The following post was written by Rev. Eric Cherry, director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s International Office. Cherry was one of the leaders of the UUSC-UUA Supporter Journey to Tanzania and Burundi.
Service-learning trips through the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice (UUCSJ) are a terrific way for UUs to get to know the social justice strategies and methods of partners around the world. Many of the partners that UUCSJ interacts with through these trips are secular in their approach, but some of them are faith-based — and even Unitarian/Universalist. In those cases, the experience for trip participants offers a unique opportunity to connect spiritual practice and faith with outreach ministries. Introducing the team of UUCSJ service-learning participants in East Africa to the leaders and members of the Unitarian Church of Burundi was a great example of that connection. Together we explored the ways that Unitarianism is pursuing social justice work in Burundi.
The Unitarian Church in Burundi was established by Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana in 2002 as a liberal religious alternative to the dominant Roman Catholic presence in Burundi. Rev. Fulgence is, in fact, a former Dominican novitiate who discovered Unitarianism while studying in seminary. After leaving seminary and pursuing a correspondence with a Unitarian minister in the United Kingdom, he was inspired to start the church in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura.
Since then, the congregation has grown in strength, numbers, and outreach ministries. In 2011 the congregation dedicated the first Unitarian church building constructed in an African country in decades. And it serves as a home for their church services, as well as a meeting place for activists.
The outreach work of the church has taken many forms, including the following:
- Capacity building and advocacy work with Burundi’s Batwa community
- Domestic violence prevention through workshops and other intervention
- Supporting microfinance initiatives
- Partnering with a local school
- Establishing scholarship programs for university students
- Leading a coalition of Unitarian churches in development in Francophone African countries
All of the congregation’s work is done in the context of the slow recovery — and the struggle for truth and reconciliation — taking place in Burundi following its civil war. Burundi needs liberal religious leaders, and the Unitarian Church in Bujumbura is serving that role.
During the visit we were inspired by meetings with a former combatant who now operates a small restaurant and a team of women who are operating a vegetable stall at the women’s market in the city — all beneficiaries of the church’s microfinance initiative.
We also visited the local school that the church is partnering with. There, nearly 2,000 primary school students have found a secure place to begin their educational journeys. Through assistance from its partners, the Unitarian Church has helped the school bring electricity to its classrooms — and will now attempt to set up a water system for the school.
Participants in the university scholarship program also met with us. They explained how nearly all of them were the first people in their family to attend University, and that completing a degree is the fastest way to escape poverty in Burundi. We were inspired by the path they have chosen.
And, on Sunday, we gathered for church with 60–70 Burundian Unitarians. The singing was fantastic, the prayers centered on social justice, and the sermon by Rev. Fulgence was prophetic. He took a text from Jeremiah that advised those surrounded by devastation to build up their cities and display signs of hope. The members of the Unitarian church clearly appreciated and embrace his message. We visiting friends are challenged to do the same as we return to our homes.