Stories of Lament and Hope: Burundi Gathering

Why is it that the blood of tribalism so often runs deeper than the waters of baptism?” “How can this densely Christian region of Africa continue to be mired in such intractable violence, unrest, and corruption?” “And what does it look like to live out new visions of hope in ways which reveal Christian alternatives to these social realities?”

Nearly ninety Christian leaders from Africa’s Great
Lakes region and companions from the United
States assembled in Burundi.

These were the questions participants wrestled with 6-9 January 2009, as nearly ninety Christian leaders from Africa’s Great Lakes region and companions from the United States assembled in Bujumbura, Burundi.

The challenge of Christian identity in the face of tribalism marked the third annual gathering of the Great Lakes Initiative (GLI), convened by Duke Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation in partnership with African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM), Mennonite Central Committee, and World Vision International.

In many ways, the initiative is a ripple of hope from the 2004 Lausanne Forum on World Evangelization in Thailand, where key leaders from ALARM, World Vision, and Duke first worked together in the Issue Group on Reconciliation, and dreamed with other Christians across the world of common mission.

As they came from Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda, old friends reunited and new friends were received, strengthening the sense of familial ties that stretch across countries, ethnic groups, denominations, and backgrounds.

Over three and a half days of worshipping, eating, and meeting together, participants explored tribalism’s complexities in the region. The African leaders lamented the spells of tribalism and the ways the Church has failed to interrupt the region’s history of ethnic conflict. They asked, “Can the Church make any difference? Show me.”

Three stories offered a loud “Yes,” pointing to the gospel’s power to interrupt patterns of division and violence. These stories were presented by Maggy Barankitse from Burundi, Bishop Paride Taban from Sudan, and Angelina Atyam from Uganda.

Maggy Barankitse, Maison Shalom
Barankitse, founder of Maison Shalom (“House of Peace”) in Burundi, is living proof that the Church can, indeed, make a difference in the world. At Maison Shalom, in the town where she grew up, Maggy lives alongside the most marginalized people and provides ten thousand children a dignified future through a holistic, community-based ministry of education, healthcare, vocational training, and recreational activities, all grounded in a simple Christian vocation to love. When asked about her strategy she replies, “My action plan is simple: four letters—L-O-V-E.”

Yet what has made a new hospital, nursing school, housing, and businesses possible has been a costly version of love. At a young age, Maggy began taking in orphans, irrespective of their ethnicity. When interethnic violence erupted in Burundi she refused to abandon her children, even though this meant that she was neither accepted by Hutus nor Tutsis. Like others in Burundi, she has witnessed unspeakable violence against those she loves. Yet the hardships and heartache she has endured have not deterred her. When people doubted that Hutus and Tutsis could ever live together peacefully, Maggy responded, “I will show them it is possible.”

At Maison Shalom, Hutus and Tutsis live together alongside children from other ethnic groups. When asked, “What ethnic group are you?” a child in Maison Shalom said, “I am Hutsitwacongozungu.” Maggy’s work and her firm belief that God wants to create a new ethnic group have led some Burundians to call her “the crazy woman of Burundi.” Maggy declared, “I know we are one family,” and invited the gathering participants to become crazy men and women with her.

Bishop Paride Taban, Holy Trinity Peace Village
In 2004, Bishop Taban received permission from the Vatican to retire from his post as Bishop of Torit, Sudan, in order to build the Holy Trinity Peace Village in Kuron, with hope that it could be a place where Christians, Muslims, and traditionalists from different tribes might learn to live peacefully together, providing an example for the rest of Sudan. “No one in this world can succeed alone,” he says, recognizing that a peaceful future in Sudan depends upon an end to tribal and religious conflict.

Today, Holy Trinity Peace Village is home to over eighty families, and it has become known as a neutral place where members of different tribes meet to resolve disputes. The village provides education and food to displaced children while also teaching all its inhabitants alternatives to revenge and violence. Bishop Taban’s vision is grounded in the story of Jesus. “Love is everything,” he explains. “When you have love in your heart, then you have service. The fruit of service is peace.” Yet in learning how Bishop Taban has been jailed by two different governments, it was clear that the cost of pursuing peace, of breaking old loyalties and allegiances to create a new community, is high.

Angelina Atyam, Concerned Parents Association
The work of the Concerned Parents Association was another story told at the gathering which revealed the gospel’s power to transform lives and communities. Atyam, of northern Uganda, related the story of how the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) abducted her daughter along with 138 other students from their school in 1996. While 109 of the girls were allowed to return, Angelina’s daughter remained missing for seven years and seven months. “I’m happy to say my daughter has come back,” she began, “but how can I be happy when every child is my child?” In northern Uganda the violence still has not ended. “We need your prayers. We are still bleeding in our hearts,” she said.

Angelina declared that it was the Lord’s Prayer that delivered her from the anger and bitterness she once felt toward members of the LRA: “We could not pray ‘forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,’ because we held so much anger in our hearts.” Eventually, they began to forgive and seek restoration with their neighbors, finding common ground among their pain and in the Lord’s Prayer. “We wept and we forgave,” she remembers. “It set us free and strengthened us.” The Concerned Parents Association continues to bring people together in northern Uganda—evidence of God’s power to change hearts.

What Can We Learn from the Stories of Hope?
Discussing the significance of these three stories and drawing from a workbook compiled for the gathering, the participants affirmed three critical practices the Church must learn in order to faithfully engage the ministry of reconciliation:

  1. Lament. We must not move too quickly to solutions. We must learn to see, feel, and name the contradictions between the beauty of our surroundings and the unthinkable violence that has occurred here, between the pervasiveness of Christianity and the scale of bloodshed in the region. We must take time to remember, mourn loss, and experience discomfort in the fact that we are part of the problem. We must learn to ask hard questions and tell the stories of how we have become bewitched by tribalism.
  2. Learn. We must learn to examine the historical, social, and political contexts and complexities that make tribalism an enduring problem in the region. How did we get so messed up? Like the Corinthians, how have we identified ourselves more with our “tribal” or “ethnic” identities than with Christ? How did this become so natural? More often than not, Christianity has uncritically built onto this “tribal” grid.
  3. Live Out. Finally, inspired by God’s story in scripture and the “new creation” which is God’s gift in the resurrected Jesus, we must learn to dream of new possibilities for peace in the region and explore innovative alternatives already underway.

The group of women and men gathered in Bujumbura were one such alternative. Together they embodied a new “we,” a community whose identity is grounded not in tribe, race, or ethnicity, but in the story of God. It is a community shaped by the biblical vision of a new creation, a people committed to saying no to violence and division and yes to forgiveness, peace, and love. As participants prepared to leave the gathering, one participant from Sudan testified to why he had come: “Because when a family gathers, you come, no matter how far the journey.”

Stephanie Wheatley (left), a graduate of Wheaton College, serves as the global outreach coordinator for the Duke Center for Reconciliation. Jen Stallings (right), a graduate of Duke Divinity School, is a candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church.