Twenty years ago today I was walking through the Rwanda refugee camps surrounding Goma, Zaire (now the Democratic of the Congo). This was not the typical Christmas break experience for a college student. Traveling as a designated observer for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), one of CWS’s long-time partners, my task was simple: gather stories and information that would inspire other college students to fund the construction of housing for unaccompanied children in the camps. Our goal: $10,000. We raised $12,500. Goal met and exceeded. I realized later that the leaders who had sent me had other goals: inspire people to respond to the needs of others near and far, broaden their worldview and help them see hope in the midst of chaos. The realization of those goals takes longer to measure.
For over twenty years this ageseke peace basket has had a central place in my dorm rooms, homes and offices in North Carolina, England, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, South Dakota and now my office at CWS’s Indiana Corporate Center. You can still open the top and a sweet grassy smell will waft upwards. That smell takes me back to the moment I purchased it in the camps. It takes me back to a time of feeling overwhelmed by the needs of 800,000 refugees encamped around a town built for 5,000. But it also takes me back to a sense of wonder at the joy and hope for a new tomorrow that was so pervasive – even among the most vulnerable people with whom we worked.
Though the world cried “never again!” after the atrocities that caused the Rwandan refugee crisis in 1994, today the world is facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Refugee camps in Africa continue to be overpopulated; Tanzania’s Nyarugusu Camp has long passed its 50,000 person capacity. From Tanzania to Serbia and the United States, though, CWS works constantly to help fulfil the hopes of refugees who have fled from their homes in search of a brighter future.
“Happy New Year!” too often seems like a party theme to me. Except when I see it written across this basket as “Bonne Annee 1996.” It becomes a reminder of hope and a clarion call to keep fighting. For the hungry. For the homeless. For the displaced. For the world to look more like the kingdom of justice and peace. Not all of the goals from that trip two decades ago were realized. We still need more people to care for the needs of others both near and far. We still need more people whose worldview is one of compassion and hospitality. We still need the ability to see hope in the midst of chaos. After two decades we still need all of these things. But each of them is still worth fighting for…in 2016 and beyond.
Bonne Annee 2016!
The Rev. Russell Pierce is Senior Director of Funds Development at CWS.