll bring more Bibles.”