The 10 of us from our church told everyone we were going to Rwanda to work with the orphans of the genocide. Instead, mostly we just played with them in the border town of Gisenyi, after we delivered medical and school supplies to the clinics and teachers our church has supported. With groups of 100 to 300, every morning we joined in singing, dancing and praising God, mixing PE, music and Bible study with the energy of recess.
These are the children of civil war, who have seen their parents murdered as well as murder. They are the children of the ensuing rapes, refugee camps and revenge killings. The youngest are the children of AIDS and economic devastation that have followed.
The first 10 days of our mission trip were so perfect, some of us confessed guiltily that this was one of the best vacations we'd ever had. But then, as they say, all hell broke loose! On Jan. 19 Nyrigongo's volcanic lava seared through neighboring Goma, just across the border in Congo, and the sky turned red. The border guards we had nodded to every morning gave way to an estimated 300,000 refugees who, with mattresses, pots, children and goats tied together more or less, spilled where they could into Gisenyi.
Gisenyi was overwhelmed as people camped under banana leaves, building fires everywhere, begging for food, turning to the polluted lake for water, relieving themselves wherever they could while searching for news of missing children and family members. The concern and chaos was palpable; the Rwandans had little but resentment to offer the Congolese, many having starved and died in refugee camps in Congo barely seven years earlier.
Now a new mission has emerged for us. After we were evacuated to Kigali, the capital, and as we worshiped in tears, communion took the form of sharing our broken story with our mission partners in four denominations.
The devastation from the volcano is not just in Congo. The Rwanda side of the border needs attention, too. This is a fragile, wounded region; the devastation from aftershocks continues on both sides of the border as surely as the effects of colonial domination that led to the genocide in 1994. Fifty percent of the homes in Gisenyi are said to be damaged and unsafe. The building where we played with the orphans is demolished. Their new well is contaminated and the ash in the air is causing terrible bronchial problems for the children. Maleria and cholera are rearing their ugly heads again. Aid and rebuilding teams are desperately needed to work with the United Methodist Church district superintendent there.
It would be a travesty if once again the West turned its back on Rwanda and its orphans. We did that once before, before the genocide, with disastrous results that gutted their many educational and economic achievements. This time let's pay attention, and treat our Rwandan neighbors as ourselves. We can interrupt the cycle of violence these children know all too well.
The Rev. Louisa L. Davis is Interim Co-pastor of the United Christian Parish of Reston, Va., a congregation in ecumenical communion with the UCC, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). To learn more about the situation in Rwanda, write firstname.lastname@example.org.