When a faction from St. James the Apostle Episcopal Church in Tempe broke ties with the national denomination in March 2005, the group led by the Rev. Keith Andrews realized it needed to somehow realign with an acceptable part of the international Anglican family.
Andrews, the 12-member vestry of St. James and about 175 of its 300 members founded Living Faith Anglican Church in Tempe and began meeting at a private school. The new church renounced the authority of the U.S. bishop in New York and joined the Anglican Mission in America, constituted as a “missionary province” of the Episcopal Church of Rwanda, 9,120 miles away in the central African nation, led by the Most Rev. Emanuel Kolini. Some 87 other Episcopal congregations — or newly constituted ones — have joined the trans-Atlantic arrangement.
Now they are meeting their Rwandan partners and building relationships with Anglicans who believe as they do about biblical authority and in not allowing homosexuals into church leadership roles.
Andrews headed a 10-member team to Rwanda for a nearly three-week faith outreach intent on establishing relationships and finding ways the Tempe church can build partnerships. Participants in the trip in late June said it was transforming for them.
“God was everywhere we went,” said Sueann Ringer, a nurse, who said she felt immediate kinship with people, especially children. “I wish now that I had reached out and grabbed and hugged a lot more than I did,” she said. “It has changed my life and my focus.”
The team kept busy visiting churches and schools, engaging with families, learning about needs and determining how Living Faith might develop ministry outreach. Melissa Smith, music director until recently at Living Faith, preached to two churches, including an open-air night service.
“It’s just incredible how intently they listen,” she said. “I talked about God bringing healing and reconciliation to my life.”
All team members shared their Christian testimony. “It is one of those things that is very big in Africa — to give your personal testimony and kind of talk about where you are at with being saved and your relationship with Jesus Christ,” team group leader Kris Erickson said. Such basic Christian sharing creates a powerful common ground with Rwandans, she said.
“They worship with everything they are,” Erickson said. “We tend to be very reserved in our worship, but it is a whole-body experience for them. The whole thing is just beautiful worship.”
During a visit to an all-girls school, they witnessed two hours of singing and dancing. Their joy belied the emotional scars remaining on the nation of 8. million that saw Hutus kill more than a million Tutsis in the 1990s, with a million more left as refugees.
But Smith said there was “some real depression” remaining in the culture and “a feeling that no one cared for them.”
Yet they offer “the most beautiful singing you’ve ever heard — such joy,” Smith said.
“There is so much passion in worship,” said Dave Kobe, who heads his church’s technical department and serves in ministry development. “It is like nothing you have ever seen. The music is like listening to angels, and I just can’t get it out of my head.” Kobe said he was taken aback when his team visited a classroom and students said they were going to do a song. The room fell silent, the top of a desk became a thumping drum and voices broke out in song. “Then dancers came forth — it gives me chills just thinking about it,” he said.
Kobe said when he stepped off the plane onto the soil of Rwanda, “I was home. I am ready anytime to go back and stay.”
Debbie Russell said she witnessed numerous scenes of faith at work, including a harvest service where “the poorest people you have ever seen” generously brought forward baskets of the fruits of their harvest for the church to sell to raise money to give to the poor. She said she has felt a calling to Africa since she was a child. “When I heard we were going to Africa, I jumped in,” she said. “I will end up living in Africa,” she said. “I will be a missionary or I will be part of their town.”
Smith found Rwanda, where 57 percent are Catholic and 26 percent are Protestant, a nation whose deep spirituality has lessons for faith development in America. “It made such an impression on me of how deep their spirituality was and how much we over here lack the depth and the yearning of God,” she said.
Ringer said she originally had a “selfish ambition” to go to Africa but plans fell through for one trip. But “everything was orchestrated and God was in everything” as the June trip came into being. She wondered whether Americans coming with their ideas and culture would be resented. But she was told, “The Africans will greet you with love and embrace you with love” but that Americans shouldn’t come with intentions, just come to meet Africans as they are.
“You can never be the same after you have been there,” Erickson said, noting how Rwanda families blend into a community where everyone is taking care of each other. “There is just one giant family. . . . Children are everybody’s responsibility.”
People often have so little, but don’t hesitate to share, she said. “People who have so little work so hard to give to people that have less than they do,” she said.