By Kendall Martin
In June 2016, I had the opportunity to visit Dodoma, Tanzania and Bujumbura, Burundi. As with any trip to new places, I went into the experience free of expectation. On my first day in Burundi, I had the pleasure of meeting with the Provincial Secretary of the Anglican Church of Burundi, the Rev. Canon Seth Ndayirukiye. He greeted our group at the hotel and spoke softly and carefully of the all too common violence after nightfall, and I was keenly aware of how he positioned himself to keep the main glass doors of the building in view. He told of how he had twenty people currently living in his house because of safety concerns, and how he had moved twice to protect his family. Canon Seth spoke of family members he had lost to violence, of bodies left for dead in the street and the ever increasing mass graves in his homeland. The reality of violence and fear has torn at the very fabric of his entire life and yet here he sat across from us, collar around his neck signifying his dedication to his faith, praying with us for grace and offering his gratitude.
During our visit, we made a trip to Matana, Canon Seth’s home parish, to visit the diocesan office and meet with the staff. When we arrived, they greeted us with warm hospitality and a genuine desire to connect as international brothers and sisters of the Church. The staff, comprised of men and women, told us of their responsibilities within the diocese of training lay leaders to educate families about domestic violence. They spoke of equipping villagers with the necessary tools to harvest adequate food for the coming season, and of empowering their people to educate children about violence, AIDS, healthy relationships, opportunity and self-sufficiency. Each person around the table took ownership of key issues affecting the people of their diocese and worked toward practical and viable solutions to educate, access and problem-solve.
In response to the same questions about our responsibilities here in Virginia, we responded in kind with similar job titles and a quick summary of our duties. “No, but what do you do?” The question took me aback. What do we do? So accustomed are we to the daily grind of our office responsibilities and the necessary administrative tasks that keep the wheels spinning, I had not shared what we do as the Church to embody the hands and feet of God on the ground. As we dove into the issues that affect us here in Virginia, we realized that we face many of the same obstacles and problems. We, too, have food insecurity, poverty, violence, disease and yet I had not told them of how we live out our faith and our call to do the work of God in the world. For me, that was one of those “holy” moments that revealed how we have so much to learn and to gain from one another across the Anglican Communion.
Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world, faces continued political unrest, increased violence, economic decline, and chronic childhood malnutrition. The difficulties people in Burundi face are so extensive one can easily be dissuaded from believing we have the power or ability to make a difference. But with a combination of radical faith and hope, the Church in Burundi serves as an example of how we tackle problems on the scale that we are able, and we equip our people (ALL of our people) to act as ministers of the Church working side by side in our communities.
During my time in Africa, I learned more about hospitality than I have ever learned anywhere else. Every person, no matter how little they had, went out of their way to offer food, drink and a place to rest. Our only connection in these villages, and with these priests or bishops, was our shared connection in the Church. Each time I left a meal, a meeting or a warm hug from a new friend, I felt that I had found another home. That generosity of spirit and grace-filled response to the stranger is who we are called to be. It is in that warm embrace that we come to see and know God. I left those moments of connection with a newfound understanding of what it really means to welcome the stranger in our midst.