Vaclav Havel – the Czech poet, activist, and former President – once wrote, “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope is not a prognostication – it’s an orientation of the spirit. Hope… is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good…. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is hope that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about hope these days as I hear the troubling news about a place so far away, yet so close to my heart. Burundi, a small country in East Africa, is currently experiencing deadly politically-motivated violence that has left its population fearful and insecure. It’s the latest wave in a recurring cycle of political and ethnic violence that the people of Burundi have suffered from since the country’s independence over 50 years ago. Back in the 90s, hundreds of thousands were killed. And now once again, people are dying, being thrown into jail, or forced to flee the country. There are clear reasons why this is happening, especially the president’s staying in power after completing his two terms in office (the maximum allowed under the constitution). But the bottom line is that innocent men, women, and children are suffering, and right now there’s no end in sight.
I have a personal connection to Burundi, so the sad situation there resonates particularly strongly for me. In 2013, I worked in Burundi facilitating trainings in conflict sensitivity and analysis with peace and development workers who were on the front lines of addressing the difficult economic and political problems in the country. One of those workers also happened to be the minister of the one and only Unitarian Church in Burundi, whose population is predominantly Roman Catholic. Reverend Fulgence and I became friends, and I had the great joy of attending services at that Church and so admired the commitment of church members to transcend the deep divisions in Burundian society and assist those in need, regardless of religion or ethnicity or political affiliation.
Unfortunately, in the current wave of violence, the Unitarian Church became a political target. Its building was attacked, and Rev. Fulgence was kidnapped, arrested, threatened with death, then compelled to leave the country along with many other church members closely associated with him. Although safe right now, those who are now refugees and those who remained are struggling to survive. As Rev. Fulgence recently wrote, “The church is committed to continue the work begun for several years now of promoting the values of tolerance and diversity, to work on the root causes of the divisions in Burundi that have been exclusion and using violence as a means to solve problems. We want to influence a paradigm change in the way problems are looked at and people live together and share their common destiny.”
The situation remains unstable, but the courage of church members is extraordinary.
After months of no contact, I was finally able to talk with Rev. Fulgence via Skype a couple of days ago. I was overjoyed to hear his voice again. While still recovering from his personal ordeal, he emphasized his gratitude, determination, and hope. The Burundi Unitarian Church is still open and has not missed a single Sunday service. Some 50 members remain there, and their building is more secure now. Then he said, “We need to find a way to go on, to make sure love and light will eventually win the day. I think of the words from that song in our hymnal, ‘And I’ll give you hope when hope is hard to find.’ In Burundi, you need to dig deep to find signs of hope, amidst the violence, hatred, and hopelessness. But there are many people in Burundi trying to make things better, quietly, and people around the world are supporting that. Our church can model hope and do a lot of small things to build peace and harmony. We will simply refuse that hatred has the last word.”
I ask for your practical support, as well as your prayers, for the Burundi Unitarian Church, that they may continue the work of love and light amidst the darkness. The International Council of Unitarian Universalists (ICUU) has sent out an appeal for Burundi and is accepting financial contributions that will support the work of the Burundi Church and to assist those members now in exile. For more information and to make a donation, please visit www.icuu.net. On the home page is a February update about Burundi and its Unitarians, and at the bottom is a link for giving donations.
Please give what you can to help keep hope alive in Burundi. With hope, and hard work, life has beauty and meaning, and the rich potential that love and light will eventually triumph.