Pie Ntukamazina: Reconciliation is a discipline

If the church does not take part in poverty reduction and ignorance reduction, then people will continue to suffer, says a Burundian Anglican bishop and co-founder of Light University.

Burundi, a country in the Great Lakes region of East Africa, was in the midst of a long civil war in August 2004 when a four-vehicle convoy carrying the Rev. Pie Ntukamazina, the bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Bujumbura, was confronted by armed rebels.

The gunmen robbed the bishop and his 22 traveling companions, set fire to their vehicles, and held them captive in the nearby countryside.

PieSoon, other gunmen arrived and shot at the rebels in a firefight, allowing Ntukamazina and his companions to flee on foot. Ntukamazina found a hiding spot in the bushy scrubland. He remained there for much of the night.

When an unknown group of armed men arrived early the next morning, Ntukamazina climbed a mango tree, called out and identified himself. They invited him to come down, and then released him and his convoy.

Later, Ntukamazina met the men who had abducted him and asked them, “Why did you hijack me?”

“We didn’t know you, Bishop,” they said.

Today, Ntukamazina calls his abductors friends. “In one sense, reconciliation is when people were enemies in the past and they have come together to be friends in the present,” he said.

Ntukamazina has been the bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Bujumbura since 1990, and he has worked on peace and justice initiatives in East Africa, such as the Anglican Communion’s Peace and Justice Network, the Peace Center-Giramahoro and the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation’s African Great Lakes Initiative.

He is also the dean of the faculty of theology at Light University of Bujumbura, which he co-founded. The private university opened with 250 students in 2000. Since then, it has awarded nearly 1,300 degrees and today enrolls more than 3,500 students.

Ntukamazina spoke with Faith & Leadership about Light University, his role as a bishop in Burundi, and the discipline of reconciliation. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What do you see as your role as a bishop in Burundi, especially as it comes out of a long civil war?

My role as a church leader is to proclaim Jesus Christ as the savior of life and to also equip my community to be transformed and to be made whole.

By wholeness I mean to equip communities spiritually, socially and physically. In Burundi, as in the rest of the African continent, we are suffering from poverty and also from ignorance.

Equipping communities as a church leader does not involve only proclaiming the gospel, but it includes accompanying my communities in poverty reduction and ignorance reduction. We have to take part in educating and enabling our communities to know their rights.

In Burundi, we have been in a political crisis for more than 15 years. As a leader and as a bishop, I have to speak for the voiceless people. I have to participate in advocating for communities for the rights they don’t have and yet they should -- advocating for people, especially in the area of having the rights to education, having the rights to medical assistance, having the right to land, and having the right to vote and not to be so manipulated by politicians.

I know this sounds more political than any pastoral approach, but if the church is not taking part in civic education, then people will continue to suffer.

We also have to do the training of the trainers who will be able to train others. So we have to do development, but development doesn’t mean that it’s just looking for money. It’s a change of mind so that people can know what fits them, what do they need, what is their identity, and what are they looking for, and how they can relate to each other to be able to have a force to alleviate poverty and ignorance.

And we focus on the family. By this focus on the family, keep in mind that God has created three institutions -- that is, family, our nation and our church. As a church leader, I have to make sure that those three institutions are secured. And to make them secured is a very, very big question, which does not only involve me as a church leader, but I also have to plant seeds.

Q: How has the experience of being adbucted influenced your leadership?

That was a sad event, but something good came out of it. I spent a whole night in the bush. I remember in my prayer that night asking God a question: “Has my mission for reconciliation ended?” But my question did not end there. I asked another question to God: “If I happen to survive and be saved, what then would you like me to do next?” And I think this is what I’m doing.

After that, there were so many things that took place. One of them is the Great Lakes Initiative, which had not started at that time. Also, other church leaders and I accompanied the government in transitional leadership and helped to come up with a cease-fire.

I met those who hijacked me afterwards, and I asked them a question: “Why did you hijack me?” They said, “We didn’t know you, Bishop.”

This coincides with the question that is mentioned in the Bible, “I was thirsty and you didn’t give me water. I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food,” and the people who answer with, “We didn’t know that you were around.” And the Lord said, “If you didn’t do it for the least of those, you didn’t do it for me.”

So in one sense, reconciliation is when people were enemies in the past and they have come together to be friends in the present. And those people are my friends.

Q: How did you reach that point of reconciliation?

Reconciliation has to do with making an effort of hearing and of listening to different views, though you may not like them. It is a discipline. It is a discipline of tolerance, and it is a determination to say, “What I cannot understand today, I may understand it tomorrow.”

It is a biblical idea that what is impossible to man is possible to God. It’s putting oneself in others’ shoes. It is engaging in a compassion that what makes other people suffer may be worth listening to, and the willingness to change.

Q: You’ve previously said that communication and the sharing of experiences is the most relevant representation of God’s love. How so?

Communication is more than talking. It’s reaching out, and it is the courage to let someone else invest in you as you are willing to invest in him or her. It is also showing that you are fragile when you are alone. As the Bible says, “Two are better than one.”

So communicating is one of the options of change -- change of mind, change of action and behavior, and change of life.

This is where a leader really needs a school of life; he’s changing the way he thinks, the way he acts and the way he is.

So many times I have made mistakes because I didn’t listen, because I thought I was right, because I didn’t communicate and because I didn’t want to change -- and then life was complicated, not only on my part, but I could complicate other people’s life.

So change of mind for a leader and change of action can make a difference to his own way of leadership.

Q: How do you know when it’s time to change as a leader?

It is through consultation and by being mindful to what people are talking about, including those who speak behind you. Yes, even those who are in no position -- one has to listen to them. They may not be right 100 percent, but even 20 percent counts for a leader to change.

Q: Why did you help start Light University, and how does it fit into reconciliation?

The idea for creating Light University, which is interdenominational, was to equip and train trainers who will be able to train others.

When I started this ministry as a bishop, one of my challenges was how to train people at the university level. With this I mean pastors, I mean lawyers, I mean communicators, I mean business and administration.

One of the things we also saw was that so many times churches have started seminaries to train pastors and priests, but that it was very hard for them when they are in the field to be able to interact with people who they haven’t studied with. That is why theology was integrated into the university -- so that these future pastors can interact with people in other areas who they share the campus with, and that way when they go into the field they feel that they have known each other.

Also, during the crisis, state university students had been manipulated by politicians, and they were always on strike, because they felt oppressed or used by politicians in such a way that it was very, very hard for young people.

Two-thirds of our population are between the ages of 15 and 25, which means that our community is made up of very young people. So to create Light University was a hope, another option, for the families and the young people to learn. From a Christian point of view, “light” is something that illuminates people to better understand what is going on, and we want to give light and hope to the community.

We had to start simple, because being in one of the poorest countries, funds cannot be found easily. So we started with only 250 young people.

Also, we didn’t have any government support, just for the fact the government didn’t understand what we were doing. We had to start simple, but aim to be complex.