“Jesus is permanent peace. Do you have peace?” asked Jean Nepomuscene (Nepo) of the throng of artisans sitting around him in a square formation. A hearty “yego” (yes) rippled through the air as Nepo, a tall, solid man with a love of the Bible, leant forward in his chair, peering out from underneath his red baseball cap. “Jesus is our peace, our joy”.
The artisans had taken a break from weaving sisal bowls and Christmas ornaments to gather under a spindly Poinsettia tree for prayer, singing, and Bible study – a regular Wednesday morning fixture. Clothed in kitenge dresses and shawls, the artisans were a welcome splash of colour under a dull, grey sky. Jolie, the one-year old son of one of the artisans played with a pine green thread leftover from one of the Christmas ornaments his mother had been weaving, his snowflake onesie incongruous in a landscape which, save for the rare pounding of hail, doesn’t know the bitter touch of snow.
Nepo opened in prayer: “We thank you, Lord, for good health and for being here together. We welcome you”. After a brief pause, a chorus of voices punctuated by steady claps filled the air as everyone sang a song in Kinyarwanda about the miracle of knowing Jesus. Despite the singing, a baby boy swathed in a purple shawl, resting on his mother’s chest, slowly closed his eyes to the world as she rocked and patted him. After the song, Nepo and the artisans assembled before him opened their Bibles to Revelation chapter 1, the climactic and 66th book of the Bible, and read aloud: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is, and who was, and who is to come”. A cool breeze drifted through the air and sunflowers fringing the wall opposite nodded in the wind. “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!”
These verses encapsulate the most bold and profound claim of Christianity – a claim that the celebration of Christmas centres upon: God in the flesh dwelt among us. God stooped down to stand in and among the brokenness and darkness of humanity; a mighty King born as a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and helplessness, in the stench of a 1st Century Palestinian home thick with both people and animals. Far from a distant and desolate stable, a scholarly reading of the gospels reveals that Jesus was born into the bosom of a busy and typically welcoming Palestinian family (most likely relatives of Joseph since he returned with Mary to the place of his ancestral origins).
Having lived a life of love, holiness and humility among the poor and those considered by the religious elite of his day to be ‘sinners’, Jesus was crucified. Jewish rabbis at that time preached to the choir – as long as you ticked all the religious boxes and obeyed all the religious laws, you would earn God’s favour. God would look down from his lofty throne at your good deeds and perfect obedience and grant you a place in his celestial good-books.
Jesus, however, represented something altogether different. As a living rebuke to such pride and hypocrisy, since no one can follow the moral and religious law to the letter, Jesus presented a threat to the religious status quo. He claimed not to break existing power structures; rather, he claimed and demonstrated power of a different kind. He claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of God, God incarnate (“I and the Father are one” – John 10:30) – a blinding light in a beautiful but dark world of hurt and pain. Good teachers didn’t tend to get crucified but claiming to be God landed you in a lot of trouble. Evidently, so did claiming the resurrection of a previously dead person – the penalty was a comparably gruesome death, a fate which most of the disciples met.
While Azizi Life is unapologetically faith-based, it might well be asked if secular NGOs and businesses are not equally faith-based, be that faith in human nature or faith in the markets. The astounding claim that God himself lived and breathed among humanity in his mission to restore all the brokenness of creation and bring his people home, even condescending to wash his disciple’s dusty, dirt-encrusted feet like a common servant, is why Azizi Life is unashamedly faith-based. Loving words and loving action should not be compartmentalised and separated from one another. The material and immaterial worlds find their nexus in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and supporting people in this broken world of inequality and injustice requires not only that we address the material realm of life, but also the spiritual – people hunger for food and they hunger for hope; one does not nullify the other. Azizi Life welcomes and works with people of any or no religious persuasion, and since the majority of
Rwandans identify as Christians (predominantly Catholic), prayer, preaching and church come naturally to most of the population. Gathering under the Poinsettia to pray is as normal for our artisan partners as gathering for a meal with friends or crafting together to make a decent living and provide for the family.
As the sun peeked out between breaks in the cloud, Nepo shared his own story with the artisans:
“I was with my wife for only 12 days before leaving for Congo to serve as a soldier, where I was away for two years…I was bitten by so many insects and I was hungry, but I had no money, so I couldn’t buy food from the market. I had my gun, but since I also had a Bible and had read about the mercy of Jesus, I didn’t use it to get food and I didn’t steal. I wanted to see my wife back home, so I went to the airport, even though I had no money to get on a plane. The captain paid for my $100 ticket. After landing, I got a lift in a truck to Bukavu near the border and ended up staying for a few days with the Rwandan police. I still didn’t have food or money, and my leave from the military had expired, but they accepted and gave permission, and I got across the border. I didn’t fear; I knew Jesus was with me. I got a lift in a truck full of fish… on the way, thieves tried to steal the truck, but then they saw that I had a gun, so they went away. When I arrived home, no one recognised me, and I didn’t recognise anyone. I went to my parents-in-law’s house to ask where my wife was. She couldn’t afford rent anywhere else, so she was still on the small piece of land that we lived on in the early days of our marriage. She didn’t know if I was alive, so she was very happy to see me!”
As the sun hid away behind the clouds again, a chorus of voices rang out once more as Nepo and the artisans closed their time together in song. At Christmas, we are reminded of a God who dwelt among us, who is with us and who is indefatigably and inexorably for us, if only we welcome him – the light of the world, Immanuel, God with us.