In 1994, the East African nation of Rwanda experienced a genocide culminating from a civil war that started in 1990 leaving up to a million people dead.
Caritas Mukarurangwa, now pastor of Nyamyuba Church of the Nazarene, was almost one of those statistics of genocide.
Instead, she and her husband, Simon Pierre Rwaramba, and their newborn son escaped to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where they became three of the two million people displaced from their homes by the 100-day genocide. Even the DRC didn't offer lasting sanctuary. Two years later the political landscape changed, and the couple was on the run again, back to Rwanda.
In Rwanda, the couple found that not only had their country changed, so had their church.
Simon Pierre had grown up as the son of a Pentecostal pastor in the Congo, but as a young man he discovered he wasn't satisfied with his faith or his country. "After my high school study I went to Rwanda looking for a job and a wife," he explains. "And I found both! I was working as a manager for a guesthouse and Caritas came to visit someone at the guesthouse and I saw her and we started our communication."
It was also 'love at first sight' when Simon Pierre encountered the Church of the Nazarene. "I grew up in the Pentecostal church, but I didn't agree with many things in it. Then I met the former district superintendent for Rwanda and a missionary named Gary Moore. These men gave me part of the Manual for the Church of the Nazarene - the constitution and articles of faith. This was very interesting to me and I decided, 'This is my church.' I was the first worship leader for the first Church of the Nazarene in Rwanda."
Like many in her country, Caritas had been raised Catholic and was a devout young woman, known as the prayer leader in her school. After their courtship, they were married in the Nazarene church, and then Caritas decided to join her husband as a Nazarene and sought her own ways to minister.
"He transformed me to be a Nazarene!" she exclaims with a laugh.
When the couple returned to Rwanda they found that some congregants wanted their own national Church of the Nazarene and to break ties with the international organization. Simon Pierre's leadership abilities came to the surface as he was instrumental in encouraging most of the church to stay with the international church.
"A national church has just a small circle. Rwanda is very small,' Pastor Simon says. 'But with the international church, we have a big family - each local church is connected as family. So you can see many different people from different countries who serve God the same way. You can visit, you can share prayers. When you have a problem you have many people to ask for prayers. I like how God has connected us in a big family."
As the church moved forward, however, they had no pastor. Just as Simon Pierre had stepped up to be the worship leader when the church began years earlier, now he stepped forward to lead the services and preach.
"Caritas would tell me, 'You are the pastor.' I would say, 'I don't want to be a pastor. Don't call me pastor.' The missionaries would send me letters referring to me as Pastor Simon, and I said, 'I will leave the church if you keep asking me to be a pastor.'"
"I did not want to be a pastor because I'd grown up as the child of a pastor and knew the life of pastors' families in Africa is terrible. I was worrying about how my children would suffer if I decided to be a pastor. But I felt called by God, and Caritas continued to tell me this was my role and convinced me. This time she transformed me."
Besides pastoring the Gisenyi Bridge Church of the Nazarene, Simon Pierre quickly became secretary for the Northwest Rwanda District. In 2004, he became the district superintendent.
When Simon Pierre started, the district had two churches: now the district has over 50 churches. He has taken his district from phase one to phase two, and is working on other goals, including an emphasis on discipling leaders. For eight years, Simon Pierre has also been the Nazarene Compassionate Ministries coordinator in Rwanda.
Caritas has always been working alongside Simon Pierre and has served as the coordinator of children's ministries on the Africa Equatorial Field and French Equatorial Field. For the past year she has been the pastor of Rubavu Church of the Nazarene in Rwanda.
If that's not enough work for the couple, their refugee time in the Congo also led them to start another ministry, an organization to help others, especially those affected by the civil war.
"By God's grace we are alive. But we saw many people killed in the genocide and others dying of disease from being displaced. We saw the orphans and thought if we had died, our children would be in that situation: someone would need to care for them. Then it came to us that God wanted us to do something," Simon Pierre says.
"We both are flexible and can get along with different kinds of people. We can be street people and talk to the children and they trust us. It is the same when we are with a group of widows. God gave us the skills to build confidence in marginalized people, and then they can trust us."
"Because my God kept us in the genocide, I wondered how we can tell our God, 'Thank you for keeping us.' Our organization is our big thank you." Caritas adds.
And that's how Ndengera, which is the Kinyarwanda imperative meaning 'help me,' was born. The genocide left 10 times more widows than widowers among the 300,000 to 400,000 survivors, and an estimated 75,000 orphans. Between 250,000 and 500,000 women were sexually assaulted during the genocide, with some reports noting that up to 67 percent of these women contracted HIV. Though the genocide was more than a decade ago, its results linger, and many women are just now emotionally dealing with the trauma.
The organization, which is part of the church and has 24 case manager volunteers from the congregation, is designed to help the community in general, with a focus on ministering to the widows and orphans, not just from an emotional level, but from a practical level.
"It's a child and community development center supporting the orphans and widows in education, skills training, and health care," Simon Pierre explains. "We look at the community and see the needs, and we select some that we can help. We help some widows start their own businesses: some need to be trained in vocational skills. Also, some need education so we take them to school. They need houses and we build, or help them find a home. Others need help with farming and we may give them goats, cows, or chickens. We help people through our medical clinic. Sometimes the government helps, but the government is very limited and depends on churches and organizations. We report to the government on what we plan to do and then work with them."
In taking care of the orphans, unlike starting a traditional orphanage, Simon Pierre and Caritas focus on finding homes for the 800 children in their program. Then Ndengera helps the families integrate and also supports them.
This couple brims with plans for the future. They would like to see all the children educated well, with the skills training center broadening from a vocational level to include high school and university programs. They'd also like to see the medical clinic become a hospital.
It's not surprising that James chapter two is the couple's foundational scripture to which they often turn. They point to the scriptures about loving others - a lesson that has been especially real to Caritas as she dealt with the negative feelings she had toward those who killed so many of her race, and would have killed her, too.
"To forgive was the medicine I needed," she says, "And sometimes the medicine is sour - it is not sweet. But forgiveness opens the door to cleanliness and confession. Romans 12 says to forgive, not seek vengeance. To forgive takes obedience. Since I chose to forgive, I don't feel traumatized anymore."
"We are doing what we do because Caritas forgave those who wanted to kill her," Simon Pierre adds. "And because James tells us don't just have faith, but have faith and action. Do something to respond to the needs."
A good reminder for Nazarenes in all nations.
Jeanette Gardner Littleton is a freelance writer and editor from Kansas City, and recently joined the staff of Nazarene Missions International.