BEIRUT, Lebanon--Sharing a common language and sense of responsibility for the failure of their governments to stop the genocide that unfolded in Rwanda, French-speaking Baptists have banded together to fight AIDS and work for reconciliation in that East-African nation.
France and Belgium are guilty about the genocide," said Etienne Lhermenault, general secretary of Federation of Evangelical Baptist Churches of France, who was attending the general council meeting of the European Baptist Federation.
"Both governments armed the differing sides. They knew something was happening, but they closed their eyes because it was more comfortable," he said. "
France and Belgium refused to take a firm position on tribal factions, because they would have had to expose their own military, economic and moral involvement."
Patrick Denuet, coordinator of the Francophone (French-speaking) work for Canadian Baptist Ministries, based in Belgium, said, "Francophone Christians are sensitive to work on reconciliation" in Rwanda.
In addition to Lhermenault and Denuet, Roland Grimard, general secretary for the French Baptist Union in
Canada, and Terry Smith, CBM's director for partnerships and initiatives, talked one evening in Beirut with EthicsDaily.com.
The three French-speaking Baptist unions have fewer than 200 churches and 10,000 baptized members.
Because Francophone Baptists are so few, "the way for us to be a mission is for us to work together," said Deneut. "We try as Francophones to do something together."
One of their joint programs is called "Guardians of Hope," which focuses on AIDS prevention in the small nation of
Through churches, their initiative teaches biblical principles and AIDS education about abstinence and condoms.
Their initiative has a threefold strategy: (1) training for pastors, youth leaders and community leaders; (2) caring for people suffering from AIDS—orphans, grandparents and siblings; and (3) preventing the spread of AIDS.
The initiative uses the ABC model—abstinence; be faithful; and use condoms.
According to Denuet, many Christian relief organizations refuse to talk about condoms, while many secular non-governmental organizations refuse to talk about abstinence.
The Baptist initiative does not distribute condoms. It urges couples to remain faithful in marriage and individuals to practice abstinence. But the initiative also talks about condom use.
"By talking about AIDS, we have helped Rwandans talk about sex because of cultural taboos against talking about sex," said Smith.
The Francophone Baptist partnership also supports the work of a renowned African peacemaker, who received his theological education in
Canada. Joao Matwawana, a Baptist, conducts intertribal workshops on forgiveness and reconciliation, said Smith.
When these French-speaking Baptists started a theological training program, after the nation's brutal conflict in which fellow church members from different tribes killed one another, they found only 30 books in the Bible school's library.
"We doubled their library with one suitcase of books," said Denuet.
Describing their initiative, Denuet said, "We try first to listen to their needs before teaching."
He said that his "goal is for these students to reproduce their teaching for other pastors."
In terms of the ministries in their own countries, Denuet said, "We need prayer for the Francophone countries. Our countries are de-Christianized."
He expressed optimism, however. "We have passed modernity. People are now open to spirituality."
"Things are starting to change in
France among young people," said Lhermenault. "The content of their faith is more feelings."
He said, "It is a great open door for us."
Roland Grimard, leader of the French Canadians, pointed out that his union of 2,000 members practices church discipline. If a baptized believer is absent from active church involvement for six months, that member is removed from church rolls.
Other Francophone unions are not as quick to exercise church disciple, although they will remove inactive church members.
The Francophone partnership began in 1996 at a Baptist World Alliance meeting. It now involves pastor exchanges and outreach work together.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com