Moved Mountains

Banner - Mt Trio, Stirling Range National Park, Western Australia - (c) 2007

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Communities in Control

Creating community! It's a hot topic and one that has facinated me for quite some time. I don't know when exactly I became interested in community development specifically, but I know that I have been aware of an almost complete lack of genuine community in our society - church and secular - for a long time.

I couple of months back I was approached by the main sponsor of the youth drug and alcohol program I run, the American minining company Alcoa, to attend the annual Communities in Control conference in Melbourne and to undertake some study on community development leadership at their expense. I thought this sounded like a good opportunity and now that I know a little more about the conference, am glad that I'm going.

Around 10 years ago I remember standing outside a courthouse as a news cameraman, covering a case involving a 17 year old boy involved with an outlaw bikie gang. I was struck by the support the young guy was shown by his bikie gang mentors. I clearly remember thinking, "if only the church was able to do the whole community thing like that, imagine what it would be like". Of course the cost of "community" bikie style is great - once you are a part of their community they don't easily let you go. But the way in which they seemed able to provide a place of belonging and acceptance to a young misfit was, in a wierd kind of way, inspiring.

And there's nothing like a visit to Africa to make you feel communally challenged. The whole "tribal" lifestyle is all about community. I asked John Mihigo (our African mission partner) to explain the role of the individual in the African community to the Aussie team members as a way of contrasting our individualistic approach to life;

"The interests of the community come before the interests of the individual in African society. The individual is happy when the community is happy", was his in-a-nutshell response.

While I was in Africa I started reading Church Reimagined: The spiritual formation of people in communities of faith, the story of the Solomon's Porch Community in Minneapolis, USA, by Doug Pagitt. A lot of what Pagitt writes about really resonates with me. I love his approach to pastoral leadership and the way they operate as a community generally. Coupled with my re-emmersion in the African way of life Church Reimagined has left me determined to perservere with our Alternate[Or] gathering and with the goal of developing community within this fellowship and within this socially isolated neighbourhood, which needs it just as much as we - the local Christians - do.

So on Sunday night, just over a week after getting back to my family after 3 weeks in Africa, I jet off again for 3 nights in Melbourne and the Communities in Control conference. But I'm excited by what I am going to learn, and disappointed that I am not going to be hearing about it from those connected with the church.

I'll leave you with a quote from a former Communities in Control conference key note speaker, Professor Berkman of Havard University and tell you more about it all when I get back;

Community organisations have the power to tangibly improve population health. In this case, what’s good for individuals and what’s good for the community is the same thing. Those with the most social connectedness, i.e. who have a high level of participation in social and community organisation and networks, have lower mortality rates… ...Community groups are the engines that drive our ability to change behaviour, reduce morbidity, expand life-expectancy and innovate change (in Community Manifesto: Valuing Australia's community groups, 2003. p.6:

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Some things change ... Some stay the same

Even before arriving in Kigali, two and half years after my first visit, I was hearing stories of change.

The in-flight magazine tucked in the seat pocket of my twin turbo-prop flight from Entebbe in Uganda talked about a recent visit by Rwanda's President, Paul Kegami, to the US. He had met with the heads of F-500 companies including Google and Starbucks. He negotiated deals that will see Google become the major IT solutions provider for the Rwandese public service and Starbucks begin opening stores in downtown Kigali.

If people have money and time to spend on coffee and in cafes things must be changing in Rwanda.

Within minutes of landing at Kigali international airport some of these changes in the fabric of city life in Rwanda became apparent. On the 40 minute drive from the airport to the Kimisigara community on Mt Kigali I saw many late model cars on the road, including Mercedes Benzs and BMWs. A plethora of new apartment developments and construction projects also lined the clean, palm tree and grass lined streets.

Another noticeable change was the service (gas) stations. In 2004 all they sold was fuel. In just about every case their storefronts were completely empty shells, but now they were full. Fridges stocked with the big cola names and walls lined with shelves brimming with potato chips, chocolates and snacks and the kind of ordinary grocery items you would expect to see in any convenience store anywhere in the developed world.

John's wife Gladys was driving us from the airport and I commented to her that things appeared to be improving economically for Rwanda. I couldn't believe the changes I was seeing in the relatively short amount of time since I last visited. She replied that while on the surface this looked to be the case, in reality it was those who already had money that were making more of it, while the poor were still poor.

This was confirmed when we arrived at our destination - things on Mt Kigali hadn't followed the path taken by downtown Kigali. In fact very little had changed in the time I had been away.

I was greeted by the same badly erroded dirt road, 3 room mudbrick houses and children clad in dirty, torn clothing. This was the same place I had said goodbye to the last time I left Rwanda.

Perhaps the rich do just keep getting richer. When Starbucks open the doors of their new Kigali cafe I don't expect to find too many of the Mt Kigali locals sipping lattes or cappuccinos!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Kigali - Rwanda Day 2

Miraho (G'day)!

I arrived in Kigali on Friday night with John on a late flight from Entebbe. Gladys, John's wife, and daughter Brenda met us at the airport and transported us back to their home in the Mount Kigali community.

This community is one of the poorest in Kigali. After the genocide and civil war, refugees returning to Rwanda settled on the mountain for which the city is named, in what was originally prime agricultural land. The new settlement was outside the city power and water grid and to this day remains without either of these services.

A few years back, John, also a recently returned refugee, felt called by God to move his family from the relative comfort of suburban Kigali (with running water and electricity) to a life on the mountain, serving the poverty stricken community. I think it is hard for Westerners to grasp the enormity of this move.

I felt privileged to be able to spend the night in their home on the mountain and was treated to famous Rwandan hospitality - including a sleep in Saturday morning!

The team from Australia arrived at around 5.30 Saturday evening with stories of miraculous escapes from excessive excess baggage duties at Perth airport. We also were nearly slugged with customs duties at Kigali airport because I had neglected to draft a manifest for the goods we were importing, causing the customs officials some concern. However, out of the blue after telling John and I that they would be keeping our imports (a couple of generators destined for the Mt Kigali church and other bits and pieces), the official, without explanation, shooed us and our generators off with a wave of his hand. Imani ishimwe (Thank God!). Another prayer immediately answered.

This morning the team experienced their first Rwandan church service. I think everyone was moved by the welcome they received and the hospitality shown by the whole fellowship.

The welcome included a traditional Rwandese dance performed by several young ladies from the fellowship and the invitation for us all to dance for the congregation (another honour given to visitors). The first time I visited Rwanda I had this one sprung on me and I felt very self conscious, however I had warned the team that the dance would be expected and so no one was caught unprepared. Interestingly I found it much easier this time round and found I was actually enjoying the dancing.

We had lunch with and an official welcome from the CUF leadership after the service, followed by a business meeting in which John asked me to present the new business structure for the partnership that he and have been working on for the past few months.

Essentially it involves formalising the relationship a little more and instigating a project based system which clearly outlines the budget for each project and those who have an interest in it. It also enables regular progress reporting which can be disseminated among our partnership supporters.

Not exactly sure what is in store tomorrow - some of the team will be going to help install glass panels in the church building windows and doors - I think though I might be headed for the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (the local university) to talk to the students.

I am hoping to post a report by one of the team members on the partnership blog tomorrow for any who are interested in hearing a mazungo (western) perspective on the visit.

Until next time - Murabeho (bye)!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Amahoro II - Last day in Mukono

Brian McLaren (far right) and the Emergent Village guys at Amahoro yesterday

The Amahoro gathering finished last night with a session with Brian McLaren on Networking and something he calls "Network Theory".

As my internet access and time has been limited I haven't had much chance to blog in detail, so at this stage it looks like a detailed rundown of the conference might have to wait until I get to Rwanda, or maybe even back to Australia.

In the meantime you can read a report on the conference on the Amahoro blog - written by a Ugandan journo who was in attendance.

John and I are now just waiting for a lift back to Kampala where we are going to visit the Canadian Embassy which acts as an agent for the Australian Government. We are going to see what is involved in getting John a visa to visit Australia.

We fly out to Kigali at around 9.30 tonight - this time on a Dash 8 - twin engine turbo prop!

The team from Australia is arriving in Kigali tomorrow night. I will spend the night on Mt Kigali and then move down to the EPR Guesthouse with the others on Saturday night.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Amahoro -Finally!

Paul from the Christian Unity Church, Kampala with some Ugandan dancers at the source of the Nile River in Jinja

I arrived in Uganda on Saturday night after a gruelling 26-odd sleepless hours of travel from Perth in Western Australia, through Dubai in the Middle East and Nairobi in Kenya.

Internet access has been intermittent and the service is a little unreliable - so I'll keep this post brief to avoid frustration (for me!). Hopefully I'll have the chance to post in a little more detail in the next day or two.

The conference day has been broken up into a couple of different sessions with the delivery of papers/presentations in the morning, followed by small group sessions where we are looking at the nature of and way forward for the emerging church in Africa.

The first sessions on Monday dealt with the concepts of post modernism as post colonialism in the African context.

Yesterday focussed on reconciliation with speakers from Rwanda and South Africa who addressed the genocide and apartheid respectively with the third speaker, a South African university professor, discussing the growth of Christianity in Africa and the marked increase in it's spread south since the end of colonialism and the increase in indigenous expressions of Christian faith.

Today's sessions looked at ways in which women can be empowered to take on a greater role in the future of the church in Africa. Women are highly marginalised in African culture and this is something that has lead to many problems in the community, but also in the church.

Sorry for the brief overview - I will post in greater detail on all of these things in the next few days.

The conference is leaving me with the feeling that I am seeing history being made. It's a bit like being at a 21st century African council of Nicea (although, of course, the focus is on the future of the church and not the holy scriptures).