Rick Warren in Rwanda

Tony Blair, Paul Kagame, and Rick Warren at a prayer breakfast in Rwanda. November 15, 2009. From

Kibuye Presbyterian Church is quaking. Wooden benches in every direction are filled with Rwandans shaking Bibles and swaying hips in tune to pulsing music. The singing of the choir echoes off the walls, swimming up to the open-shafted roof, as the kaleidoscopically dressed audience members clap their hands and pound their feet against the cement floor. American evangelist Rick Warren, the center of all this enthusiasm, joins the fervor, banging on a conga drum. Dressed in trendy jeans and a cowboy-style oxford, he booms his trademark line to the worshipers: “God has never made a person who doesn’t have a purpose.” He continues: “People may say you are small; you are poor; you have no education; you have no mother or father. But you have not lost one franc [the Rwandan currency] in value to God.” And so the rest of the sermon goes. Warren has become famous in the developing world for his PEACE plan, a religious self-improvement plan that he maintains would allow Rwandans to realize that “everyone has talents to make a difference.”

In the rest of the world, Warren is most famous for his slim self-help book The Purpose-Driven Life, a set of basic rules and tough-love advice that would be appropriate on a reality television show hosted by a life coach. My parents own a copy. In the book, Warren outlines seemingly simple, positive affirmations to help the average nobody take control of his life and become a somebody with a God-fueled mission. The principles have presumably been tested out at his Southern Baptist megachurch Saddleback, which is based in Orange County, California and accommodates 20,000 faithful a week. The book has sold 25 million copies–according to Publishers’ Weekly, it’s the biggest selling hardcover in American history–and it’s said to be the second bestselling book in the world after the Bible. When then-President-elect Barack Obama asked Warren to lead the prayer at his inauguration, the pastor’s fame drowned out protests against his anti-gay marriage stance.

During the Rwandan genocide, in which over one million people were killed in 100 days, many pastors and priests were implicated in the deliberate killings of their parishioners. Those found guilty of participating in the genocide were jailed, but the sheer number of convicts overwhelmed Rwanda’s prisons. As a result, many were released to be tried by traditional gaccaca courts, and later returned to their home villages to live side by side with the families of their victims. Not all of Rwanda has been convinced to trust churches again. Ninety-five percent of the country is Christian, but Rwandans say the percentage of churchgoers is significantly smaller. Yet the feeling in the church, as Warren launched into his sermon, was one of jubilation, not fear. Before the service, a 30-year-old Rwandan named Augustin Mpotori, a child of the genocide, told me that the moment was right for Warren to make a difference through the church. “Before the mistake was of the churches, but they have changed,” he told me. “Their new vision of forgiveness convinced me to come back.” He had left his religion after his relatives were attacked in the church to which they had fled during the genocide. They believed they could hide there safely. None of them survived.

Yet Mpotori, like the entire congregation, exudes hopefulness. The month is April, the same month the genocide began in 1994, and all the church seems to want to do is put it behind them. The joy is also unsettling. By dedicating himself to raising healthcare standards through churches, Warren is grappling recklessly with the legacy of clerical collusion in the genocide. And he is asking Rwandans to put their trust back into a place that has betrayed them. Most of the churchgoers are whipped into a state of ecstatic fervor, but I wonder how far his words of forgiveness will follow them on their way home.

We have not been in the country long, but it already feels like a place I could settle. The land is breathtaking: luscious rainforests, glittering waterfalls, immaculately kept rows of coffee plantations. After Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame was elected to office, six years after his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) army drove out the genocide militias, he embarked on a fierce clean-up campaign. The streets of the capital, Kigali, were scrubbed, the residential areas sanitized. Upon disembarking from the tiny plane that takes me from the Ugandan city of Entebbe to Kigali, I can already sense that something is different. Compared to other dust-covered, trash-littered capitals of East Africa, Kigali feels like heaven. The streets are paved and pristine, and I even spot litter police on patrol in bright yellow smocks. The air is light and breathable; trucks don’t emit noisy curls of lethal black smoke—in fact, I don’t see many trucks at all. And everyone is driving calmly, even slowly. The bushes on the side of the road are free of discarded plastic bottles and bags.

Kigali seems to be transparent and welcoming, but Rick Warren is difficult to know; on first acquaintance, he invites affection, bemusement, and occasionally suspicion. This is a man who sells metaphors like advertisements. The most repeated and popular of them is the “three-legged stool.” He says that public-private sector partnerships are equivalent to a two-legged stool. It will fall over if a third leg is not added—that of the church, the missing link in a country’s development. “Rwanda chose us,” Warren says  at the start of his weeklong visit. Kagame read The Purpose-Driven Life five years ago and wrote a letter to Warren inviting him to Rwanda. So Warren flew over, wearing his usual mismatched, rumpled suits, and began to stump for what he calls a “fifty-year reformation” of Rwandan healthcare.

His massive PEACE plan aims to expand health coverage in the country by utilizing the many churches in Kibuye and other rural areas, where the majority of Rwandans live. Warren and his wife Kay like to tell the adage of rural Rwandans being forced to walk for two days just to reach a hospital. In Rwanda’s western province, where Kibuye is located, there are three district hospitals (though several smaller health posts) for over 650,000 people, compared to 726 churches. Their solution? Turn churches into health centers, where patients can get tested for HIV and receive medication and counseling. As Rick (everyone seems to be on a first-name basis with him) says often in his thick Western drawl, “There’s already a church in every village … the church was global before anybody started talking about globalization.”

The Warrens’ PEACE plan is now operational in both Rwanda and Uganda. At best, PEACE blurs the line between religion and state; at worst, it aims explicitly at a new (yet very, very old) kind of colonialism. Unveiled in 2005, the plan called for the first global model of political and church leaders working together under a mandate to generally improve the country. Warren claimed he was impressed with the strength of Rwandan Christian leaders who resisted the genocide, but many wondered if he was becoming the cheerleader of a president who was already using the genocide as an excuse to suppress dissent and abuse his power. Warren’s mentor C. Peter Wagner writes in his book Dominion! that the PEACE plan fits into “the 7-M mandate”―the notion that Christians must seize control of the “seven mountains” of a country: government, business sector, media, education, family units, arts and entertainment, and religion. In Rwanda, PEACE settled on heathcare as a starting point, effectively combining three mountains: government, family, and religion.

A strong church and a strong community are two completely different things, the head of a different Rwandan nonprofit tells me. Not in Rick Warren’s world. Like missionaries before him and other church-funded philanthropists alongside him, he equates the idea of strong religious institutions with the idea of strong government institutions. Instead of bolstering national healthcare structures to create a self-sustenance and independence that will last long after he is gone, Warren has—perhaps deliberately—created a system that will need the guidance of his church for a very long time. And the administration of a public service that is supposed to be for everyone in Rwanda regardless of race, ethnicity, or creed, has become inextricably intertwined with Christianity, with all of its morals, codes, and taboos. I can’t help but fear how gays, AIDS patients, rape victims, and women with unwanted pregnancies will fare under this system. Recently a wave of brutal anti-gay legislation has been sweeping sub-Saharan Africa, with direct roots in the work of Western evangelicals like Warren.

But at night under radiant moonlight, Kigali’s rain-soaked avenues shine. Boda-boda drivers whiz past on their sleek motorbikes, and the inky black streets unwind, rising then falling, stretching into the unknown distance. Shops are dark inside, abandoned for the night, gas stations without a soul at the pump. The city feels empty then, spooky but also calm.

A few days later, the entire group boards buses and vans to go to Kibuye, a leisure destination for tourists and expatriates and also ground zero for the Warrens’ health plan. My van pushes into an incline as it advances on the mountain road, leaving the lush valley behind. I am riding with a few Saddleback Church members, and we get out at one point to stand at the road’s edge and peer into the abyss, a drop of hundreds of feet, and stare at the gushing waterfalls in the distance. Two young boys in torn clothes approach our van, singing and playing a harp-like instrument. The instrument tings loudly and off-key, but the church members gather around and clap to cheer them on. When the boys finish, they hold their hands out for money, causing my fellow travelers to rush back to the van.

When we pull into Kibuye, the village is homey and simple. The lodge that has been booked for our stay, however, is magnificent:a multi-layered open-air resort of swirling slate steps, quaint courtyards, fruity gardens, and room upon room.. Just on the other side of a low stone wall lies the huge, rippling Lake Kivu, a deep blue-black lake wedged between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the distance, fishermen float in their canoes, throwing lines into the water and slowly reeling them out.

After a long lunch, we pile into the vans and drive back to town to the  St. Kizito Hospital, at the end of an orange dirt road. The hospital is the nexus of the church healthcare plan. Kay Warren tells me later that church-affiliated volunteers in Kibuye are being trained in basic tasks like teaching hygiene. The goal is for churches to be able to monitor patients taking ARV medication, offer voluntary HIV testing and counseling, and act as a referral point for hospitals. The decision to shift primary healthcare from the clinic to the church distresses critics who say those resources could be invested in Rwanda’s weak public healthcare system. But Kay, sighing and touching a wrinkled hand to her blond bobbed hair, counters that the Warrens share “many ideas” in common with the government, including involving religious institutions in distributing social services. “There’d be no reason to recreate the wheel—there are existing hospitals, there are existing health clinics,” she tells me with a small smile, adjusting her pastel cardigan. “So what we can do to strengthen them and make them more efficient?”

In a cramped classroom at St. Kizito, I listen to Warren explain his plan for the hospital and watch how the doctors and staff react. They seem eager but cautious. I wonder how things are when the Warrens are not around to create a publicity storm.

The center is not the worst-off I have seen. Still, there are not nearly enough beds, not enough doctors —the people are overwhelming the health system. Dr. Paulin Polepole, head of internal medicine and HIV/AIDS at St. Kizito, tells me that he believes trained volunteers could help tackle the western district’s HIV rate, which at 8 percent is twice the national average. But he admits the difficulties of the effort. “This is something very new, and it will take a long time to see results,” Paulin says. “People who have no knowledge in medicine are now expected to treat people.” The doctor, one of six at a hospital that serves a population of over 100,000, points out that the overstretched hospital could use the help. Just what kind of help would be most effective in Rwanda, however, is still up for debate.

The Kigali-based Access Project, a nonprofit unaffiliated with Rick’s project, aids in building the capacity of Rwandan health centers. Its head, Dr. Blaise Karibushi, is skeptical about the feasibility of the Warrens’ plan. “Theoretically, it (the church) should be a good network of reaching communities, but to make it happen there is a lot of work up front. You can’t just take the pastor of a church and ask him to distribute ARVs,” he says. As for the two-day walk to a hospital, over 80 percent of rural inhabitants actually go to local health centers, and the trip is a “maximum two- or three-hour” walk. Dr. Karibushi says that the vast resources required to train church volunteers in health skills would be better put toward community health posts, ambulances, and telephones. Churches, which already own about 40 percent of health facilities in Rwanda, should be left to their greatest strength: education. Rwandans could be taught how to prevent easily avoidable diseases like worms and malaria.

I met Warren a few days prior to our trip to Kibuye. Time magazine had sent me as a stringer to Rwanda to record my observations for a feature story on the pastor that would be written by a New York-based staff writer. I was sitting in Kampala’s tiny airport, sitting on a stool in the fluorescent-lit, linoleum-floored cafeteria, eating M&Ms and waiting for my flight to Kigali. I lifted my head when I realized that a chorus of American voices had taken over the room. Opposite me, a large group of white people had taken over at least three tables. Could they be affiliated with Warren? I heard someone say something about Rwanda and another call out “Rick,” so I decided it must be them. I approached a tall man whose voice carried across the cafeteria and drowned out all the others. “Hi, are you all with the Rick Warren group?”

“We are the Rick Warren group!” he boomed back to me. This must be the man, I thought.

“Oh great,” I said. “I’m Alexis Okeowo with Time magazine. Nice to meet you, I’m looking forward to this trip and interviewing you.”

“OK, that’s great, that’s great,” he said. “That’s Rick over there, though.” He jerked a thumb to another table.

I made my way to the table and extended my hand to another tall, confident-looking man. “Rick? Nice to meet you.” The man shook my hand and said, “Nope, over there.”

I finally spotted him, stout, tucked into a chair, and talking in a low tone. With an easygoing face and a bowl haircut that looks as though he’s kept it since boyhood, Warren appears more average than most average people. He stood up, gave me a big smile, and pulled me into a bear hug.

But like any celebrity, he has his entourage. People of all ages, from teenagers to retirees, were working in some capacity on the tour. They were all members of his Saddleback Church and deeply passionate about the man and his teachings, quoting him at the drop of a hat. It was a struggle to get near Warren without his protectors around, avidly shielding their prophet from outsiders. Even during our “one-on-one” interview, Larry sat at the edge of our table in the hotel’s restaurant, injecting himself into the conversation when he felt it was required.

Despite his thick human padding, or perhaps because of it, I was immediately struck by how genuine Warren seemed to be, unpretentious and goodhearted. But he is also prone to unnecessarily grand gestures. He and his wife arrived in Kibuye in a roaring army helicopter that landed in a stadium; upon disembarking, the Warrens were enveloped in a crowd of doctors and curious street kids. The Warrens are known for their promotion of HIV-related causes, a fact that likely drew them to Rwanda (though at 4 percent, it has one of the lowest HIV rates in sub-Saharan Africa). Warren and President Kagame are close, and met several times over the course of Warren’s stay. Over 2,000 pastors have been trained in healthcare giving and the couple are investing millions of dollars into Rwanda during the next five years. When I asked him what he envisions Rwanda will look like at the end of his reformation, he said that a lower birth mortality rate, an increased number of ARV treatment patients, and a decreased number of orphans are signs that Rwandan leaders have told him they want. As we relax at a table by the hotel’s sparkling aqua pool, he adds: “I trust local people and I trust churches and I trust pastors. Poverty is … a mindset.”

Warren is immensely quotable, even when you doubt the substance of the sound bite. Catchy one-liners roll off his tongue like raindrops off East Africa’s slick banana trees. My favorite is still this, said in a tangy, sweet-and-sour drawl: “One out of every three people in the world is a member of the Christian church; I would be happy if one-third of people in the world do this (his PEACE plan). There’s nothing bigger than the church.”

But the Kibuye project is still a start-up, barely off the ground. The Warrens have held a series of self-congratulatory meetings with local volunteers and pastors involved in healthcare training, but examples of the church-clinic model (the “three-legged stool”) in action are missing. The couple tells me their initiatives will, of course, take time, but whether that lag is due to unrealistic expectations or to the massive work needed to expand the role of Rwanda’s churches remains to be seen. In other words: do the Warrens just have a lot of work ahead of them or are they undertaking something that can’t—and shouldn’t—be done?

Another looming problem is the possible contradiction between the pro-life attitude of Warren and his acolytes, and Rwanda’s goal of population control. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in sub-Saharan Africa, and President Kagame has actively encouraged families, especially those living in poverty, to plan for no more than three children, compared to a national norm of around six. Kay Warren says she and Rick will “do what the Rwandans want us to do” in terms of teaching families about family planning, but I have to wonder about the objectivity of PEACE plan–trained Catholic volunteers. In perhaps his only major deviation from Warren’s project, President Kagame later tells me that he hopes “the church will be realistic” when it comes to the family planning issue.

On my first night in Kigali, it is raining and the streets are slippery. I check into my hotel, then borrow a phone from a Fox Studios cameraman and call my friend Amity, who is living in Rwanda.

Africa is a small place for foreigners, despite its massive amounts of terrain and water, 53 nations, and countless ethnic groups and languages. Time and time again, I run into the same people all over the continent. A few nights later at a hybrid African-Italian pizzeria in Kigali, Amity introduces me to Ricardo, an Italian photographer whose hard-partying, womanizing ways I had heard about in Kenya. I also meet Ricardo’s long-suffering girlfriend, an American aid worker. Amity and I go dancing at a club with wall-to-floor mirrors and stay out much later than planned. President Kagame is expecting me in the morning.

I wake up with plenty of time before the interview, too anxious to sleep much. I take a hot shower, eat a breakfast of toast and cereal, then go back to the guest room. For the end of my stay in Rwanda, I decide to crash with Amity. I remove the clothes from my suitcase and realize that, in my effort to pack lightly, I have brought only one pair of pants: a pair of dark jeans.

I stare at them at in horror before I hurriedly pull them on as I run upstairs calling Amity’s name. Her roommate yawns and tells me that Amity has already left for work and locked her bedroom door. When I meet Kagame’s press secretary, Yolande, at the State House, I hold my breath as she scans me up and down, taking in my pinstriped collared shirt, knee-high leather boots, and the offending pants. I see her squint at the jeans. But then she smiles and leads me into his private office.

Inside, I settle into a couch and spend a few minutes deciding if I should recline to seem relaxed or sit upright to appear alert. I conclude that leaning back is too casual and straighten myself. As I examine the plush velvet-covered stools, it strikes me that there is so much history lingering in the room.

Kagame was elected in 2003 with an alleged 95 percent of the vote, a questionable number in any country. But Rwanda was in recovery from genocide, so no one was really allowed to question the landslide. No one is allowed to question much under Kagame. Political and media freedom are suppressed under the benevolent dictatorial president, who when criticized points to Rwanda’s impressive economic growth or warns about the dangers of stoking ethnic flames. He has not allowed any viable opposition parties to flourish and blacklists local and foreign politicians and media that impugn the RPF, condemn his policies, or raise Hutu grievances from the genocide. He doesn’t encourage challenges to his fifteen years of continuous rule and he doesn’t give many interviews.

In mid-August, after a horrific summer in which opposition candidates and independent journalists turned up dead, Kagame was re-elected president. This time, his party claimed he won 93 percent of the vote.

On first appearance, Kagame seems like an otherworldly giant. He is astoundingly tall; his endless limbs fall in every direction and fold themselves underneath him. His face is also long and elegant, betraying nothing and rarely bending into a smile, which does not put me at ease.

Kagame tells me that he wants Rwanda to become a “purpose-driven nation.” The president explains that he wants to finally harness the church’s influence, manipulated once by killers, for good. And he says that it was Warren’s “practical, realistic approach” that first attracted him to the healthcare project.

Ethnicity is not supposed to matter anymore in contemporary Rwanda. Hutu or Tutsi? Don’t ask, don’t tell. That night, I meet a former RPF soldier, a tall, striking young man. He is now a photographer for a local newspaper. I tell him that I interviewed Kagame today. President Kagame is incredible, he says. He asks me where I’m from and I tell him the United States. “Ah,” he says. “I thought you were one of our beautiful Tutsi women when I first saw you.”

The next day, I tour a number of genocide memorials. With some members of Warren’s church, I visit churches where the bullet holes and bloodstains remain on the walls. The images are horrifying and ghastly, but mainly just incomprehensible. As I step out into the comforting sunlight. I try to reconcile the country’s warring elements in my head: the spotless city streets and the dirt-covered human bones still displayed at country churches; the president intent on preserving his rule and the freewheeling American evangelical. Maybe that is the beauty of it, order and disorder coexisting to help put a country back on track. We can only hope.

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