Here’s a tip. The best place to watch Hotel Rwanda for the first time is not on a plane from Brussels, Belgium, to Kigali, Rwanda. As you might expect, on that plane will be Rwandans, and watching a film about a devastating genocide on your laptop isn’t ideal when surrounded by people who were directly affected by the crisis.
But when you’re invited to go to Rwanda only days before the trip, there aren’t many options to get even a cursory crash course on the country’s history. So you grab a movie that’s been on your shelf for years—you know, that one you’ve always intended to watch, but are never quite in the mood for.
I think I never watched it because, if I’m honest, I was Africa-ed out. Sometime between 2000 and 2007, Africa became trendy, obligatory and then passe. A part of me didn’t want to get passionate about Africa simply because everyone else was. So, while I felt bad about the struggles facing the people there, and wrote the occasional check to assuage my suburban guilt, it was not something personal to me.
But when author and pastor Rick Warren emailed me asking if I wanted to join him on the trip, I said yes.
Seeing it would be enlightening, I was told, but the invitation failed to mention the experience would completely and permanently change my worldview. My history with social justice is like many who grew up in church. We were essentially presented two options: missions and charity. Missions is focused on evangelism and conversion, while charity has been watered down to mean giving your old clothes or offerings to organizations that then give them to the poor, particularly around the holidays.
True, a new movement of compassion and service has become a hallmark of our generation, but until this trip, I didn’t realize just how much those two entrenched paradigms still permeate the strategies of Christian service. The problem, I learned, is that while both are well intentioned, both are lacking. They are meant to show the love of God to a person, but neither truly help him sustainably turn his life around.
Sustainability, I would learn, is the key.
What Warren is doing in Africa is more than just another social justice initiative. It tackles the flawed paradigm of Christian outreach head-on and attempts to rethink the paradigm. It is a grand strategic experiment, and if successful, will be the blueprint for faith-based social engagement for generations. Its principles could change the course of a generation—and save billions of lives in the process. Yes, billions.
An Unlikely Candidate
Warren is not the likeliest of candidates to strategize the transformation of continents. He’s the author of The Purpose-Driven Life and has pastored Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., for more than 25 years. Not exactly the resume you’d expect for someone who is now an advisor to world leaders, including Rwandan President Paul Kagame, is a regular keynote speaker at world health and economic summits, and is orchestrating a 50-year strategic global vision for social and spiritual renewal.
It was 2003 when his life changed course. That year, The Purpose-Driven Life became the best-selling book in the world, and Warren’s wife, Kay, got cancer. It was a duality that meant things would never be the same again. “One day, Kay is laying on the couch,” Warren says, “and she’s reading this magazine. It said, ‘14 million orphaned by AIDS in Africa.’ That quote stunned her.”
(That number is, in fact, ballooning. World health organizations say that in just a few years, there will be 20 million orphans due to AIDS, and 40 million by 2020.)
But rather than focusing on her own challenges, that article prompted Kay Warren on a journey to serve orphans, the poor and people suffering with AIDS. She began traveling to Africa to learn how churches there were dealing with AIDS because, as Warren says, “the African church knows far more about it than the American church. And the more she began to talk about it, the more it began to grab me.”
On one trip to Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa, Warren joined his wife. And while there, he asked to go out to a village so he could see a typical church.
“Sometimes you think you’re going for one reason and God’s got another reason,” Warren says. “We go out in this Jeep into the middle of the bush in the middle of nowhere. We come up on this little tent church with 75 people in it—50 adults and 25 kids orphaned by AIDS. These 50 adults care for their own kids, and they care for these 25 orphans as well.“
The church was growing a garden to feed the kids, and had a few school books to try educating them. The orphans slept in the tent at night.
“I looked at that and thought, ‘This little church with only a tent and 50 people is doing more to help the poor than my big, successful church in America,’” Warren says. “That was like a knife in the heart. And I said to God, ‘I’m so sorry. I need to repent.’”
Warren says he missed the AIDS crisis. Like most people, he didn’t know that more women have AIDS than men. He didn’t know the face of AIDS is a dark-skinned woman, or that more than 2 million children have AIDS. The journey of discovery forced him to ask that if he was missing something this big, what else was he missing? So he set out to find the biggest problems in the world—the problems that affect billions of people.
The P.E.A.C.E. Plan
As Warren studied Scripture looking for a solution to these “global giants,” as he calls them, he began to see that Jesus gave a model. It’s how He lived His life. Says Warren: “He promoted reconciliation, equipped servant leaders, assisted the poor, cared for the sick and educated the next generation.” In true Warren acronym style, those five tenants are the basis of his P.E.A.C.E. Plan strategy.
“Everywhere Jesus went, He said ’Get reconciled to God, and get right with each other,’” Warren says. “In fact, six times He says, ‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.’ And the Bible tells us in Corinthians, blessed are the peacemakers. They will be called the children of God.
“So the number one thing we want to be known for is that we’re peacemakers. We help people get right with God, restore broken relationships with God and restore broken relationships with each other.”
Equip Servant Leaders
“This is how Jesus did it—He loved everybody. He fed the 5,000, but He trained seven, discipled 12 and mentored three. Only Peter, James and John got to go in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter, James and John got to go up the mountain of transfigurations and only Peter, James and John got to see Peter’s mother healed. Was Jesus playing favorites? Yeah. He was.
“He was investing the maximum amount of time in those that would bear the maximum responsibility. Later, in the book of Galatians, Paul calls Peter, James and John the pillars of the Church. It obviously worked.”
Assist the Poor
“In Jesus’ first sermon, He announces His agenda. He’s in His hometown, Nazareth, and in Luke 4, He quotes from Isaiah. His first sentence of His first sermon is ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has appointed me to preach the good news to the poor.‘ Does God have favorites? Yes, He loves the poor.”
It’s God’s emphasis on the poor that eluded Warren through his first 20 years in ministry. “I don’t know how I missed this,” he says. “I went to a Bible college and two seminaries. I got an earned doctorate, and I didn’t see it—the 2,000 verses on the poor in the Bible. For every verse you can find on homosexuality, which the Bible does talk about, I can give you 100 on poverty.”
Care for the Sick
“The Bible tells us Jesus went into every village, preaching, teaching and healing,” Warren says. “One-third of Jesus’ ministry was health care. He cared not just for people’s spirits, but for their bodies. He also cared about the mind. He said ‘Love God with all your mind,’ and one-third of His ministry was teaching. So preaching, teaching and healing. I’d say that’s evangelism, education and health care.”
Educate the Next Generation
Warren says Jesus’ emphasis on children indicates the importance of the next generation. “Jesus said, ‘Let them come to me, they are the Kingdom of God.’ He said if you want to do the work of the Kingdom of God, it’s the next generation. It’s always the next generation. He said it would be better if you had a millstone tied around my neck and dropped in the ocean rather than hurt these little ones.”
Connecting the Dots
P.E.A.C.E. is a holistic strategy that Warren feels captures the heart of Jesus’ message. The beauty of the plan is that it takes biblical imperatives and connects it with the global distribution network of the Church. It intentionally challenges government, business and church leaders to work together on strategies that empower and train people, rather than just work independently.
Warren feels it’s the collaboration of the Church working with government and business, with an emphasis on training and sustainability, not charity, that could finally turn the corner on these “global giants.” The problems are bigger than any one government or NGO solution.
“It gives God honor when we try to do something that’s impossible,” Warren says. “You haven’t believed in God until you’ve done something that can’t be done in the power of the flesh, and you’re bound to fail unless God bails you out.”
In Rwanda, Warren and his P.E.A.C.E. leadership team are working closely with the government, church and business leaders to find synergistic strategies that utilize the strengths of all three.
Says Bob Bradburry, who heads up P.E.A.C.E. development in the region: “President Kagame actually invited us in. The big buzzword in Rwanda is development, but they are also looking for heart change as well.”
It’s been 15 years since the infamous April, 1994, genocide depicted in Hotel Rwanda. It was a brutal ethnic cleansing between the warring Hutus and Tutsi tribes. It saw neighbors killing neighbors, and while the country has come a remarkably long way since then, the pain of that tragedy is still apparent everywhere you go. That’s why the country’s leaders know heart change needs to go hand-in-hand with any other development or turnaround.
“They aren’t interested in building a beautiful infrastructure just to help people kill each other again,” Bradburry says.
That’s where the Church comes in. On our trip, we attended a graduation service where a second group of more than 200 pastors completed a two-and-a-half-year training program led by Warren’s team. The pastors are trained on the five pillars of P.E.A.C.E., from spiritual training, to health care, to education. They then are responsible to take that training to their villages and train others.
“We’ll continue to work with those initial 200, expand the training to another 200, using the first 200,” Bradburry says. P.E.A.C.E. forms a relationship with these pastors and brings specialized teams to continue training and resourcing them to help turn around their villages. The churches then become not only the spiritual centers of the villages, but the place people can turn to for everything from basic medical care, including ARV treatments, to education and more.
The key is sustainability. That church isn’t going anywhere. NGOs and charities come and go, missions teams come and go, but the P.E.A.C.E. Plan is focused on training and empowering locals to turn their country around.
“We’re trying to awaken this rather dormant, and somewhat insecure, church network that’s all over the country,” Bradburry says. “They took a hard blow at the genocide. One thing that caused that is there was no teaching. It’s so important to work on the process where you’re bringing people into fellowship, discipling them, helping them figure out what their service is going to be in the church.”
When P.E.A.C.E. enters a region, they spend time—often, years— building relationships and just listening. They then figure out how the “five giants” manifest themselves in that community—which is the strongest need—and sit down with the pastor and the church leaders to figure out the priority projects the pastors feel need to be addressed there. Many times, the local leadership identifies needs that outsiders would have overlooked.
“Then we ask them, ‘Are you willing to take ownership of those?’” Bradburry says. “Are you willing to form a leadership team, be accountable and supervise all the work there? If you are, we’ll form a team that will keep coming back to coach, train and empower you.”
They commit to each other for the long haul, working with three types of teams. “There’s the church leadership team who gives supervision and accountability,” Bradburry explains. “Then underneath them are the community development volunteers. They form an army and train volunteers who have a development mindset. Those are the people who work it out.”
The P.E.A.C.E. teams are itinerant. They come in and out, providing coaching and training and encouragement. “Sometimes, when they reach the end of their local resources, it may be appropriate to help them over the hump and keep them going,” Bradburry explains. “We don’t like to lead with money, but once they’ve exhausted their local fundraising efforts, if we can get them just one little element they need to keep them going, then we do that.”
The Western mindset wants solutions immediately—but breaking generational cycles of poverty, and overcoming a lack of education and resources, takes time. “A true reformation will takes 50 years,” Warren says. “It can’t be done in five; it can’t be done in 15 or 20. I’ve got 20 years in my life left to give to this, so I won’t see it completed. It’s why I’m spending all my time outside of America with church leaders, but inside America I spend practically all my time with the next generation.”
The New Reformation
The next generation.
Us. You. Me.
Rwanda showed me, more than anything, that ignorance is not bliss. Like many, I had grown weary of “causes,” which led to an unintentional apathy of numbness, self-centeredness and safety—completely contrary to the kind of life God is calling me to live.
“I’m rebelling against my own indifference,” Bono famously said in a 2001 commencement speech at Harvard University.
I walked away from Rwanda stunned. But I did not walk away hopeless. I had seen extreme poverty, the effects of war and genocide, the devastation of AIDS. But I had also seen change—real change—beginning to take place. The Church was rising up, people were being trained for new vocations, health care was becoming more readily available.
If our generation can grasp the principles happening in Rwanda, it will forever change the course of Christian service and social justice, and see future generations live very differently than the ones before them.
The problems of this world can be solved when Christians rise up, commit to living counterculturally and sacrificially, and choose to reject their own apathy.