As we pulled up the final steep section of the dirt road to the pastors’ conference, Bishop Esron met us in front and delivered some unexpected news. “Today is umuganda and so we must delay the conference to serve alongside the rest of the community,” he said.
Umuganda is the once-a-month community service day the government of Rwanda mandates. Everyone in the country spends two hours outside together picking up trash, pulling weeds and generally cleaning up their neighborhoods. If we hadn’t already been four hours behind schedule, I would have immediately welcomed the opportunity to serve alongside the Rwandans in their monthly routine.
I had been told while in Africa to hold any “schedule” or “agenda” loosely and had remained flexible throughout the previous day as we slipped increasingly behind. I guess I expected we’d hit some “maximum lateness” and that surely we’d spend the following day catching up. After all, we’d ﬂown across the world for this conference! I certainly didn’t expect we’d encounter more delays that day. Worst of all, Umuganda is the same Saturday every month. Was it really a surprise? I felt a ﬂash of frustration.
By God’s grace, I kept my mouth shut and soon found myself picking up trash with 50 non-English speaking pastors along a dirt road in Kigali. I was in my nice clothes, the heat was sweltering and I had two sermons in my pocket I was eagerly waiting to deliver. God, what are you doing?
That’s when I looked over and made eye contact with the Rwandan pastor nearest me. He grinned and we tried to connect, stumbling through words we knew the other wouldn’t comprehend, trying to make up for our lack of verbal communication with demonstrative facial expressions. Soon, a slightly bilingual pastor appeared next to us and began to translate as best as he could. Several more pastors gathered and we shared details about our homes and families. They taught me some basic Rwandan phrases. As we picked up trash along that dirt road, “hours behind schedule,” we connected.
It is worth noting that the reason we were already behind schedule was because we’d spent the previous morning in a long, slow and deliberate series of introductions, making sure we acknowledged all the people and players who were part of the conference. We had a special guest singer who had been added to the program last minute. We took our time. We built relationships. I was told Bishop Esron has a proverb he likes to repeat: “The clock is the killer of relationships.” If that is true, we harmed no relationship on that ﬁrst day! As we picked up trash on this second day, letting the clock run even further ahead, God began to work a shift in my perspective. Life is probably a lot more about relationship than I usually realize.
How many relationships have we killed with our clocks? It is striking that of all creation, only people are made in the image of God. And yet it is so easy to treat them as less than the most precious feature of creation. I do not learn the value of people from American culture, with all of its agendas, schedules, alarms and to-dos. Sadly, the American church often doesn’t look very different. My brothers and sisters in Africa had given me a great gift.
I did get to preach my sermons! Thankfully, they seemed to bless the pastors deeply. Part of me wonders if they weren’t more effective than they might have been because of the time we’d spent getting to know one another during Umuganda. The gospel flows along relational streams. The deeper the relationship, the more abundantly it can ﬂow. Will you join me in ignoring the clock this week to stop and get to know someone?