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Fellow Citizens with All God’s People

This is an excerpt from the sermon Tanya Cothran gave at United Methodist Church, Point Richmond, in October 2023. If you'd like Tanya to come to speak to your congregation, please get in touch!

 

"Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God's people and also members of God’s household.” - Ephesians 2:19

 

On my last day in Rwanda, Yannick and Gerry invited me to have lunch at their place. This was in July and at the end of my three-week trip around Malawi, Burundi, and Rwanda in Eastern Africa. When I arrived at their home, Yannick took my drink order – orange Fanta, cold, please – and he walked to the corner shop to buy my drink, along with the other sodas and water that people requested. Gerry gave me a tour of their home in Kigali: two bedrooms – separated from the living room by a curtain, a kitchen area with a propane stove, and the living room, with the couch and a few chairs. Their front door looked into a courtyard where banana trees grew and laundry hung on lines to dry.


view out the door into a courtyard

When Yannick got back with the drinks, the eight of us sat down around the coffee table. There were the three roommates who lived in the house, two of their cousins visiting during school vacations, and then me and my two traveling companions, Manassé and Mwibutsa.

 

I was on the couch in this simple house with a tin roof, and Benali came out from around the curtain that separated the kitchen from the living room and set down a big platter of food. It was a base of rice covered with beans, cooked tomatoes, small round eggplants cut in half, and two yellow hot peppers on top. They passed around silverware – three of us got spoons, and the other five had forks, and then we all dug into the communal plate. The flavors were amazing. The food was fresh and local, the beans perfectly cooked, and they showed me how to rub the hot pepper on the food to give it the perfect amount of heat. It’s so hot that just rubbing it makes the bite spicy!

 

group smiles around a communal plate of food

While we ate, they chatted and laughed together in Kirundi. The air was relaxed and easy. At one point, I asked what was making them laugh, and Mwibutsa, an SIA African Advisory Board Member who speaks English and Kirundi, told me that they don’t usually use utensils. They were doing it for my benefit, and seeing each other eat with the forks – with beans falling off the edges – was amusing to them.

 

We ate until the plate was empty, and we were all satisfied. These young men are refugees – Burundians living in Rwanda. Their household is supported in part by Flaming Chalice International, one of Spirit in Action’s grant partners in Burundi and Rwanda. Flaming Chalice provides them with a stipend for shelter and food while they get established in their new city.

 

The reason they left Burundi is that there was an episode of political turmoil there in 2015. The government cracked down on demonstrators or anyone they thought might be opposed to the government, leading almost half a million Burundians to flee to safety in neighboring Rwanda, Tanzania, and Malawi. Young men, who were seen as a particular threat to the government, were especially targeted, and many of them left Burundi to avoid being arrested and thrown into jail without just cause. Mwibutsa was arrested in Burundi for his social justice work and got refugee status to come to Canada, where he is now a citizen. He continues his work from afar through Flaming Chalice International.


Luckily, Rwanda is relatively welcoming to the Burundian refugees. People like Yannick and Gerry were allowed to move there and stay. The languages in both countries are very similar, and the cultures are also similar. However, there are a lot of restrictions on the jobs they are eligible to hold. As happens in the US, most education and degrees from the old country are not recognized in the new country. And though the two indigenous languages are similar, Burundian schools are taught in French, while Rwandan schools are taught in English, meaning that Burundian refugee teachers have to learn a new language and get a new degree to get a job in Rwanda. Even though Yannick is a fantastic driver/chauffeur – and also a cook and all-around helpful guy – he hasn’t been able to find steady work in Rwanda and instead hustles to get short-term jobs whenever he can find them.

 

"We have a lot we can contribute."

group of people walk up a hill
Tanya visiting with members of FMV in Rwanda in July 2023

Another of Spirit in Action’s partners working with refugees in Rwanda is the Forum pour la Mémoire Vigilante (FMV). When I visited them on my trip, Ferdinand, one of the FMV volunteer leaders, said, “Refugees are not just a liability. We have a lot we can contribute.”


The group I visited is a collective of 29 refugee families representing about 120 people, and they are eager to establish stable lives. “We’re tired of feeling vulnerable all the time,” they told me. They don’t want to be inactive members of their new home; they want to feel grounded in the community and add their skills to benefit the community as a whole.

 

With a Spirit in Action grant, FMV members have built modern pig pens with a cement floor and trough to catch the urine for fertilizer. They purchased three female pigs, one of whom had just given birth to five very adorable piglets when I was there in July. The other two pigs are now pregnant and hopefully will give birth before the end of the year. [January 2024 update, one just gave birth to ten piglets!]


pig with ten piglets

 The piggery project provides livelihood – when they sell the piglets, they’ll get much-needed income – and it also provides the families with purpose, a reason to meet up with each other for social support and to give shape to the day. FMV also leads peacebuilding work in Rwanda, and they teach each other English. They practice their own traditions, too – teaching their children, who have only ever known Rwanda as home – about the traditional drumming of Burundi. As Ferdinand told me, “Even as a refugee, you can still do humanitarian work.”

 

"Fellow members of God’s household"

I hope these stories of lunch eaten from a communal plate and refugee humanitarians and their pig pens paint a fuller picture of what life can be like for a refugee community – the barriers they come up against, the talents, passion, and caring they share, and the potential that exists there, which is the potential that SIA grants help bring to reality.

 

These visits were profound moments for me of seeing my fellow humans, the fellow members of God’s household, the people behind the label of refugee.

 

I pray that we always remember the message in Ephesians 2:19, that no matter where we were born or where we live now, we are all fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.

 

Thank you, and amen.

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