Monday, April 30, 2012


Sometimes the biggest stories of a week are the ones no one reports. I observed one a few months ago. I was in line at Banque Commerciale du Rwanda (BCR) on a busy Friday afternoon. The lines were long. In front of me was a Rwandan man dressed in a casual business manner. He was a little shorter than I, but about my age. I have never seen his face in the newspapers so I assume he’s not a known public figure. Most of us were trying to make the transactions go as quickly as possible. 

I did not first see her, but the gentleman in front of me noticed at the back of the line a short pregnant woman. I assume she put on her best clothes to come to the bank. However, she was the most poorly dressed person in the room. The gentleman after noticing her asked for all of us to surrender our place in line. We cooperated. He brought her to the front. She made her transaction and left. I was embarrassed that I the pastor had not noticed her. I was too self absorbed. I was impressed with the Rwandan gentleman’s chivalry.

Two thousand years ago my boss was asked who qualified as a neighbor to love as one’s self. He told an unforgettable story about a Jewish traveler who was ambushed by thugs. A pastor and seminary professor came across the wounded traveler. Both were too busy to help. Then a member of the Jewish traveler’s historic ethnic enemy, a Samaritan passed. As my boss told the story I imagine the crowd expected for him to conclude the historic enemy saw an opportunity to settle a score as the road was deserted. Instead the Samaritan applied first aid. Then he transported the wounded traveler to a hotel. He paid the bill and even left a deposit. My boss left the crowd speechless. All humans are our neighbors. Kindness, compassion, and chivalry are the marks of being a good neighbor. These are enduring traits of humanity. Selfish prejudice is humanity’s demon.

Several times over the last few months I’ve mentioned the story. I’ve heard two other stories.
A friend of mine once served in Rwanda as a diplomat. He and his wife returned to their nation’s capital city. His wife was pregnant with their first child. She rode a bus to work. The last people to get on the bus would stand. As her pregnancy became apparent none would give up their seat for her.

Another friend of mine once served in Rwanda as an NGO worker. His family returned to their home nation. His wife noticed an old woman standing on a similar bus. She was frail. Those who were physically strong chose to sit when they could have stood and given up their seat.

The Rwandan gentleman in front of me at BCR showed remarkable chivalry. He lived out my boss’s story.
Prejudices are dangerous matters. We have experiences which teach us how to categorize the world. Without basic categories life can be completely confusing. Yet sometimes our prejudices cause us to make poor judgments. We come to inaccurate conclusions and wound our neighbors.

I never heard either my diplomat or NGO friend describe Rwanda as a deeply divided nation. Yet, I have heard others describe Rwanda in those terms. Sometimes the easiest way to understand Rwanda is to read a history book or political commentary, develop categories, and start interpreting.

My family has lived in the Great Lakes region for some time. With experience come some prejudices. At year 8 in Uganda I began to hear accents. Some times as I met someone I could hear their first words and know in which region of Uganda they spent their childhood. In Rwanda occasionally I hear a Uganda accent.

The Rwandan gentleman in front of me spoke English with a Kiyankole accent. He had a thick mustache. I assumed his childhood was spent as a refugee in Western Uganda. By having a bank account and standing in line on a Friday I assume he has many dependants and wants a little cash on the weekend. He may be helping a relative through a problem. He may want to make a contribution at church on Sunday. He may just want to have a little extra fun with his wife and children. I assume he’s seen Rwandan women mistreated as he lived as a refugee. I assume a male authority figure taught him Rwandan women are worthy of dignity (after all Rwanda’s history books conclude Rwandan women were given far more dignity than the neighboring kingdoms). He probably would humbly describe himself as lucky whey he compares himself to his peers. Yet, he’s not so well known that his face is in newspapers. Something inside him was different than all of us that day at BCR. He noticed a short poorly dressed pregnant woman, and used his moral authority to treat her with dignity.

He practically lived out the old parable my boss told about a Good Samaritan. My prejudices from living in Uganda a few years and reading the stories of Jesus made me interpret the events as being different from some other prejudices about Rwanda. Most of us that day in BCR were too self-absorbed to see a woman deserving extra dignity and kindness. However, a man who could have seen the world through a lens of hateful prejudice and revenge saw Rwandan unity and female dignity. He responded as a gentleman. Not only is unity alive in Rwanda. Chivalry also is alive and well.

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