WORCESTER, Mass. – “Love has to be concrete action,” pastor and Worcester city council member Sarai Rivera said in describing why she and other members of her congregation were embarking on a trip to the troubled African nation of Burundi.
She, along with other members of the Christian Community Church (CCC) who are leaving for Africa, gathered in their sanctuary to explain some of Burundi’s history, how the planned trip came about, and what they hope to accomplish.
Ayesha Rodriguez, a CCC member, gave a reason similar to Rivera’s for her own participation, saying, “I’m excited, very excited, to share the love we all have.” Rodriguez referred to Jesus’s admonition – known by Christians as the “greatest commandment” – saying, “Our purpose is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.”
Members of the group engaged in fundraising to pay for the trip, much of which came out of their own pockets. Rodriguez described several fundraisers, including sales of a shirt saying, “Project Love: Burundi.”
The church is seeking to build a relationship with Compassion Church, located in Bujumbura, the Burundian capital, and formed in the midst of a bloody civil war. Rev. Jose Encarnacion, another CCC pastor who is participating in the mission, explained, “This church [Compassion] began in the context of the civil war, [and] was mainly working with women who were violated from sexual exploitation and children who have no mother and no father, who were orphaned due to the war.”
Compassion Church has grown, Rev. Encarnacion said, but still ministers to the needs of the people of Burundi. It has developed connections in other parts of the country, including the cities of Makamba, Cibitoke, and Ngozi.
CCC has been in talks with Compassion for most of the past year, making plans for the trip and discussing ways the two churches can affiliate. Rev. Encarnacion explained that the fit seemed natural, given Christian Community Church’s role as a social justice ministry in Worcester with two focuses: one on the people, especially the refugee population, of Worcester, and the other is on global mission work. CCC has partnered with churches in Haiti and Guatemala, where it has helped to build wells to provide potable water.
Compassion Church is looking to have an American affiliate to help sustain its current work, which is focused on, as Rev. Encarnacion explained it, “the concept of building a kingdom of love in a country that’s stricken with war, bringing hope to children, bringing hope to women.” Compassion, he said, is dedicated to the “basic needs of many: clothing, medical attention” and the wellbeing of all people in Burundi, regardless of their ethnicity.
A nation torn
Ethnicity and ethnic strife has played a huge role in Burundi. Caleb Encarnacion-Rivera, another of the missionaries, explained the situation, which has been dominated by fighting between the two major ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, much like Rwanda.
“The conflict has just kind of gone back and forth between both ethnic groups,” Encarnacion-Rivera said. “They’ve gone through just decades of civil war that has cost the lives of over 300,000 people since the conflict began, that have been considered acts of genocide by the United Nations. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the conflicts began to subside, and the country had its first democratic election.”
Conflict has flared up again, however, since the 2015 presidential election, which many consider to have been flawed. Since then, renewed fighting has led to more than 200,000 people internally displaced and more than 1,000 civilian deaths.
Sarai Rivera: “A little bit of worry”
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a little bit of worry, in the sense of, if you look at the news, because of the unrest, many missionaries have been killed, including civilians and reporters,” Rev. Sarai Rivera said. But, she added, “I’m a woman of faith, and I believe that God opened the doors and allowed us to go. We’ve been planning this for a long time and it hasn’t been without obstacles. I feel really confident.” She added that Rev. Encarnacion, who is her husband, is also a veteran of the Gulf War of 1991, and that has given the missionaries an extra sense of security.
The local connection
When asked how the trip might affect her work as a city council member for Worcester, Rivera said that she saw the trip and her work in Worcester is connected, and noted that the city has a large refugee community, and trips like this can help those who participate to better understand that section of the population.
“It’s going to give us a whole different perspective about what’s happening” in the countries where Worcester’s refugees come from, Rivera explained. She noted that she has worked with Central Americans here in Worcester, including children who crossed the border and are now here undocumented. Being in the nations they came from helped her to understand what drove them here.
“No one is purposely saying, ‘I want to leave my home. I want to leave all that I know. I want to leave everything that I call home,’ because they just chose that,” Rivera said. “Many of them have been so displaced by tragedy. They’ve lost children. They’ve lost fathers, mothers, siblings, and have seen horrific traumas.”
Rivera described the story of a refugee woman she has known for years: on her first Fourth of July in America, she heard the fireworks and was terrified. Immediately, she grabbed her children, and began to seek shelter. This was a reflex, Rivera said, because in her home country, the woman had been “run out of her village, and she was in hiding, and the regime would come…”
Knowledge of people’s backgrounds can help city leaders plan better to serve the community. For example, “When we do afterschool programs, when we do activities, when we do things in our community, we have this knowledge” and can better serve their needs.
A direct connection to Burundi
Not embarking on the trip is Juvenil Sindayihebura, a refugee from Burundi who lives in Worcester and is a member of CCC. Given his refugee status, he is unable to return to Burundi presently, but spearheaded the organization of the whole trip. Rivera and Encarnacion both noted that if it weren’t for Juvenil’s connections and organizing, the trip wouldn’t have been possible.
He does, however, wish to return and to see his nation at peace. He told me, “I hope that God will help me to reach Burundi again, to speak with Burundian people, to see them have peace.”
“I saw Burundi in war, and I’d like to see Burundi in peace.”
What missionaries do
While the popular conception of missionary work is of a pious individual showing up in a poor village and handing out Bibles, this is not all that CCC is doing, the church members and leaders make clear. They intend for the relationship between the two churches to be one of serving both the spiritual and material needs of all the people of Burundi, regardless of their background or faith.
In describing their work, the missionaries quoted St. Francis of Assisi, who is said to have quipped, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
Rivera added, “The greatest commandment that God said was to love. It didn’t say love with condition. I would meet with people whether they’re Christians, whether they’re atheists, whether they’re Muslims, whether they’re Hindu. Whatever they are, I am not commanded to love with condition. I am just commanded to love.”
The five missionaries are leaving from Boston during the pre-dawn hours of July 5.