So You Think You Can Dance

Psalm 30:11-12 “You have turned my mourning into dancing;
    you have taken off my sackcloth
    and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
    O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

When you think of dancing what first comes to your mind? Maybe it’s creativity, expression of self, stories, exercise, or maybe you have images in your mind of what dancing looks like. I love dancing and it has been a part of my life for many years.

I love how dancing brings people together, how it can be liberating, and the various ways it is a part cultures all around the world. Dancing is a huge part of Rwandan culture. People dance for ceremonies, presentations, celebrations, for fun and I’m certain for many other reasons.

During my time here I have witnessed and participated in dances from various regions of this country. The dances are not all the same, but the people seem to have great joy while sharing this part of their culture with me. I am constantly encouraged to join those who are dancing. Once I feel the beat and watch people’s footsteps I can usually join along in the dance.

My greatest dance teachers are middle school youth. There’s a group of teens and preteens who are very interested in me learning traditional dances. I am free ask them questions about when dances are done, and what the dances signify. They never fail to answer my questions and, after all my questions are answered, they practice the dances with me.

These youth never cease to amaze me. They’re patient, kind, and truly want me to join in the joy they experience from dancing. They help me when I make mistakes and celebrate when I get through the steps without any errors.

This reminds me of God’s love and how as Christians we should seek to make a longer table rather than build a higher wall. The youth could have told me to stop asking questions, or they could have acted like they didn’t understand my Kinyarwanda, but they didn’t. Instead, they found a larger space for us to dance, and welcomed me into the group. They’re generosity, love and kindness has made a lasting impression on me and will stick with me whenever I dance, no matter where I am.

This is a link to a video of dancing I was asked to take while I was with members from the U.S Embassy this past week. This dance was done as a way of celebrating all of the work that is being done at the NGO we were visiting. Moments after I finished taking this video, I was asked to join the in dancing and I did.

https://drive.google.com/a/my.lr.edu/file/d/1d4jPLJDD0_MNEc6P_Cz-4cg0VTqj4j_G/view?usp=drivesdk

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The Least Complicated

Luke 10: 38-42 “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.‘ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.‘”

Before coming to Rwanda, and even during in country orientation, my cohort members and I were told that a large part of the ministry we would be doing in the country would simply be showing up.

Many of us are teaching and have various breaks throughout the year. I can attest, during the breaks, each day can become a little monotonous.

When I initially arrived at my site, the students were still on a break and I would have many days where I would simply show up at PIASS. I had no expectation that I would have copious amounts of tasks to do, but I wanted to try and live into the words that were said many times, “show up”. This was one of the least complicate I’ve ever done, but some days it felt like one of the most difficult things I had ever done.

After about a month of this, I began to be invited to meetings, asked to sit in on classes, and to observe seminars for NGOs. I still didn’t feel like I was doing much, but showing up seemed to be the thing to do.

Since then, my life has become fairly busy. I teach five or six days a week, am actively involved in meetings, tutor, meet various groups at the university, and perform other duties as assigned. My life has moved from a lot of being to a lot of doing.

I’ve become accustomed to this, and like the activity, but the lesson of simply being has come up for me recently. Over the last two weeks, at the primary school I volunteer at, I have been asked to sit near a student who doesn’t speak much English, and what he can say isn’t spoken well. I’m there as a resource for him and to help him stay focused if he gets frustrated.

The thing is, the student doesn’t really need me as a resource. Sometimes he needs me to translate a word into French or Kinyarwanda for him, but other than that, he’s a fairly good student. This means that I may simply sit near him for forty minutes to an hour and twenty minutes. Yep, just sitting there.

I’m usually in a good space about this, but for some reason I wasn’t in the mood to just sit for an hour and twenty minutes. I don’t want to just sit next to this student. I was bracing myself while I was walking to the classroom. As I entered the classroom, I heard a loud squeal of, “Yay! Teacher Stephen!” I looked over to see who said this. It was the student. He was standing up out of his chair, motioned for where I would sit, and did what looked like a short dance.

In that moment I was reminded about the importance of simply being. Although I wasn’t in the mood to simply be present, that is what this student was excited for. I didn’t feel like I would be doing much, but obviously I was making more of an impact than I had even considered. In the future I hope to be excited about both being, and doing. It can be difficult to simply show up.

In the United States there is a large emphasis placed on being active and producing a lot. It seems that God does not always require for us to do the most, and simply showing up is sometimes preferred to constant activity. Learning more about being has sometimes been a struggle for me, but from now on, during these struggles, I hope to think of this student and remember that so much can come from simply showing up.

(This is the student I sit with. His name is Sangwa. He high-fived me before going to play soccer, then asked if we could take a photo. I hope, before I leave, we’ll be able to speak to each other in three languages. This might be a unrealistic goal, but I’m happy to be a resource for him through my time here and happy to simply show up.)

A Wedding and a Funeral

Romans 12: 4-5 ” For as in one body we have many members, and not all members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, individually we are members one of another.”

Guherakyza- This is the Kinyarwanda word that I have been told means accompany, or walk alongside.

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending a wedding and a funeral. These two events may seem like they are night and day from each other. Initially I thought this, but after some reflection, I have come to believe these events have more in common than I recognized.

The wedding was for a women who was entering her second marriage. She had left a less than ideal marriage situation, and took her kids with her. (Very rare) Upon leaving the situation, she sought out organizations that could help her family. She soon became connected with the clinic that I work at. I had only interacted with her twice before the wedding. The first time was when I introduced myself to all of the beneficiaries (about two hundred-fifty people), and I think I may have talked to her briefly at that event. The second time is when I was talking to people about securing a place for them to sell their handmade goods, ways to advertise, and explaining how to effectively budget/report finances.

I was confused when I was invited to the wedding, but the Director of the clinic explained that the women wanted me there because she saw me as a partner in ending abuse. She wanted to celebrate the progress that has been made in her life and saw my work as being a part of that.

As I was walking home from the celebration, I received a message from my Country Coordinator explaining that our cohort had been asked to attend the funeral of a beloved LCR (Lutheran Church of Rwanda) pastor. I arrived home, packed my bag, and left on a bus to Kigali the next day.

The funeral was on Sunday. It was quite the event. People seemed to be coming from all over East Africa to pay their respects to the deceased and to celebrate his life with people from many different communities. The service was filled with smiles, tears, laughter, singing, dancing, prayers, and the traditional elements of a funeral that people would expect. At the end of the service the casket was moved to the place where it would be buried. Some people stayed in the space where the service had been held, so they could connect with friends, and family, while others followed the casket to the burial site. All were welcomed to be in whatever space as long as they needed.

I didn’t think to much about these two events connected until my Country Coordinator and I were talking about accompaniment.

I recognized that I both situations I was accompanying people, and they were accompanying me. This one thought led to a sequence of thoughts, which have helped me realize that accompaniment is so much more than I initially thought. At its core, accompaniment is solidarity, mutuality, and interdependence. Put this way, accompaniment seems like something simple, and it is, but I’m not always aware of how it is a part of my life.

In both the wedding and the funeral accompaniment was being lived into. People came together from different backgrounds, to celebrate and build relationship. In both spaces people were supporting each other and caring for each other. Finally, in both spaces the focus was on being together in community and it made me truly realize that we’re more when we’re together than we are when we’re apart.

I have taken my initial thought on accompaniment that I had when talking with my Country Coordinator and realized that I am accompanying and being accompanied by people all around the world, probably everyday. This is when I became aware of the fact that accompaniment is so much bigger than just me. For example, I am here because the ELCA is committed to accompanying the LCR. My accompanying people here is an extension of that initial commitment, and an outflow of the continued relationship between these two groups. This is so amazing to me, and I could continue to give examples of how I see accompaniment, but the list would be extensive, because there are probably examples of things that happen everyday.

Most days I teach many subjects to many people, but I’ve found that I feel like I’m learning more than I’m educating. Through being accompanied by my various communities I have learned so much about generosity, privilege, love, humility, and again, the list could go on. I am extremely grateful for all those walking alongside me in my various communities and am beginning to see the depth of how beautifully interwoven each of our lives are with each other’s.

(This is a photo from the reception following the wedding. The husband had just told the group he would care for her children as if they were his own. Her father took the moment to bless the new couple, and to thank all who were celebrating with the family.)

He Can Back It Up

Romans 8:28 “And we know in all things that God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose.”

In the United States we have stereotypes about people from all over the world and let’s be honest, they’re based in little to no fact. We make snap judgements on things we’ve heard, one experience we’ve had, or via someone other information channel. We do this despite hearing phrase like, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” These stereotypes aren’t helpful, but people live every day challenging them.

This is the same in Rwanda. There are people in Rwanda who have stereotypes about those who live in the United States. Some of the stereotypes are kind of humorous, some are kinda true, some are confusing and some I simply will never understand. I try to challenge them when I can, which is normally life giving, and fun, but sometimes is rough. Through it all I believe am building relation and that this is something God wants me to do, even when I don’t feel like it.

This is a list of ten stereotypes I have challenged since being in this country. These aren’t the only ones, but they are the stereotypes that I have challenged multiple times, or the ones that confused me the most.

10. People in the U.S. drive everywhere. (I walk to and from work almost everyday I go.)

9. Being white, male, and from the U.S. means I probably know a really famous person. (I was asked if I knew Justin Bieber and explained why this idea doesn’t hold up.)

8. I only know how to speak English. (I proved I could passably speak Kinyarwanda, read French, understand some Swahili and that I knew American Sign Language.)

7. People in the U.S. don’t know how to ride bikes. (I’ve shown people I can do this many times.)

6. I can dance. (This person believed dancing was not something people did in the U.S.)

5. I can wash my clothing by hand. (I’m a man, and white. It makes sense why people might think this.)

4. I’ve never worked on a farm, because they don’t exist in the U.S. (I explained what it was like to work on my grandfathers farm.)

3. I have a driver’s license. (Someone believed that people in the U.S. paid for others to drive them. They’re not completely wrong.)

2. My hair is soft, and has its color because of a product I use. (I let people touch my hair, and explain how it’s genetic, but that I think hairstyles here are beautiful.)

1. Men can cook. (This comes up all the time. Slowly but surely people are trying what I cook, and possibly changing their mind.

I’ve come to appreciate the times I am able to challenge stereotypes and create conversations. This seems like a neat way to build relationship and to learn more about the world in new ways.

(This is the bike I have proven myself on. Now I have a ten year old boy who tells others that his friend from the United States can ride a bike.)

Celebration and Companionship

1st Samuel 18:1-3 “After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself.

Over the pass week or so I’ve been thinking a lot about the celebration of relationship. My birthday was on Sunday. The week leading up to my birthday was filled with people asking what I was going to do, telling me what they’d do for me, and plans being formed.

I realized that most of the time surrounding my birthday was spent celebrating the relationships I had made throughout my life. This seemed fitting because February is filed with days that remind me of many people I love.

This celebration looked like being offered a kilo of potatoes, telling stories, playing cards, eating corn for the first time in Rwanda, a slew of birthday wishes from all around the world, and unexpected events that gave me great joy.

Honestly, I would have been fine celebrating my birthday alone. I might have been a little lonely, but I would’ve been okay. However, I’m glad that isn’t what happened. Being with members of various communities that I’m apart of and experiencing new adventures is truly what I believe was best for me.

This reminded me of how community has formed in amazing ways during my time in Rwanda and also in the last year of my life. This also reminded me of how beautiful companionship is. Companionship can look different for different people, but it astounds me how God works to weave people together in amazingly intricate ways, which could only be the spirits work.

Celebrating my birthday in another country felt pretty normal to me. Twenty-two doesn’t feel like a major leap in any way for me. What has become very clear to me is the extreme gratitude I have towards all people I have been in relationship with, and the great love I have towards people who accompany me in various aspects of my life.

(My friend Khadijah and I celebrating our birthdays in Kigali. We were born exactly one year apart, which made celebrating this weekend even more enjoyable.)

When You Call Me

Genesis 17:5 “No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.

Throughout my time working at camp I have been given various nicknames by campers and staff that I’d reply to. I have been called Stevie, Ste-Ste, Momma Stephen, Ste and the list could go on. One staff members took up calling me Stephen James. She said it sounded good and that I looked like I could be a James, so she stuck with it. This sticks out to me because James is a name that connects to nothing in my actual name, but it stuck.

In this country, my name is sometimes difficult for people to say or spell. Often times when people spell me name they add unnecessary i’s or excessive e’s. The spelling of my name is just difficult for some, especially if they do not speak English. When it is said, those added letters can be heard. For example, I’ll see my name spelled Stiven, Stevene, or my personal favorite Sitiven and I’ll commonly hear my name said, Stephenee. I’ve grown accustomed to this and recognize that people are trying, so I just go with it. I think this is kind of funny now, but something occurred to me this week. People often call me names that are not mine and I still go with it.

I have sat through meetings, eaten meals, taught classes, and experienced many other events where I have been referred to by a name that is not mine. Most commonly I have been called Christian, Jonathan, and Joseph.

I’ve attempted to figure out why people call me these names but honestly, I have no clue why. I have no j’s in any part of my name and none of these names sound too similar to my name.

When I first heard these new names I would correct people and continue with whatever I was doing. This changed at some point. I have stopped correcting people. I don’t know when or why, but I have. If I am with other people, they may correct the person for me, but I don’t think I’ve corrected someone in over a month.

It is nice to know that people in the community will correct others on my behalf, but I have realized that my name is not the core of my relationships here.

I withdraw money from two people in town. I don’t know their names, but I know when work, how old they are, some of their likes and dislikes, etc. I have built relationships with people in the market based around conversations around food, generosity, and joking about the way I pronounce some Kinyarwanda words. These are a few but there are many other relationships I have formed where I do not know people’s names.

I hope in the future to know the names of these people and to make more of an effort to increase the depth of relationship I have with them. Knowing each other’s names is not central to us having a relationship with each other. We still talk, share smiles, and continue to build relationship even if we don’t know each other’s names.

It is amazing to me how God works to build relationships that transcend language barriers and creates spaces where I names matter less than our stories. So, I’ll keep responding to Stephen , Christian, Jonathan, and Joseph. I’ll correct people when it’s necessary, and choose to focus more on other’s stories than simply looking at their name.

(This is an example of how my name is often spelled. This was on a document that was in one of the classrooms I frequently teach in.)

Water

Revelation 21:6 “He said to me, ‘It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.'”

Imagine having to make the decision between cooking, or having something to drink. Imagine deciding whether you should wash your clothes or take a bath. These might seem like far fetched decisions but I thought about them on Saturday.

It is pretty common where live for the power to go out, or the water to shut off. These events happen four or five times a week. When this occurs, its normally for a few minutes, maybe an hour or two tops. This made my experiences on Saturday very unexpected.

I woke up in the morning, ate something quick, put water in some buckets and did my laundry. I had planned on taking a bucket bath after putting my laundry out to dry, but when I went to brush my teeth, no water came out of the faucet. I proceeded to go around the house and twist different faucets to see if water would come out, but none did.

At this point, I checked my water filter. It had a good bit of water in it, so I’d have something to drink. I then began to wonder how I was going to cook food. Sitting on my bed, I thought about this for a bit.

I went into the kitchen and looked to see if there were any pitchers or buckets with water in them. There was none. This caused me to think that I might have to use my drinking water and hopefully the water would come back soon. As I left the kitchen, my foot hit a yellow jerry can.

The can was pretty sturdy, so I picked it up. This jerry can had water in it. I wasn’t sure how much and I had to make sure that it would be enough for myself and all of my housemates to have our needs met.

I used minimal water when cooking lunch and was fairly confident the water would be back soon. I continued to live like this for the next few hours. Water went out of the house around ten thirty in the morning and did not come back to the house until around ten or eleven at night. During this time I figured out ways to go around various struggles I might come face to face with. I even figured out how to bathe and brush my teeth.

This was an eye opening experience and caused me to think about those who have gone through worse and those who are currently experiencing droughts/famines. It’s made me think of those who don’t have the ability to go and buy water if they needed to and to consider what it means to be in community with those who struggle in these ways.

This experience caused me to use skills from wilderness survival that I hadn’t thought I’d use during my time in Huye. (Shout out to my mom for pushing me) It also made me grateful for the experiences that God has given me and jaded me to think about kids who have asked me for water as I walk down the streets.

This is a jerry can. They’re carried by people (normally on their head) throughout town. Normally they’re being filled up at the local pump, or they’re already full and being taken to the person’s job. The one I used remains under the sink in the kitchen. It looks very similar to this one.