God . . . through Christ, has given us the ministry of reconciliation. (II Corinthians 5:20)
“You can’t invite people into the family of God and refuse to be their brothers and sisters,” MCC country representative Paul Mosley tells the 90 Intervarsity student leaders gathered for a retreat at a Catholic seminary in central Burundi. Paul tells us later that these students are all of Tutsi and Hutu ethnic origin and it is very likely that every single one of them has lost a family member to the civil wars and genocide in the region in the last 20 years.
“We are ambassadors of Christ and God’s message of reconciliation,” Paul tells the students. These students are here for three days of intensive Bible study and it is also likely that these few days could change these students’ lives.
A decade ago, 15 other university students in Burundi attended a similar IVF gathering to study the Bible together. As a group, they decided that they wanted to respond together to what they were studying in God’s word.
Today, these 15 students are the governing body for Help Channel, a Christian ministry in Burundi reaching out to people in need through large-scale relief and development projects. This help is desperately needed because ninety percent of Burundians are small, rural farmers living in poverty with little formal education.
A few of the former students are involved in the administration of Help Channel’s projects, but most have professional careers elsewhere and simply support Help Channel’s ministries with their volunteer time and financial contributions.
In addition to food security and water management projects, Help Channel addresses a wide range of other issues primary school education, HIV/AIDs education and family planning, as well as humanitarian aid and agricultural projects.
“We want to share the gifts the Lord gave us with the most vulnerable people among us,” director Cassien Ndikuriyo told me.
Help Channel initially began in response to a drought. The students worked to develop a network of churches to respond to the crisis. This network of churches continues to be an important part of how Help Channel responds to the needs of the communities they serve. Churches even help identify the beneficiaries of their various ministries.
“We see ourselves as the deacons of the church, helping the widows and orphans among us,” Cassien tells me. Ambassadors for Christ, as Paul reminded a new group of students just a couple of days ago at the retreat center.
It is hard to figure out how these Bible study groups fit into a formal strategic plan, Paul tells me, but given the fruit the Bible studies are producing, he knows it is something he needs to keep doing. In addition to the leaders of the Help Channel, that original Bible study 15 years ago has also produced the leaders of four more of the partner organizations MCC works with.
Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. He just returned from two weeks in eastern Congo, Burundi and Kenya