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Celestin Musekura: Raising up hope

The founder and president of ALARM Inc. trains civilian and religious leaders in Africa in character building, theology, conflict resolution, community development and forgiveness.

August 17, 2010

Leaders who don’t care about their communities will ultimately destroy their communities for selfish reasons, said Celestin Musekura, founder and president of African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM). The organization trains civilian and religious leaders in character building, theology, conflict resolution, community development and forgiveness in Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

An ordained Baptist minister and a native Rwandan, Musekura earned a master’s degree in sacred theology and a doctorate in theological studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He received a master of divinity from Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology in Kenya. Musekura has studied conflict resolution, mediation and reconciliation at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia and Southern Methodist University in Texas.

While at Duke Divinity School’s Summer Institute, Musekura spoke with Faith & Leadership about training prophetic leaders in Africa. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript of the interview.

Q: Could you describe the kinds of leadership training you do with ALARM, Inc.?

We have community transformation courses. Many times, pastors have no training on how to deal with tribal conflicts, community development, HIV/AIDS and so forth.

We have another kind of training in Sudan, because of a lack of theological education. This Christian basic training institute brings young pastoral leaders together for a month two times a year for three years.

And then in some other places we have been involved with some of the social issues. We have a program in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Uganda where you focus on restorative justice. Most of our lawyers are trained only in legal matters; we are training them in mediation, conflict management, forgiveness. Those are kind of the models we use in developing leaders.

Q: What is the most important thing about leadership training?

One of the exciting things is when the leaders go back to their communities and they confess. They say, “This is what I taught, but from now on I know what is right,” and so have changed in attitude, changed in approach, changed in how they do ministries.

We are seeing leaders who were not even dealing with other leaders from different denominations. They were not dealing with leaders from other tribes, but after spending a week or two together, they realize that, “These are our brothers and sisters.”

In the community, leaders have begun to deal with issues of corruption, bribery, defending the widows, defending the orphans. We are having pastors who are playing the role of advocates, the role of human-rights activists, people who go to the government and confront them, even if it means death.

We are the hope, we are the salt, we are the light for the whole community -- spatial and social and economic. That’s our joy -- to see the African, the leaders themselves, be the internal vision for their country, for their communities.

Q: Can you tell us about someone who confessed that they had it wrong?

One of the chief police officers in Burundi began the association of Christian police officers in Burundi [the Christian Police Association of Burundi]. He came to ALARM to ask if we can plan this. Police officers in Burundi used to be members of eight different rebel groups, and in 2006 they formed the one national police. Now they’re finding it difficult to manage them, because these guys need to be able to kill each other, they need to kill each other’s families. So when he came to us, he was asking, “Would you train these Christian officers so we can model?” And so we began training them.

In January, February, March and April, we trained about 200 police officers from different districts of Burundi. We knew in April that some of the police officers had been planning for a national strike. In Africa, whenever the police or the army strikes, you know what happens: lots of times, chaos and blood. So we trained the key Christian police officers from different districts.

At the end of that, some of the leaders who were planning the national strike went back and said, “No, we have heard it wrong. We were pointing fingers to others. We failed to see how we, personally, have contributed to the problem that we have. So let us not riot. Let us not strike, but let us begin addressing this issue from our own perspective.”

Because of the partnership between ALARM and the Christian Police Association, the leaders of the nation said we have saved our nation from potential dangers.

Q: When we talk about training leaders in the U.S., it’s generally helping people be better managers of businesses or in growing a church. Helping the social fabric of an entire nation not be ripped apart is a greater ambition for leadership training.

The Americans can have the luxury of just focusing on a narrow sense of leadership, because ... you have good lawyers, you have good government, you have accountability. But in Africa, the major problem we have -- whether it is Rwandan genocide, whether it is in the Congo, whether it is in Sudan -- our major problem is not poverty, as many people may think. It is not lack of food. It is not even … it is because we have Ph.D.-educated people, we have people who are calling others to kill. They have gone to schools in America. They have gone to Duke. They have gone to Harvard.

What Africa is lacking is leaders who care about the people they lead, and that’s why ALARM focuses on developing leaders who care about the community, leaders who be the community and not be themselves, not be their companies for more success, for more business.

It is leaders who care about leading the community from ground zero, because what are leaders who don’t care about the people but leaders who divide and who serve themselves?

And so that’s why we can’t afford to just focus on the matter of official leadership. It involves individual conversion. It’s conversion. It involves character development in the leaders, but also it involves for them to understand that they are part of the community, and the mandate; they have the accountability to actually help the community grow and come together rather than come in to divide because of tribalism. And so we have a bigger picture of what kind of leadership we need in Africa, especially when we are building countries that have been torn apart by tribalism. So we have to go deeper than just simple success.

Q: How do we make sense of the genocide in Rwanda, in a country that was so statistically Christian?

We cannot make sense of our community that calls itself Christian and yet do such a terrible thing as genocide. A problem, which I see everywhere, is the confusion between nominal being baptized and being a true follower of Christ. Missionaries count those people who put their hands up [and said], “We are following Christ.” They had really genuinely accepted Christ, but for most of the missionaries, that was it. In Rwanda, many of our churches had made converts, not disciples, and there is a big difference.

When somebody comes to Christ and is not discipled, he doesn’t know actually how to decide; for me to decide, I have to look in the Scriptures. What does the Bible teach? If my political leader is telling me to take a machete and kill my neighbor because he is of a different tribe, I have to go back and say, “No, but what does the Bible say?”

The true conversion will take place when the pastors are able to help them to understand that their identity is in Christ. Being in Christ supersedes any other identity, so that when somebody says, “You kill,” they will say, “No, my faith tells me my neighbor is my brother.” It is going to take a mature, converted Christian to withstand the political influence. And I have seen also in America people who become more Democrat, more Republican, more white, more black than Christian.

Q: On the ALARM website you speak of a pastor who gave up a parishioner rather than have his family killed. What do you say to that pastor if he asks to be forgiven or to pastor again?

You know the sin of guilt and shame was unbearable for most of the pastors in Rwanda who could not protect their wives, their children and members of their congregations. Maybe they had to run to save their wives and their children or were forced by the militia to give up the people they were hiding in their houses and churches. They felt like they have committed something that cannot be forgiven.

But God is a God of grace and restoration. When we have failed, yes, the first step is to acknowledge that we failed God, but he is a forgiving God, and he calls us again.

We help them live with the trauma, live with the anger and the bitterness, and then have them to also understand that God does not give up on us when we fail, but God gives us another chance to come back.

Q: How do you extend grace without it becoming cheap grace by undercutting the severity of what has taken place?

You only talk about cheap grace if people are asking for grace without acknowledging their failure, without being sorry in what they have allowed to happen, or what they have failed to do.

When they have judged themselves that “We did wrong,” that grace that is sent to them is no longer cheap grace. It is a grace that comes after they have acknowledged they failed God, they have failed themselves, they have failed their neighbor. They are ashamed of what has happened and they are coming for grace, they are coming for restoration.

Q: What do you make of great African leaders like Nelson Mandela who aren’t really Christian but are simply good people outside the church?

I believe every truth is God’s truth. They may not be Christians, but their upbringing, their environment, their education have been informed by Christian truth and virtue.

The problem we have with the church is that we don’t live out what we preach. The key is that not only preaching at the pulpit is enough, but how can we develop leaders who live what they preach so that if they go in jail, when they come out they have a choice whether to revenge or forgive, and then they choose to forgive.

How can you have a leader-pastor who has turned against the wind, the current of their tribes, who say, “No, I belong to a whole new tribe. I’m not going to act as a Tutsi or Hutu; I’m going to act as a prophet, a Christian. What my Tutsi people are doing is not right. I’m going to move to the side of the Hutus, because what my tribe is doing is not right.”

Those kinds of leadership -- you develop them, but the truth is God’s truth. It’s all there in the Scripture. What we do is bring it out and help them to understand that, yes, God also uses both the Christian and non-Christian, so you’re not surprised that God raised up somebody like Mandela to be a model, maybe to shame us. It’s not a surprise that God can raise up somebody like Gandhi to say, “If Christians are this way, I’m not going to be a Christian.” God can raise up leaders from Christians and non-Christians to serve his people.

Q: It sounds like raising up leaders is joyful work for you.

It is, because I have seen what bad leaders can do to a nation and have seen what good leaders can do to a nation. The hope of any community, whether it is a small community like the village I come from or a bigger community like a nation, the hope really depends on its leadership. On the business of shared humanity -- we’re able to talk to each other as people who care about people.

If we are going this way, we are going to kill each other’s wives, each other’s children; there’s no future. It doesn’t take a Spirit-filled pastor to know that if you don’t stop revenge, you are going to be finished. It takes a thinking human being, a leader who says, “I can stop the process by forgiving. I can create a new future, a new hope for my community by giving up my right to revenge.”