"Heaven and earth, it seems, are different, radically different, but they are made for each other ... and when they finally come together that will be cause for rejoicing in the same way that a wedding is: a creational sign that God's project is going forward, that love and not hate have the last word in the universe; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God's will for creation." (NT Wright, Surprised by Hope)
There is a little kingdom on earth, in central Africa, bordering a fathomless lake and wrinkled with uncountable hills and shrouded in misty clouds, where heaven has at times felt impossibly distant. This country has known colonisation, injustice, slave raids, and genocide; has buried too many children and mothers giving birth, has raised too many men who felt powerless to protect their families. And yet, when many ran for their lives over the last waves of violence in the 70's, 80's, 90's . . they did not lose site of what could be. Men who had watched their fathers murdered, or walked for days, or struggled to find their mothers and sisters; women who had carried mattresses and cooking pans and babies, regrouped in safer places. Some found themselves in Kenya in the year 2000 and audaciously founded their own Hope Africa University, which they transplanted a few years later back home to Bujumbura. They added a medical school and built a campus and found partners, including us.
In 2010 a group of young doctors working in Kenya with Samaritan's Purse met visionary Burundians from the Free Methodist Church, and in 2011 we traveled there with three of them to lay the foundations for a partnership. Bishop Eli had prayed for God to send a team of 20 doctors (to a country with one of the lowest doctor-to-population ratios on earth) to train up a new generation. That reminds us that the whole presence of Serge in Burundi began with the prayers of a Burundian, and not with our programs and plans. The team joined Serge, went to French language school, and landed in Burundi in 2013. Now 7 1/2 years later, what was a tiny provincial hospital in a rural village has 13 specialists, and 20 other doctors, 350 beds including two massive new multi-story wards, a solar powered electricity plant, oxygen generation, a feeding program that serves about 400 kids weekly, plus a 50% increase in patient visits, hospitalisations, surgeries. They have trained 255 new doctors who have spread out into every part of Burundi, started a rotating 12 month internship, sponsored numerous graduates in residencies (masters), and laid the preparations for a new surgery and family medicine residency programs. I don't even know how many blind have received sight, or how many lame now walk, but the visible evidence that Jesus pointed to of God's Kingdom can be seen. The stories sound glorious, because many of them are, and seeing this over less than a decade has been miraculous.
But just ask Jesus, miracles of resurrection often pass through crucifying loss. All that is described above sounds like a shining glory in the clouds. But most of the clouds in Burundi are damp and obscure.
We went to Burundi for the last two weeks to bear witness to their progress but also their pain, to listen, pray, ask questions, repent, acknowledge shortcomings, point to truth. This is the part of our job, the Area Director piece, that has suffered the most in COVID. Our partners planned a two-day summit to review and discuss our partnership. It's not like we thought to ourselves, mid-February just after re-closure of land borders and re-institution of a strict mandatory seven day quarantine (in a pleasant guest house but under armed guard keeping us in our room) would be a great time to travel. But 3 COVID tests later (pre-departure, arrival, and end-quarantine) we were released to begin the second week of visits and meetings.
The most important event was the partner summit. Six Burundian leaders and six of us from Serge. Though multi-language cross-cultural communication is ALWAYS exhausting, we emerged from those meetings with a greater empathy for the many ways this country has suffered and a rare opportunity to humbly repent for our part in the global injustice. We affirmed our common vision for medical training, patient care for the poor in Burundi, DRC, and Tanzania, all in the name of Jesus. We rejoiced in the projects completed and stated again the priorities still to be realised. We tried to clarify our own Serge structures and funding for transparency, and to remind all that we are guests serving a local group and vision. We were very blessed to have the meetings close with the chair of the Hope Africa University board stating his approval and commitment in clear terms.
Maybe the most important event . . . but maybe not. Also crucial was just the opportunity to pray and talk with many of our team. We know that 2020 was rough. A year ago, as we were live-streaming Dr. Travis's funeral, thieves violently attacked the Watts family in Kibuye. Though all of the victims survived, the physical and emotional scars remain, and it was also a privilege to take part in a prayer memorial service and just spend time with this family. And for others, the loss of needed arriving help due to COVID, loss of travel for conferences and vacations, loss of hoped for progress, have taken a heavy toll. We feel it too. The leaders are amazingly resilient, hard-working, insightful people whom we love, so getting to be face to face as we supervise instead of calls and zoom was also a treat. So we are glad we could visit and try to encourage.
Yes, the Kingdom comes. There is a feast where we will dance with the survivors of genocide, and those who didn't survive, in a New Heavens and New Earth. Most days that promise feels quite dim. The glimpses are blurry and fleeting. And yet, two weeks in Burundi gives us hope that the final fulfilment of all the resurrection set in motion will indeed be glorious.