Pastor Shadrack Mutabazi meets me over dinner. Our friendship began in 2012 when I first attended a service of Shalom Christian Fellowship – a church he started in Winnipeg. Over the past four years I have been riveted by pieces of Shadrack’s story. Tonight Shadrack has agreed to give me the larger narrative for mosaic. At one point he pauses, reflects, and then tells me that his people, the Banyamulenge, have no homeland.
Shadrack’s story is embedded in the larger narrative of the Banyamulenge people. His ancestors relocated from Rwanda to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the late 1800s. The Banyamulenge were part of the larger Tutsi ethnic group located in the current countries of Rwanda and Burundi. Their movement was motivated by dissent with the Rwandan monarchy. They settled into an isolated mountainous area. From the outset the Banyamulenge were considered to be outsiders that occupied the land of other people. They were never at home in the DRC.
Shadrack’s grandfather was one of the first Banyamulenge to embrace the Christian faith. As a result, he was excluded from his community and went to live with the Bafulero ethnic group where he was welcomed and worked as a catechist. Shadrack still marvels that his grandfather’s traditional enemies acted as his protectors in a time of danger. Later, his grandfather married an orphan and was accepted back into the community where he continued to witness about his faith. Shadrack’s father and mother carried on this tradition as leaders in the Christian movement among the Banyamulenge people. Shadrack is their first child.
As a pastor, he continued to proclaim the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation of people from different ethnic groups.
The Banyamulenge lived under constant threats. On one occasion a paramilitary group from the Bembe tribe searched for Shadrack’s father. His life was saved by a Bembe pastor who protected him. Once again, Shadrack makes me note that someone regarded as an enemy acted as a friend. This is an important theme in his life and faith.
There were no secondary schools in some Banyamulenge areas so parents made arrangements for selected children to board with Bembe families. Shadrack began Grade 11 in a village named Mboko. He secretly learned the indigenous language of the village as a protective measure. One day he overheard the plan to kill the Banyamulenge students. Shadrack confronted his host family, speaking their traditional language. With shame, they told him that he and his fellow Banyamulenge students must leave the village before dark. They managed to safely leave and eventually return to their community.
In 1989, after his marriage to Miriam, Shadrack started two rural schools for Banyamulenge students. He also served as a lay pastor in this region. Dangers for the Banyamulenge increased after the Rwandan genocide in the spring of 1994. Interahamwe genocidaires joined with Bembe “Mai-Mai” gangs (community-based militia groups) to conduct raids for cattle and to kill community members. In September, when it was apparent that Shadrack’s life was in danger, his father advised him to flee to Rwanda. Miriam’s life was threatened after Shadrack left and she was forced to walk to Rwanda to join her husband.
Rwanda was in chaos in 1994. Bodies remained unburied at genocide sites. Survivors were traumatized. Tutsis that had been exiled were returning home. The Hutu population that remained in Rwanda lived in fear of retribution. Interahamwe troops, now located in refugee camps in the DRC, regularly crossed the border to continue ethnic killings.
The Banyamulenge refugees struggled for acceptance in Rwanda. Congolese people had called them Rwandans. Now in Rwanda they were called Congolese. They felt marginalized in the Great Lakes area of Africa, like poor cousins that can never find their place at the table. Shadrack was able to study theology and eventually became a regional pastor in the Presbyterian Church. His assignments were in border areas where other Rwandan colleagues refused to serve. In one area, where there were approximately 10,000 church members, Shadrack worked for reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis. Due to the dangers of his ministry, Shadrack left Miriam and the children in Kigali (the capital city) where life was more secure. Shadrack was kidnapped twice and on six occasions was confronted by armed Interahamwe. His life was saved by his clerical collar, a fast motorcycle, and God’s grace. Shadrack raises his trousers in the restaurant to show me wounds on his legs.
In 2005, Shadrack slipped across the border into the DRC to test the waters in his country of origin. People warned him of the orchestrated massacres of Banyamulenge within the widespread violence of the region. The hotel in which he lodged was attacked. After several hours in hiding, a United Nations official rescued Shadrack and escorted him back to Rwanda. He and his family felt unsafe and unwelcome in the entire Great Lakes area. They fled to Uganda. On the way, their infant son died. Miriam carried his body for over a day so that he could be buried with dignity.
In Uganda, Shadrack and his family were recognized by the UN as refugees. Once again they struggled to build a life in a new country where they still felt insecure and feared for the future. At that time, as now, Uganda was overwhelmed by refugees from the Great Lakes area of Africa, South Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.
Shadrack remained true to his calling. He planted a church for uprooted people named Shalom Christian Outreach Church. The congregation grew. As a pastor, he continued to proclaim the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation of people from different ethnic groups. UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) representatives and the Ugandan police approached him, asking for his cooperation in dealing with a widespread refugee scam. Many people wanting a ticket out of Africa claimed to be Banyamulenge because it was widely recognized that this ethnic group was targeted for persecution. Corrupt officials were bribed to produce fraudulent documents. With Shadrack’s assistance, in one week over 3,000 people were forcefully returned to their nations because they had lied about their ethnicity. Shadrack became a target for retribution. As a result, UNHCR officials ensured that he and his family could move to Canada.
For Shadrack, the transition to Canada in the winter of 2010 had its hardships and its joys. He makes me laugh when he tells about the time he got lost walking in Winnipeg in February. Getting progressively colder and more desperate, he ran towards a man he saw heading to the door of a home. “You can call the police,” Shadrack told him. “But please let me in. I am going to die.” The surprised man let Shadrack into his home, made tea, and then helped him find his way back to his own place.
Laughter turns to tears, however, when Shadrack shares about financial hardships and difficulties with employment. He was a prominent Christian leader in Africa. In Canada, he was unknown. He was also surprised and hurt by the ethnic divisions among African refugees in Winnipeg. They had brought the suspicions and hatreds of their homelands with them to Canada. He started Shalom Christian Fellowship in Winnipeg with the vision of a congregation that practiced the graces of reconciliation. He was hurt when some Banyamulenge left Shalom because they wanted an exclusive ethnic church for their people. Shadrack repeated to me again the truth he had learned long ago: My enemy can become my friend. In 2014, Shalom Christian Fellowship became an official church plant of the Canadian Baptists of Western Canada. Shadrack is deeply appreciative of the support and friendship within the Canadian Baptist network.
Several times a year Shadrack brings together Africans and Canadians of different backgrounds to reflect on themes of forgiveness and reconciliation.
I am amazed at Shadrack’s contribution to the Christian faith in Winnipeg. He saw the desire for theological education among immigrant pastors and lay leaders from African countries, but they lacked funds and time to take courses at theological institutions. Some had never completed high school. Thanks to the assistance of Carey Theological College and the Canadian Baptists of Western Canada, over 20 African immigrants gather each Saturday to study the Bible, church history, and pastoral theology. The credentials from Carey have allowed some pastors to find ministry positions in Canadian churches. Several times a year Shadrack brings together Africans and Canadians of different backgrounds to reflect on themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. He is now being asked to travel to different places in Canada and the USA to give his testimony about healing the wounds of the past.
I hope that my friend Shadrack and his family find a permanent homeland in Canada. The journey has been long and difficult. I am inspired by his faith in God and his confidence that enemies can become friends. He once asked a bishop, ”Which is more important – the water of baptism or the blood of ethnicity?” The bishop’s answer was the blood of ethnicity. Shadrack dedicates his ministry to proving that the bishop was wrong.
Gordon King serves as CBM’s Resource Specialist. He recently published Seed Falling on Good Soil: Rooting Our Lives in the Parables of Jesus.