Reflections on Burundi

One of the things that I appreciate most about the Christian faith is that it provides a common denominator between people around the world. This common identity can be a catalyst for important relationship building across national boundaries. In early June, I joined the Church of the Brethren young adult work camp trip to Burundi, hoping to both build relationships and see some of the great peacebuilding work being done in the African Great Lakes region. These relationships and my increased understanding of the challenges in Burundi will feed into the work of the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, as we increase our level of engagement with advocacy relating to the region.

The view from the THARS center porch in Gitega. Photo Credit: Tori Bateman

Located south of Rwanda, Burundi is consistently ranked among the poorest countries in the world. In 2017, the GDP per capita was just $818, according to the International Monetary Fund. In addition to poverty and humanitarian concerns, Burundi has a history of genocide and election violence. Conflict between Hutus and Tutsis killed upwards of 300,000 people in several outbreaks of violence between the 1970s and the early 1990s. More recently, political conflict has led to instability. Just a week before our work camp traveled to the region, 15 people were killed in election violence related to a referendum vote.

Banana trees planted using the agriculture methods taught by a educational program funded by the Church of the Brethren. Photo Credit: Tori Bateman

Our group was hosted by Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services (THARS), a partner of the Church of the Brethren’s Global Mission and Service office. THARS provides mental health services to Burundians still impacted by the history of violence. This includes operating listening centers, facilitating support groups, and conducting training workshops. In addition to mental health work, THARS runs two programs that are funded by the Church of the Brethren, including training for farmers and a feeding program for Batwa schoolchildren.

Pouring concrete in the new kitchen building at THARS. Photo Credit: Grey Robinson

While at THARS, our group worked on two construction projects. At one location, the team knocked down walls in a building that was to be re-purposed as a library. Just down the hill, another group was pouring the concrete floor in a new kitchen facility. Our team worked alongside a Burundian construction crew and the national staff of THARS, who had traveled to Gitega to participate in the work camp.  These projects included a lot of shoveling, carrying bags of sand and rock, and transporting concrete via bucket brigade.

A banner for a USAID-funded peace conference that was held at THARS in 2011. Photo Credit: Tori Bateman

The impact of United States policy on Burundi could be seen everywhere we traveled. The USAID logo denoted vehicles, events and programs that have been funded with U.S. foreign aid money. Because of the reality of this impact, it is important that offices like ours maintain awareness of the situation in the country, and amplify the voices of Burundian peacebuilders in U.S. policy discussions.

 

My trip provided many useful insights into potential advocacy avenues for our office. During a meeting with one of the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy’s partners in Bujumbura, for example, I heard about one of the biggest challenges facing peacebuilding work in Burundi- a lack of long-term funding for projects. Many peacebuilding projects are only funded for one year, meaning that the work lacks consistency, there is not time to learn from mistakes and adjust programming, and programs have a limited impact. It is important that we share this funding concern with relevant government staff in Washington, D.C, as we seek to make peacebuilding programs as effective as possible.

 

David Niyonzima, founder of THARS, and Tori in Gitega. Photo Credit: Donna Parcell

I am grateful to THARS and the people of Burundi for their hospitality. Going forward, I am excited to engage with the Burundi Working Group in DC on behalf of the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. Made up of NGOs and government agencies that work in Burundi, the group plans to engage with legislative staff, the administration, the interfaith community, and broader civil society. The group will work to increase awareness of the political and humanitarian situation in the country, and advocate for policy and funding that will support the important peacebuilding work done by partners like THARS.

Resilience amidst staggering needs

Early in June, Carl and Roxane Hill along with Kucheli Shankster Beecham and her son Carter had an opportunity to visit the ongoing work of the Nigeria Crisis Response.

When we visited the “camp” or Relocation Village in Yola, we were greeted by a large group with songs of welcome and introductions. They proudly took us around their new village and showed us their homes. When this village was first built it was far from surrounding homes but the area is growing and now they have others around them. They have built a fence around the property to keep nomads and their cows from coming through the village. There is a solar powered water source and some surrounding lands for planting.

Yes, the people have a safe place to live but they still miss their lives back home. Most of these Internally Displaced Persons are from the Gwoza area where Boko Haram is still in control and they cannot return home. There are many challenges to living in a new village; neighbors are very close by, there is not enough land to plant all the food needed for the upcoming year, there is no school building for the children, the temporary church was blown down in the spring rains and so on.

As we prepared to leave this new Relocation Village, the women handed us a list of concerns and items they needed.  A woman from one of the Yola churches was traveling with us and she took the list; hoping her church would reach out to this new community.

Let us continue to pray for Nigeria and all those living in Relocation Villages. (2 Million people in Northeast Nigeria are still displaced and cannot return home.) Pray also for the EYN Disaster Ministry as they try to meet the many needs that are a direct result of the Boko Haram insurgency.

Welcoming the Stranger: A Call for Just Immigration Reform

Update: As more reporting has been done on this issue, more accurate numbers have become available on the number of children separated from their parents. From April 19th-May 31st, 1995 children were separated according to Department of Homeland Security data. 
The Church of the Brethren has long acknowledged the Bible’s call for justice in immigration policy. Matthew 25:35 says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” reminding us that our response to “the least of these” is just as important as the manner in which we would choose to treat Christ. As people of faith, it is essential that we respond to God’s call to welcome strangers, extend hospitality and recognize the inherent dignity of each human being. 
Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the Bible in an attempt to justify the separation of children from their parents at the border as they flee violence, poverty and oppression in their home countries. Once separated from their parents, these children are held in detention centers. Over 500 children have been detained under this policy, putting them at risk for emotional trauma and abuse. 
This past spring, the world watched as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was rescinded, leaving hundreds of thousands of students and community members not knowing the future of their immigration status- despite having grown up in the United States. Erick, a Church of the Brethren member, shared his own story with us here. 
Temporary Protected Status (TPS) programs, which gave legal residence to people from nations facing violence or natural disaster, have also been cut. Some TPS holders have been in the country for decades, starting families and businesses, and will be forced to return to their original country if a pathway to citizenship is not created. The Haitian Church of the Brethren in Miami, Florida has been impacted by these policies, and you can read about the March for TPS they held here. 
The uncertainty, fear, and danger faced by immigrants impacted by these broken U.S. immigration policies is not acceptable. Our 1982 Annual Conference Statement on Undocumented Persons and Refugees in the United States calls for the United States government to adopt legislation and policies “which welcome and promote the welfare of immigrants and refugees,” and “to bring about a general amnesty for those people who once entered the United States as ‘undocumented aliens’ but have settled peacefully among their neighbors.” 
As people of faith, we urge the United States government to fix its broken immigration system. U.S. policies must be compassionate and just, and recognize the importance of strong families and communities. The Bible condemns those who exploit immigrants (Ezekiel 22:7), and instead calls for us to love those who are foreigners (Deuteronomy 10:19). Immigrants continue to make valuable contributions to the country, and each human being who enters the United States deserves to be treated with compassion. 

Reflections on the March for TPS

On Friday, May 18th, the Haitian Church of the Brethren in Miami, Florida marched down the streets of Miami to call for justice in U.S. immigration policy. I had the opportunity to represent the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy at the march, standing in solidarity with the Haitian Brethren who organized the march.

Marchers gathering in front of the Haitian Church of the Brethren Photo: Tori Bateman

A crowd of about 50 people started from the Eglise Des Freres Haitiens in North Miami, marching down a busy street with a police escort. Out of the five days I was in the city, this was the only morning without intense rain- an anomaly we appreciated while marching! The songs of the marchers were punctuated by honks from supportive passerby, and marchers waved both Haitian and American flags. The march ended in front of the Miami U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building, where the marchers gathered on the sidewalk to sing and call for just immigration policies.

The march ended in front of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services building Photo: Tori Bateman

The march’s goal was to support those impacted by Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). TPS is a status given to those from countries experiencing violent conflict, natural disaster, or other extreme situation. Some TPS recipients have been in the country for decades, and have built families, homes and businesses here. Because of the administration’s decision to terminate TPS designations for many countries, community members who had previously been given TPS are now at risk of losing their residency. They have no legal pathway to citizenship because of the nature of the TPS policy. Current bills that would rectify this include the American Promise Act (in the House) and the SECURE Act (in the Senate).

To share these legislative solutions with the marchers, our office led an advocacy training on the evening of the march. During the training, I heard from each of the attendees why they care about immigration issues, and shared our office’s work and resources with them. At the end of the session, participants signed petitions that I will drop off at their Senators’ and Representative’s offices in Washington, DC.

Participants in the advocacy training (photo: Tori Bateman)

I am grateful for the leadership of the Eglise Des Freres Haitiens church on this important justice issue. The church’s willingness to publicly witness for peace and justice in U.S immigration policy is inspiring, and I can’t wait to see where their advocacy efforts take them in the future. Whether they write letters-to-the-editor, visit a local congressional office, or even meet with their representative in Washington, DC, it is important that Brethren voices like theirs are heard in the context of U.S. policy making.

The ministry of calling

Nancy Sollenberger Heishman as Annual Conference 2014 moderator.
Photo by Glenn Riegel

By Nancy Sollenberger Heishman, director of the Office of Ministry

“And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47b).

Every year I look forward to the celebration of the Pentecost season. It is an opportunity to marvel anew at the awesome power of the Holy Spirit at work in the church and the world. What wonders were unleashed by the Spirit’s power as, like a persistent wind, it swept into the souls and lives of new believers. Persons of varying cultures and generations, and socioeconomic, educational, and religious backgrounds were caught up in the mighty power. Being called into the body of Christ, they also were sent out to look for those on the margins and to call others into the new community of God.

In my work as director of the Office of Ministry, I hear wondrous stories of persons being called to something bigger than they ever dreamed of. David Banaszak, the newly called district executive of Middle Pennsylvania District, recently shared the story of his call, and it struck me as particularly delightful.

As a young man, David drove his wife, Linda, to choir practice at Windber Church of the Brethren but sat out in the car with their dog, Skippy, until practice concluded. Being raised a nominal Catholic, David didn’t feel comfortable entering the church building and preferred to spend the evening with Skippy instead. Each Thursday evening, taking notice of the situation, pastor Dave Shetler would visit with David at his car window, and, without fail, would invite him inside. And every week, David would politely choose to remain in the car. Eventually, however, Pastor Dave convinced him to come inside, and the rest is history, as the expression goes.

David became a member of the Windber congregation and Pastor Dave, seeing great potential in him, invited him to consider a call to the ministry. And now, after 30 years of pastoral ministry, David has been called to district executive leadership. For David and many others, great service for the family of God has come from the persistent call of the Spirit through a faithful pastor, a fellow Christ-follower, or a nurturing community.

The stories I hear and the conversations I have while traveling throughout the denomination encourage me to remember that the Holy Spirit’s desire is still to stir us by a revolutionary call. God intends for us to invite persons to dive deeply into the life of our congregations, to eagerly look for gifts of ministry in new persons, and to persistently welcome and offer hospitality to all whom we encounter.

The Holy Spirit binds us together with others in ministry, service, and mutual love, and this often includes those from whom we initially choose to be separate. As we open ourselves to one another, share about our calling, and hear how it intertwines with theirs, we participate in God’s deep yearning for this world to be reconciled on earth just as spectacularly as it is in heaven.

As you celebrate this season of Pentecost and share in the ministry of calling in your own congregation, we invite you to also support this ministry in the denomination. Your gifts support the calling and training of new ministers and leaders so that they may serve God, their communities, and the larger church.

Thank you for partnering in the ministry of calling.

Learn more about the work of the Office of Ministry at www.brethren.org/ministryoffice or support it today at www.brethren.org/give.

(Read this issue of eBrethren)