Sunday, July 31, 2016

Knowing God in Kigali

Last Sunday morning, Aidan, Coco and I decided to attend services at the Evangelical Restoration Church. Aidan had heard that church music in Rwanda is "not to be missed," so we decided to check it out.

Manuella, a young lady I met here, sings in the chorus. She loves it, and is at church every Sunday to sing from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30. That's a lot of standing and singing, and she loves it she says.

I wasn't sure what to wear. I went conservative with my dress - sleeves and below the knee. I already knew I would stick out among the crowd, and I certainly didn't want to make a spectacle of myself by wearing something eyebrow-raising by Rwandan standards. 
Waiting in line for church.

 I worried for nothing. I saw more high heels and skirts above the knee at one church service than I have seen in total since I've been in Rwanda.

We got there just as the 8-10 a.m. service was supposed to end. But there really isn't an "ending" per se. The chorus continues to sing right into the start time of the next service. Music dominates the two hours. It's uplifting and feels as central to the service as the sermon itself. And everyone sings along.

When it was time to go in, we passed through metal detectors. We have gotten used to metal detectors, x-ray machines and bag searches when entering office buildings and hotels in Kigali. But I wasn't expecting it at church. But at least this time, no armed soldiers or security guards, just church members getting it done, smiling and welcoming you as you passed through.

This is a big church. They do music right. There are acoustical tiles on walls and the high high ceilings. The lighting on the stage (not really an alter) is perfect for showing off the vibrant white shirts and brightly colored skirts the chorus wears. It's decorated with flowers and donation pots. Really pretty.

The choir sings through two services, a total of more than four hours each Sunday.
It was an inspiring service, even though we couldn't understand much of it. It was in Kinyarwanda and French. A few minutes after we got there, the pastor came to us and welcome us. Not sure how he knew we were from out of town. (smiley) But he offered to have us sit in the front and a translator would help us. 

The music was a modern folk, and a blend of Christian hymns, some pop influence here and there, drums and guitar. It was uplifting, you couldn't help but tap your foot, sway side to side, raise and sway your arms, and smile. Big screens on either side of the stage show the lyrics so you can sing along. 

At one point I excused myself for the restroom, and my timing was such that the littlest parishioners were headed to the basement for Sunday school. The young ones, maybe ages 4-6, couldn't stop looking at me. I honestly am not sure they'd seen a white person before. They didn't smile. But even so, they were adorable.


I didn't go for the religion, I went for the music. And I felt more inspired just from the music than I usually do at mass back home. You can see how central spirituality is to the people there, and for many Rwandans.

Even the teenage boys in the audience we attentive, if not singing. You just could tell that everyone wanted, almost needed, to be there. There is a connection to God that they cling to, and it seems to brings them peace.

Admittedly, in a way, I don't quite understand it. Churches, most notably the Catholic Church, was complicit in acts of genocide here to a very large degree. Many were chased from their homes and told to go to churches for safety, only to be massacred inside these places of worship while priests and other clergy stood by.

Later in the week, Manuela and I were talking about family and church, and being a young person in Rwanda. I asked her if her parents, who are devout Christians, had been affected by the 1994 genocide. Yes, they had.

Both came from families with 12 children. Of 12 children, Manuela's dad and one sibling survived. For her mother, she was the only one in her family of 12 to survive. Manuela's parents were already married at the time. A white priest helped them hide until the killing was over.  She was born two years later.

So while there is documented proof that churches were actively involved in the genocide, it seems there are small stories of compassion as well. 

Because of genocide, Manuela's mom says it is important to know God. It's part of the healing. I feel pretty sure most of the crowd at church here feels the same way.

So while in some ways it is hard for me to understand, in other ways, it is not hard at all. I am glad that families like hers have a place to go that gives them such joy. Where they can know God. I am glad I got the chance to see it.