Reflections on the March 2017 trip to Rwanda by Amber Carlson
When Elissa Kronwald was considering whether or not to be a part of the most recent Rwanda team, she called me to get my thoughts. I had gone on the first trip in January of 2016, and she wanted to know what the experience was like. Struggling for words to express my deep affection for Rwanda, I said, very ineloquently, “It is not a hard place to visit."
And that is one way to put it. It’s not hard at all. You might miss the comforts of some of our modern conveniences, but you will very likely fall in love with the country and be in no hurry to leave.
When our team—John and Sherri Smith, Matt and Elissa Kronwald, Matt Leung, and my daughter Caroline and I—arrived in Kigali in the early morning hours of March 2 of this year, we were greeted at the airport by John Samvura, our friend, church planter, and now pastor of Harvest Gisenyi. Originally, the plan was for us to get a ride from the airport to our hotel in Kigali by bus and meet up with John the next morning. But Pastor John could not wait and decided instead to make the three-hour drive late at night to be there when we landed. “I had to be the first to welcome you,” he said.
First on the agenda the following morning was a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Rwandans suffered through a horrific genocide in 1994, and the aftermath continued into the late nineties. Visiting the Memorial was an important first step for our team in understanding the recent history of the country and how the “war,” as Rwandans refer to it, affected every single person we would meet.
Children under 12 are not permitted inside the Memorial. Caroline, having just turned 13 on the flight to Rwanda, barely made the cut. I wondered how she would do with the graphic nature of the violence portrayed (bodies stacked along the side of the road by the hundreds, rivers red with blood, children gruesomely murdered right alongside adults) . . . but I also didn’t want to shield her from it unnecessarily. As it turned out, she made it just over halfway through before she turned to me a little frantically and said, “I think I’m going to throw up!” She buried her head in my shoulder and cried. We exited the building and walked through the gardens to the cafe, where we could sit in the fresh air and talk. “It’s just so sad,” she said repeatedly.
And it was. It is. There was not much I could say in response, so I let her have her grief. But I also encouraged her that while we were there she would see so many evidences of God’s healing since the tragedy.
As our group walked back to our cars following the tour, I thanked Pastor John for playing host to us once again. When a team visits, he spends countless hours on the road, first driving to Kigali to pick us up at the airport and then daily driving us to and from our hotel to get where we need to go. And this time around we brought enough people to need two cars (small SUVs), which meant an extra driver (John hired his neighbor Paul, who owns a driving company).
I asked him, somewhat jokingly, if it was worth all this fuss to have us here. I wanted to know what we could do to really be an encouragement. He said, “It means so much to us that you make the trip, that you come and see us. The people are very encouraged that you would come all this way. These trips, you can't put a price tag on them."
We split up into our two cars for the three-hour drive to Gisenyi. I settled into the backseat with Caroline. John Smith rode up front with Paul, who drove with the windows down and sang along to the radio most of the way. At times we talked, occasionally asking Paul questions about what we saw. But mostly we rode with our heads nearly hanging out the window, trying to take in everything—the mountains in the distance, the rolling green hills in every direction, the smiling children, who often jumped up and down or ran alongside the car shouting “Mzungu! Mzungu!” (“White person! White person!”) once they spotted us. Caroline squealed each time she saw a baby and waved to every single man, woman, and child we passed.
Our goal for the next day was buying and gathering supplies to fill the 20 Harvest Compassion Center bags we had brought with us from Chandler. In anticipation of our visit, John and Zawadi had determined a list of items that would be useful to a needy family, and several of Harvest Gisenyi's core group members had identified families in their communities that would benefit from those items. After a morning spent in town gathering supplies, our team and several members of the core group gathered together in a home to fill the bags, assembly-line style.
As we worked together, I began to wonder if Paul, our driver, was a member of the core group or not. I thought I had heard Pastor John say he was not part of the church. But he wasn't just helping fill the bags, he was leading us in the effort and seemed genuinely excited about what we were doing. Afterward, I asked for clarification and was told that Paul was not a part of the core group, though he had been invited several times to meet with them.
After breakfast Saturday, we visited the land that was purchased for the future site of Harvest Gisenyi. When we arrived at the site, there were over one hundred people there working. We watched—and even “helped” a little—as men and women worked the ground, busting up the volcanic rock layer just under the soil’s surface. Tons of rocks had been unearthed, broken up, and moved to form the foundation for the future building. The communal work effort (and the size of the small boulders being tossed into heaps!) was truly a sight to behold, and the excitement among the group was palpable. Both John Samvura and John Smith spoke to the large group that was assembled, and we closed the gathering with prayer and singing.
Later that afternoon, we split into two groups to go house to house delivering the Compassion Center bags. Our HEV team may have brought the bags and paid for their contents, but the members of the Harvest Gisenyi core group were the church in action. They trudged ahead of us, at times in pouring rain, through muddy streets, up and down hills, amongst the throngs of children that followed us every where we went, carrying bags that weighed over 30 pounds each, some of them carrying more than one (and one woman carrying a bag on her head!).
The ownership and excitement they showed in being able to hand deliver these bags to their neighbors was a joy to watch. It was so reassuring to be partnering with them in this way, serving them as they served their community.
The homes we visited were small, with little to no furnishings, dirt floors, and often just a curtain hanging over the doorway. At each home, our whole group crowded inside. Neighborhood children who had followed us poked their heads into any open space they could find and peered inside windows, listening intently and watching our every move.
We told the families, through a translator, that we represented Harvest Bible Chapel Gisenyi and Harvest East Valley in the United States and that we wanted to give them some items to nourish them physically, along with a portion of the Word of God (a Gospel of John booklet in their native language), which was food for their soul. We were met with graciousness, shyness, excitement, and joy. One woman even prayed to receive Christ as her Savior during one of these visits. The families seemed truly grateful, not just for the bags of food, but also for the gift of a visit to their home.
After the visits, when our team gathered to regroup, Zawadi greeted us excitedly. She had run into people in town and had talked to others on the phone. She said, “The news, it’s spreading like bush fire! Already, everyone knows about the mzungus visiting the homes. And they are saying to me, ‘Zawadi, is this your church that is doing this?’ Ah, the people, they can’t believe it!” Word of the home visits had traveled fast!
That night we sat in our hotel’s open-air lobby poring over pictures from the day and comparing stories of being in different homes. “Bush fire,” we repeated over and over. How in the world could the news have traveled that fast? We couldn't wait to see how God would use these compassion efforts in the life of the church.
When we arrived at the outdoor meeting place for worship Sunday morning, it actually felt like we were late because the place was already packed! Our team moved through the crowd to join John and Zawadi, and I saw Paul, our driver, to our right, wearing a suit and sitting in the front row. I glanced in his direction several times during the service, wondering what he was thinking. He seemed serious and focused, staring intently in front of him as John Smith preached a message from John 4.
That night before bed I scribbled bullet points in my journal until I was too tired to write anymore. One of the points, "Paul came to church today. It was his first time to meet with this group. Praying for him."
On our last full day in Rwanda, we drove about 45 minutes to Musanze to visit a school for the blind, founded and operated by Pastor John’s brother, Bosco.
On the way there, Paul did something out of the ordinary and turned down the radio. “Today is a good day for me,” he announced. He seemed to be struggling for words, but it was clear that he had something important to say. John Smith smiled from the passenger seat and encouraged him to go on. Paul explained that he had talked with John Samvura the night before.
He gestured emphatically with his hand over his heart and said, “Pricked in my heart Jesus.”
Paul continued to grasp for the right words, and the three of us in the backseat leaned closer to listen, straining to hear every word of what sounded very much like a testimony of conversion!
Just to be sure I was hearing what I thought I was hearing, I made a note on my phone of the things Paul said . . .
“Jesus helping me, give me life.
When you have the problem, you not look to people. You look to Jesus.
I love the behavior that come from you when you talk to the people the good news that come from Jesus."
He went on to contrast the behavior of several pastors he had known in his lifetime, many of which behaved immorally when not in front of their congregations. He told us that this had always bothered him and that when John Samvura invited him to meet with the church, he would always say, “Not today. I am busy with work. Maybe another time.” But his extended time this week with the Samvuras, the core group, and our team had made him think.
He shared with us his heart of gratitude to God for his earthly blessings—family and a successful job—and a desire to see more people come to Jesus. (Hallelujah!)
He said, “Jesus give me my job, my wife, my children. Jesus give me all I have. I need many people come to Jesus. It is a gift from Jesus—I love many people. I love children. I am ready to support it [the church], to build it, to tell good news for people to come to Jesus."
Our conversation ended when we arrived at the school, and we climbed out of the car stunned at the 45-minute conversation we had just had with the man who had been mostly content to listen quietly or sing along to the radio as he drove us about for hours every day since we arrived. But not today—today he was absolutely animated and bursting with things to say.
We watched for the next several hours as Paul played with the children at the school, leading them in games and sitting across from them at lunchtime, thoroughly engrossed in conversation. His demeanor on the drive to Musanze and at the school that day only strengthened our impression that we were seeing someone with a changed heart. The whole trip, he had been an active participant in all of the things we had done, but that day he was doing everything with visible, contagious joy—and he wanted to talk about it. It was God at work, before our very eyes.
That was our last day in Rwanda. On Tuesday, we began the long journey home. And we have been home now for over four months.
John Samvura says that Paul is doing well. He travels a lot for work, but when in town he has engaged in discipleship opportunities in group settings and one-on-one.
It was my desire coming back home that word of what God had done would spread “like bush fire,” the way the news of our home visits did in Gisenyi. I wanted to take everyone I saw by the shoulders and shout, “Paul got saved! You should see the people there! They are so excited! I am so excited after having been there!”
But until sitting down to write this, I continually found myself at a loss for words when asked how things went in Rwanda. And even as I write, I have this fear of not doing the subject justice. Perhaps someday you can see it all for yourself—in person. I hope you will. Rwanda is not a hard place to visit, and it is so worth it.