A Personal Reflection: Sharing God’s love halfway around the world
By Alison Tate
Sitting in the front pew of a large, crowded church the day after we arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, we felt very much like outsiders. As part of the 2014 Catholic Relief Services Called to Witness delegation, myself and eight other American youth and young adult ministry leaders were participating in a Sunday Mass that was different from what we experience at our home parishes. The priest welcomed our group during announcements at the end of Mass (those are universal, it seems), saying, “Your presence shows all of us the unity of our church. This is your home because we are all God’s children.”
My first thought was, “What could they learn from our presence? We are here to learn from them!” I quickly realized, however, that the priest’s warm hospitality and emphasis on unity was the norm rather than the exception, as we saw it time and time again in practice during our time in Rwanda.
In “Guests of God: Stewards of Divine Creation,” Monica Hellwig writes, “We are God’s guests, invited to make the most of the divine hospitality and to mediate it to one another and to the rest of creation.” As Catholics, hospitality flows out of our love of Christ.
We experienced overwhelming hospitality everywhere we went in Rwanda, whether we were in a city visiting with church officials or traveling on bumpy roads to rural villages for demonstrations of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) projects. We were met with smiles, music, dancing and the common greeting, “You are welcome,” as in, I am happy you are here.
CRS has been working in Rwanda since 1960. Their mission is to increase the quality of life with projects in areas such as agriculture, nutrition, entrepreneurship, financial education and peace building. CRS is unique in that they focus on the most vulnerable population, many times the rural poor who live in remote areas. The staff of CRS Rwanda, almost all of them Rwandans themselves, shared with us that this is challenging, but that service to the most vulnerable yields a greater positive impact on the life of Rwandans.
CRS, as an organization, is able to be very effective in their programs and demonstrate good stewardship of their resources at the same time. They are able to positively impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans with a staff of 30 and only six to eight percent of their budget being used for overhead expenses. The rest directly funds programming. After three to five years, each project is turned over to be managed by the local beneficiaries themselves. Those who participate in CRS programs are provided with the knowledge and skills for self-reliance so that they may make their lives better for themselves, their families and their communities.
The fruits of these programs are sometimes surprising, however. In one village, we met with the leaders of a Savings and Internal Lending Community (SILC). These savings-led microfinance organizations support the creation and growth of small businesses in developing communities.
This group, called “Hope,” was quite successful. With the SILC program, they are able to support each other and themselves in cultivating business activities such as growing produce, raising livestock, building houses, or selling items like personal goods and building supplies. In one year, they were able to save 200,000 Rwandan francs, in two years, 800,000; and in three years, they had saved 2 million Rwandan francs as a group. These savings serve as capital that can then be accessed by the 30 members of the group or lent to others. CRS provides training in areas such as money management and conflict resolution so that they are able to manage themselves effectively.
When asked about their favorite aspects of the program, they told us that the friendships that have grown between the members are the best thing that has come out of their SILC experience. They shared that in working as a group, they are able to support one another in business, strengthen economic activity in their village and overcome poverty.
There is a Rwandan expression, “A single leaf offers no shade.” Our human nature insists that we must gather together to do the work we are called to do, whether that is organizing small farms into cooperatives so that they may receive better prices for their crops at market, or the gathering of neighbors at a Catholic parish to facilitate continued reconciliation and healing of communities torn apart by the genocide.
What I learned on the trip is that no matter what we do, we must respond together to God’s love for us. Gracious hospitality and welcoming environments are how we share God’s love with others and how we build bridges.