In Kigali, locked churches, and Caesar’s help by Charlie King
Here in Kigali, a new week of instruction has begun. We got off to a good start: on time, with 150 students, rested and fed, all with Bibles and notebooks… and lots of questions. Far more than 150 asked to attend. Nehemie, the head of the team here, tells me that even now he is fielding calls from people who want to get into the training, and to whom he must reluctantly tell to come next time.
We started on a Tuesday (and will run through Saturday) because Monday was Election Day. Everyone in Rwanda must vote. Each citizen is issued a voting card, a public record to be maintained and produced on demand, such as when seeking a job, a passport, applying to school, or whenever the ubiquitous police ask for it. The voting card apparently gives one’s record of votes—which are party votes, not votes for individual candidates. The party decides who will sit as MPs based on whatever loyalty test they have. There are no surprises in this process. I was told on Saturday that the Parliament to be elected on Monday would be 51% women (a signal of progressive virtue in and of itself). “If the outcome was known ahead of time,” I asked, “and votes are only cast for parties, why vote?” That’s when the obligator nature was explained (most things in Kigali seem to involve some level of obligation), as well as the consequence of not voting (no job, no school, etc.). Make no mistake, for all of its attractiveness to Westerners, this is a police state, albeit a benign one. The glove is velvet, but there is iron underneath. Unlike the more routine autocracies of Africa (such as Uganda), the rule of the party in Rwanda very much favors a progressive agenda and as far as I can see, President Kagame is not enriching himself or his family at the expense of his citizens. While there is a glaring difference between the haves and have nots, it is perhaps not as great as in other countries. The goal seems to be control and power, surely motivated in part by memories of the genocide, and implementation of a highly progressive agenda, which is on track to transform Rwanda into the “Singapore of Africa.” Hence Kigali’s growing reputation as a mecca for Western secular NGOs, the presence of 51% women in Parliament by fiat, liberalization of abortion laws, strict government supervision of speech and media, as well as other such seemingly minor progressive acts such as a strict ban on litter and plastic bags, requirements for helmets for both drivers and riders of motorbike taxis, and of course, the closing of those pesky evangelical churches. The problem is that no society is tranformed for the better by an idealogy, progressive or otherwise. The only transformation that endures by Christ, and through His church.
You are aware, I hope, of the tremendous pressure that the government is placing on the evangelical Christian churches in Rwanda. Last April, pretty much out of the blue, the government began citing numerous public health and professional qualification ordinances (or creating them on the spot if necessary). Every complaint seems, on the surface, to be reasonable — after all, we don’t think twice about a Fire Marshall inspecting a church and enforcing occupancy laws. But the suddenness of it, and the uneven enforcement, has left everyone stunned. A few mosques were closed, and quickly reopened, while the Anglican and Catholic churches were largely untouched. Few went to prison (civil disobedience is not a Rwandan thing), and everyone has adapted to some degree. A few of the wealthier evangelical churches have managed to comply with the new standards, but most are still struggling to do so. Besides enforcement of building codes and noise ordinances (in Africa?!) the government also is in the business of judging who is qualified to be a pastor, and who is not. In order to preach one must have a post- secondary diploma of some sort from an accredited school. And so TBI fills an urgent need (assuming of course that our request for accreditation is successful!)
Now, there is nothing wrong with theological education. Indeed, that is what we are all about. It is the rather hypocritical and highly selective enforcement of laws requiring educational qualification that rankles. Allegedly, it is aimed at sweeping away the prosperity gospel crowd. But as people here have pointed out to me, the prosperity preachers have enough money to get whatever paperwork the government wants them to have.
And there is no denying that many of the evangelical pastors are theologically untrained. That is, after all, what has spurred us into establishing this training program. But what business is it of Caesar if this is so? Who is responsible for the church? Caesar? If the church, in order to be theologically strong, must rely on the iron fist of a secular and progressive regime, will it actually be theologically strong? I doubt it.
No, this is a thinly veiled attempt to bring to heel one element of society here which has been resistant to control. The solution is to comply: get the churches in compliance with code, educate the pastors, and meet the ordinances. But it has a daunting price tag. In Nehemie’s church, pictured below, they have been working since April to meet building code requirements and still have about $10,000 worth of work to do. That is a nearly impossible sum. To get a seminary degree here costs about $2000 a year, which is equally onerous. So our work is timely – we offer a nearly free course, which – if we get accredited – will give pastors the credential they need, and the education they lack. The government will gain either way, since they peel off a sizeable chunk of donations coming from abroad (we lost almost $1000 to the governement, in various taxes and charges), and expectations are that in the future the government will begin taxing tithes and offerings.
In the photos below you will the see pictures of Nehemie’s church, which have been locked since April. The biggest remaining challenge is a retaining wall around the church. The parking lot has been paved, which was required, and sound proofing must go up inside. The latrine also needed upgrade, but that has been done. The congregation is not sitting by idly waiting for help to fall from the sky, and thankfully, the government has been forbearing as long as work progresses. But they need some help nonetheless.
We worshipped on Sunday with Nehemie’s congregation in another church, which has been able to remain open. I was told quietly that the church is near the barracks of an elite Army unit and some of the members belong to that unit… and that kept the church open. For worship the congregations just double up – we met at 1100, after the first congregation had finished, and we ran until 2pm, about average for a church service. Notice in the photos of that church the colored panels on the wall… that is the soundproofing that the government wants.
You will also see pictures of your training venue. It is beautiful indeed. I’ll write more later on the training