by Paul Ratsara
Under extreme conditions, some Africans have demonstrated the radical difference real Christianity makes.
"He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it" (Matt 10:37-39).
One of the saddest realities of Christianity is that there are many Christians but few disciples. There are many intellectually-convinced believers but few converted. Many have a knowledge about God but do not know Him experientially. Their religion does not touch the reality of life but remains at a theoretical level.
But there are some notable exceptions. Some Christians today truly believe that "We are called to be a godly people who think, feel, and act in harmony with the principles of heaven" (Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists, #21). In their general manner of life, they demonstrate that they are not here to stay, but to get ready. And because they have already been crucified with Christ, they are not intimidated by fear of poverty, reproach, separation from friends, suffering, or even death.
These people, who are seeking to put Christian lifestyle into action, can be found in various parts of the world. Their lives challenge us to be true disciples of Christ. Recently, I spent one of the most enriching and rewarding trips of my ministry in the company of such believers in the Central African countries of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Let me share with you a few of their stories.
1. "Don't Deny Me From . . ."
Have you been so hurt that you find it difficult to forgive? If so, please reflect on the experience of one woman in Rwanda.
The genocide in Rwanda has left many widows and orphans, even among Seventh-day Adventists. More than 15,000 of our members were killed. But our mighty God turned the tragedy of murder and loss into a wonderful opportunity to witness for Him.
Her Family's Killer
An Adventist widow was told that the man who had killed her loved ones had been captured and was in a prison not far from where she lived. Upon hearing this, she went to the prison guards and requested to see the man. When asked why she wanted to see him, she told the guards that the man murdered her relatives but she wanted to take care of him according to the teaching of Christ. They couldn't believe their ears. Thinking she cherished vengeful, sinister motives, they declined her request. But she persisted. In disbelief, the guards asked, "How can you do such a thing?"
Our dear sister explained that she was a Seventh-day Adventist Christian and had decided to follow what the Bible teaches no matter what. "It is written," our dear sister quoted, "`Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your father which is in heaven;' and `Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink. . . . Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good'" (Matt 5:44, 45; Rom 12:19-21).
After quoting the Scriptures, she pleaded with the prison guards: "Please, don't deny me from practicing my Christian duties: to love my enemy, feed him and give water to him."
Moved by her words, the guards granted her the permission to take care of the one who killed her loved ones. On a regular basis, she visited the man in the prison, fed him, gave him water, and provided for his daily needs.
Here is Christian lifestyle in action. If you ask whether this kind of lifestyle is worth the trouble, our dear sister will most likely refer you to the following words in Matthew 25:34-40:
"Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
Why should we forgive those who have hurt us so badly? Jesus answers with the parable of two debtors and concludes, "O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? . . . So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses" (Matt 18:32-35). And any time we say in the Lord's prayer, ". . . forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors," let us also remember the words of Christ: "If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt 6:14, 15).
2. No Hutu, No Tutsi!
An endless cycle of civil wars and violence plagues the African continent. Sometimes these stem from tribal hatred. Tribalism is the belief that one ethnic group, distinguished by certain easily-noticed characteristics, is inherently superior to all others. Taken to its logical conclusions, this belief allows the "superior" ethnic group to dehumanize, oppress, and even kill the "inferior" group.
But Africa holds no patent right to tribalism. The spirit of tribalism is alive wherever we despise, separate, exploit, and wound people just because of the shape of their noses, the color of their skin, eyes, or hair, or some other external feature--including age, weight, gender, disability, language, or even economic or social status. What exists in Africa as tribalism exists also in other parts of the world as black-and-white racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Arabism, male-female chauvinism, classism, etc.
Can Christians transcend these different manifestations of tribalism? Some of our believers in Africa think so. Consider this incident from the 100-day genocide in Rwanda.
The soldiers ordered the Hutus to kill their fellow Tutsis or lose their own lives as well. But the Hutu choir members refused.
One evening, a Seventh-day Adventist choir was practicing in the church when armed militiamen suddenly walked in. The soldiers stopped the practice and separated the singers into their Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. Then they ordered the Hutus to kill their fellow Tutsis or lose their own lives as well. But the Hutu choir members refused. They said, "In the church there is no Hutu and Tutsi. All are brothers and sisters." The killers put a lot of pressure on them, threatening them with deadly weapons, but those members kept on saying that they could not kill their brothers and sisters. When no amount of pressure could cause them to do otherwise, all choir members, except a very few who escaped, were ruthlessly massacred.
After the genocide, a new choir was reconstituted. The Emmaus Choir (see Luke 24) emerged from the ashes of their martyred members. Today, this new choir is singing about the soon coming of Jesus to resurrect their fellow believers who died believing that in Christ, "there is neither Hutu nor Tutsi."
This also is Christian lifestyle in action. Is it worth it? Jesus said, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." "He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it" (Lk 14:26, Matt 10:39, emphasis mine). "This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:12, 13).
Can we imagine the powerful impact our Christianity will have if we live out the implications of this teaching of Christ? Writes Ellen G. White: "If Christians were to act in concert, moving forward as one, under the direction of one Power, for the accomplishment of one purpose, they would move the world" (Christian Service, p. 75).
3. Ready to Live and to Die
Sometimes, believers are called upon to bear unbearable loads. These heavy burdens may involve painful losses, illness, betrayal, or even death. Like Paul's enigmatic "thorn in the flesh," relief seems to defy their persistent prayers. This is the case with some of our believers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire.
This region is currently occupied by two rebel forces, both of which are fighting the government based in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa. Recently I conducted two ministerial council meetings for our pastors and their wives who are living in this area, one council in each of the two war zones. (Due to the war, the East Congo Union has been divided into two sectors, each headed by a coordinator.) I was joined by Dr. Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, Director Public Campus Ministries for the Michigan Conference in the U.S.A.
After spending a few days in Rwanda, we flew on a small aircraft to Gisenyi, a northern border city in Rwanda. The presence of several heavily-armed soldiers and military aircraft at the airport indicated to us that we were entering a war zone. The coordinator of our Northern Congo Sector was at hand to meet us and drive us across the border into Goma, a Congolese city of about one and a half million inhabitants. To this city many Rwandese fled during the genocide. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives there through war, famine, and cholera.
This was not the first time I had been in Congo. In fact, I was serving in that country when I was called to my new assignment at the Africa-Indian Ocean Division headquarters in Cote d'Ivoire. My recent trip, however, was my first visit since the civil war erupted in Congo. Knowing how the city of Goma used to look, I was particularly saddened by the war's devastation: dilapidated buildings, widows patiently sitting in a public square awaiting job assignments in exchange for food, soldiers at every turn, the presence of the international organizations like Red Cross, U.N. personnel, etc. The war's toll on property and lives verifies the saying that "war does not decide who is right but who is left."
We spent the night in Goma, and the following day we flew 350 km northward in a 25-seat aircraft to Butembo, a city of one million people. Ten church pastors, led by the president of the local field, were at the airport to meet us. I cannot describe the joy on their faces when they saw us. They had not been sure we would make it. From there, we drove 40 km to Lukanga, where we have the Adventist University [Elton] Wallace campus and a mission headquarters. This location was the site of our first assigned ministerial council meeting.
As we drove the one-hour journey from the Butembo airport to Lukanga, the local field president shared with us the plight of the believers, surrounded as they are every day by the evidences of war. He explained that they live as though each day would be their last. They could die (and several have already died) at the hands of soldiers, armed robbers, militiamen, etc. They could be imprisoned for no valid reason. Many pastors and church members have lost their homes. For their own "safety" they live in the bush/jungles. In order to attend meetings, some wake up at 4 a.m. and walk 3-5 hours to be at Sabbath School by 9 a.m., then walk back to their jungles.
When asked what theological questions church members ask in the face of these endless wars, deaths, and loss, the field president replied, "Our members are not asking why all of these things are happening. They already know the answer. They know that we are living in the last, perilous days. And as long as we live in this world, we shall continue to experiencing these tragedies. This is why our people are actively preparing themselves and others for the second coming." In his opinion, the main reason why those of us in the free world are engaged in frivolous theological discussions is that we have nothing else to do. We are too comfortable in this world, oblivious to the fact that it is headed for destruction.
But our believers in East Congo have counted the cost and are willing to bear the cross. They have made a commitment to take seriously Christ's words, "Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple" (Lk 14:27). Though the burden is heavy, they hear Christ saying to them, "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9). "In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (Jn 16:33).
4. Faithful No Matter What
God sometimes calls upon us to leave the comfort and security of our jobs, paychecks, homes, or retirement benefits. In such selfless ministry, Christ's followers also display Christian lifestyle in action. We saw such ministry in East Congo, after we returned to Goma (from Lukanga) to conduct a meeting with the other group of pastors and their wives.
One Sabbath, we spoke to some 5000 church members as they sat and stood quietly in the hot sun, for there was no place available that could hold the large number of people. The leaders told us that many districts in that part of the country are empty. The members have been displaced or they have had to flee to the forest because so many killings are still going on. They have to hide there; otherwise, the killers may come and exterminate them. But it is extremely difficult to live in the jungle. Because of the war there is not enough food to live on there.
But the most moving part of this story is that the district pastors of those members, even though they were not obliged to do so, decided to follow the members into the forest to minister to them, to feed the flock. They said they cannot abandon the sheep. They made up their minds that, with salary or without it, they would be faithful to their calling, no matter what. Because there is no food there, a certain pastor ventured to go out and look for food for his family. The killers saw him, and he was assassinated. That was just a few months ago.
Since the members of their districts are scattered in the forests, these faithful ministers go looking for them. They visit them by the jungle streams, in the caves, and under trees, and they conduct meetings for them. Without cars or bicycles, they continue to minister in spite of all of the obstacles.
When the pastors and their wives heard of the ministerial councils, they really wanted to attend. They were eager to be spiritually charged. They longed to be with their fellow ministers. They desired to attend the meetings to learn how to be better ministers for God. But they also knew that it was not easy to slip out of the forest without being noticed by the killers. Yet, risking their lives, eighteen of them walked through the jungle for three days, coming one by one. The Lord helped them to make it even though they could not start with us.
Some of them arrived at the last meeting, which was a communion service. The ordinance of foot-washing takes on a whole new meaning when you are called upon to wash the dirty feet of a fellow pastor whose shoes and socks are completely worn out. The profound nature of their prayers and the kinds of things they pray for will rebuke us for the kinds of prayer requests that often escape our lips. Their enthusiastic hymn singing and hearty "amens" will not only wake us up from the ice-cold lethargy, formalism, and luke-warmness of our worship services, but also put to shame those of us who are allowing so-called praise music and applause in some of our churches today.
The pastors of our churches in East Congo and their wives seek to be totally committed to Christ. Even in the face of extreme poverty, homelessness, famine, sickness, and death, they are seeking to do God's will and God's work. This life of total commitment is Christian lifestyle in action. It takes Christ's words seriously: "So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple" (Lk 14:33).
Such a lifestyle of radical discipleship arises as a grateful response to God's magnificent salvation through Christ. Church members and pastors whose lives have been spared in the civil war are asking, "What can I give back to the Lord for saving me?" In response, they are giving their time, means, and talents for the advancement of God's cause in spite of the difficulties.
This life of total commitment is expected of those whom their Master has truly called. And without doubt, these pastors have heard the charge from God through Paul: "But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Tim 4:5 NKJV).
But should ministers sacrifice the comforts of this life for a life of affliction and hardship? Shouldn't they be concerned about their homes, cars, paychecks, and even their very lives? To these questions, our pastors in East Congo would most assuredly reply with the words of the apostle Paul: "But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God" (Acts 20:24 NKJV).
Paul finished his race. These dear believers in Africa will finish theirs, also. And what the Apostle of old said about himself is applicable to them: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing" ( 2 Tim 4:7, 8 NKJV). Real crowns are reserved for our faithful workers in Congo. They believe that when Jesus Christ, "the Chief Shepherd," appears they "will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away" (1 Pet 5:4 NKJV).
The Price and the Prize
The experiences I have shared here are just samples of what is happening in the Africa-Indian Ocean Division. Many parts of our division are disturbed by wars and troubles. But, praise God, the Holy Spirit is using men and women to do everything to glorify His name. They are ready to sacrifice everything, including life itself, for the cause of Christ.
Time is short. Let us also ask God to help us be uncompromisingly loyal to Him. Let no one deny us from practicing our Christian duties. Let there be no Hutus or Tutsisor any other form of tribalism--in the church. Let us be ready to live and to die in allegiance to Him. Let us be faithful, no matter what. This is the essence of Christian lifestyle in action.
Though eternal life is free, it is not cheap. It cost our Savior His life. Today, He bids us to follow in His steps. The prize of eternal life is worth the price of the Christian lifestyle.