Rick Warren exports American-style evangelism—and the gospel of adoption—to Rwanda.
Image from Flickr to jurvetson
By Kathryn Joyce
Excerpted from The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption
In 2005, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, a controversial military leader who helped end the country’s 1994 genocide, invited Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren to implement in Rwanda the lessons of his best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life. Warren’s book had been as popular in Rwanda as it was elsewhere in the world, and more than 100,000 copies had been distributed in the local language of Kinyarwanda. The program in Rwanda would be based on the ambitions of Warren’s P.E.A.C.E. Plan—a missionary empire that places local churches at the forefront of global development work and that uses trained church volunteers to augment or replace government social services—and the Rwanda program would be the first nation-scaled implementation. The plan’s programs, such as its “clinic in a box”—giving churches the basic ingredients to provide rudimentary medical care to their community—did triple duty by helping citizens, easing the government’s burden, and evangelizing the public by boosting the credibility of the local church providing the care. It went without saying that a component of Saddleback’s work in Rwanda would focus on one of the “signature issues” of Warren’s 20,000-member Saddleback Church: orphan care and the imperative for Christians to adopt—something Warren would go on to describe as not just a cause, but “a biblical and social mandate we can’t ignore.”
After the genocide, with more than eight hundred thousand dead in just a few months, family structures had been destroyed and hundreds of thousands of children were orphaned. Some of these children were placed with extended family or other domestic adopters in situations that resembled indentured servitude. Some Rwandan families taking orphans were unprepared for the behavior of children who had been traumatized by the violence they had witnessed as well as the loss of their families. Many children were sent to new orphanages built in the wake of the carnage. “We had half a million orphans scattered around the country,” Rwanda’s late Minister of Gender and Family Promotion, Inyumba Aloisea, told Warren at the 2012 Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit, hosted last year at Saddleback. “I have to be honest with you, pastor, we didn’t know what to do. We collected all the children in orphanage centers,” she said, noting that by 1996, the country had 104 orphanages in operation.
In 2012, when Minister Aloisea addressed Saddleback, Rwanda had cut that number to around thirty-four, and the official number of children housed in those orphanages was then just over three thousand. “Rwanda intends to be the first country in the world to have no orphans and no orphanages,” Warren crowed from the stage, adding that “3,050 orphans are all that’s left in Rwanda! From half a million! Teach us how to do that in five minutes. I want to do that in every country!”
The number of Christians in the world far outweighed the number of orphans, so the problem was just a matter of mobilization.
It was something Saddleback already had thoughts on. Their plan was based on the same premise of a united, global Christian community—ready to be tapped for a joint effort—that informed the Christian adoption movement’s formula for solving the orphan crisis: the idea that there are hundreds of millions of orphans in the world in need of help, and presumably adoption. The solution was presented as an equation: the number of Christians in the world far outweighed the number of orphans, so the problem was just a matter of mobilization. As Elizabeth Styffe, founder and director of Saddleback’s HIV/AIDS and orphan care initiatives, put it, speaking at her home church at the 2012 Summit, “Who’s going to end the orphan crisis? The church.”
“There are more churches than Starbucks or McDonald’s combined in the United States,” Styffe told me. “And more people went to church last Sunday than will watch every single football, basketball, or other sporting event all year long in America. So there’s a labor force in this. All over the world there may not be civic government or school, but there will be a church.”
[Kagame’s] goal was to turn Rwanda into “the Singapore of central Africa,” and he clearly thought that Warren’s influence could help.
In exchange for giving Saddleback’s missionaries unparalleled access to the country, Kagame, who stated publicly that he was not personally devout, hoped that Saddleback’s involvement would attract investors to Rwanda. His own goal was to turn Rwanda into what The Economist called, “the Singapore of central Africa,” and he clearly thought that Warren’s influence could help. Warren joined Kagame’s presidential advisory council, and Rwanda was hailed as the first “Purpose Driven Nation.”
“I’ve never seen that kind of situation before, where the government has really partnered so closely and so openly with a private organization, whether a religious one or not,” the National Council For Adoption’s Chuck Johnson told me. “You see a lot of public partnerships here in the United States,” he continued, noting the “seat at the table” the U.S. State Department has afforded American adoption lobbyists, “but this looks like nation building, where there’s a plan to make [Rwanda] an English-speaking, Christian African nation.”
Although Kagame was more interested in the business connections Warren could bring to bear than his evangelical message, the proselytizing came along with the thousands of volunteers Saddleback sent from Orange County to Central Africa’s Great Lake region. After all, the “P” in Saddleback’s P.E.A.C.E. Plan initially stood for “Planting churches,” and even though it has since been updated to “Planting churches that promote reconciliation”—a particularly resonant message in Rwanda—Saddleback maintains that all reconciliation begins by reconciling with God.
That was also a message Rwanda was primed to hear. After some Catholic leaders were found complicit in the genocide and Catholic churches became the sites of some of its worst massacres, with many asylum seekers killed inside the churches where they had gone to seek refuge, a massive wave of conversions to U.S.-style born-again Christianity had swept the country. “We had statistics that over 90 percent of our population was Christian, but it didn’t stop the genocide from taking place,” Eric Munyemana, the executive secretary for Saddleback’s P.E.A.C.E. Plan operations in Rwanda, told me. “That’s a sign that there [was] something wrong with our Christianity.”
The older missionary nodded. “You can do things here you could never do in America,” she said.
Many Rwandans apparently agreed. Today Rwanda is an intensely evangelical country: U.S. missionaries dominate its airport and hotels; the rooftops of Kigali buildings sport massive testimonials to Jesus; and church membership is the focus of any introduction between strangers. The impact was apparent everywhere. In Kigali’s sparse but efficient airport a group of post-college youth missionaries from Oklahoma, training in Rwanda’s burgeoning hospitality industry, compared notes with an older Oregon woman who ministers to Rwanda’s jailed genocidaires. “There’s so much light here,” one of the youth missionaries remarked. The older missionary nodded. “You can do things here you could never do in America,” she said.
It followed that Saddleback’s prioritization of orphan and adoption issues became influential in Rwanda. Saddleback staffers, including Styffe, were among the first families to adopt Rwandan children to the United States. And Archbishop Emanuel Kolini, the influential head of the Anglican Church in Rwanda as well as a partner in the P.E.A.C.E. Plan, having visited Saddleback three times, believes that Saddleback’s prominence has aided individual adoption applications. “Rick Warren is well known” and the Rwandan government trusts Saddleback, Kolini told me. “Otherwise, [Rwandan government officials] are not sure what [adoptive parents are] going to do with the children.”
But there was a disconnect between Rwanda’s policies and the support for massive international adoption programs backed by many attending Saddleback’s 2012 conference, where Warren announced, to cheers, “When I say orphan care, it’s adoption first, second, and last.” But despite this consistent message, and the abundant factors portending yet another “perfect storm” adoption market in Rwanda, no adoption boom came. Instead, Rwanda’s government maintained a tight grip on its adoption process, scrutinizing each case extensively and effectively challenging prospective parents to demonstrate why they deserved to adopt one of Rwanda’s children.
“We want children to remain here in Rwanda, because we want them to be Rwandan.”
This level of control, a sharp contrast to the disarray and corruption that took hold in other war-torn and desperately poor countries, is not actually surprising in the context of modern Rwanda, today so well ordered a nation that outsiders hail it as Africa’s “biggest success story.” While politically the government’s control over public life has been condemned as authoritarian, with opposition journalism and dissent stifled under the pretext of post-genocide laws against ethnic divisiveness, and national elections have been dismissed by The Economist as “a sham,” the positive effects of the new regime’s policies are apparent in many other areas. Rwanda is a country where women represent more than half of Parliament, where corruption is rare and a bribe can quickly land both parties in jail, and where once a month all Rwandans, including the president, are expected to pick up litter during a communal cleanup day.
Rwanda is also a place where the rigor of bureaucratic formalities can take on an absurdist air, as was obvious during a 2011 visit to the offices of the country’s Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion (MIGEPROF). In a hallway of their utilitarian offices in an airy hilltop compound, cranky ministry officials shook their heads at what seemed to them an unmanageable glut of pipeline adoption cases. “We have a huge number of demands, but few children that are adoptable,” protested Benilde Uwababyeyi, the child protection officer in charge of MIGEPROF’s overseas policy, gesturing at a database for waiting parents—most from the United States and many, Uwababyeyi noted incredulously, asking for more than one child.
In 2011 only one orphanage in the country was allowed to offer children for adoption: the small Home of Hope orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity, the Catholic order founded by Mother Teresa, and its entryway graced with a large poster declaring in English, “We fight abortion by adoption!” The reason was procedural. It alone, of all Rwanda’s orphanages, had implemented a routine process of having the police investigate and declare children legally abandoned so they could be eligible for adoption. Rwanda does not allow children with families to be adopted abroad, and any children sent for adoption must have their family connections traced first to ensure they don’t have living relatives. The rules are strictly enforced. When one California couple wanted to adopt an older girl they had met in an orphanage, they were refused because the girl’s mother, despite being committed to a mental institution, was still alive, meaning the daughter might have a chance to know her.
Diligently following principles like this can make for a long wait for prospective adoptive parents. Even with a waiting list numbered in the tens, not the hundreds or thousands, parents who are 30th in line may stay at the same ranking for many months while officials conduct a full investigation of each child’s background before moving on to the next case. It’s a task made more complicated and slower by the fact that abandoning a child is illegal in Rwanda, so few parents leave enough identifying details to easily verify the child’s status. Compared with this trickle of vetted orphans, the demand from the United States overwhelmed the small MIGEPROF offices.
Not only that, Uwababyeyi said, but by policy, Rwanda wanted intercountry adoption to remain a last resort, coming only after efforts to reunite families or find domestic adopters had been exhausted. “We want children to remain here in Rwanda, because we want them to be Rwandan. To stay in the Rwandan culture and learn Rwandan values,” she said, “that’s why we are building this campaign.” The campaign she meant was the government’s nascent effort to encourage domestic adoption, which had entered public awareness via a billboard series sponsored by Rwandan First Lady Jeannette Kagame’s Imbuto Foundation, exhorting Rwandans to “treat each child as your own.”
International organizations have gotten Rwanda’s message. “What we know is that the current minister of MIGEPROF is not supportive of inter-country adoption at all, thinking adoption should be the last resort for a few cases,” said Damien Ngabonziza, a UNICEF official assigned to work with MIGEPROF. “They don’t want children to be sent out unnecessarily.”
In part Rwanda’s reticence is a result of recent cautionary experiences. During the chaos of the genocide in 1994 a small number of children were sent abroad to European countries like Italy and France. Some were relinquished for adoption by desperate parents who saw no other way to save their children, and some were taken out of the country during emergency evacuations by orphanage staff desperate to save their wards. The outcomes were mixed. In the case of a group of children adopted to Italy, the children never came home, and Rwandan families and government representatives attempting to check on them, including Damien Ngabonziza, a UNICEF official assigned to work with MIGEPROF, were denied access. When he attempted to visit the children in Milan in the first years after the genocide, Ngabonziza says, “They would not even allow us to talk to the kids. Later on we tried to get them back, with no results. I understand that after ten years they have probably settled down, but they might like to know who they are and where they come from. Some of their parents survived and may not be aware of where they are.”
Some government officials had personal reasons to be suspicious of adoption, such as one ministry official who, an adoptive mother heard, had temporarily lost her own children during the genocide, only to find them later in an orphanage in the neighboring country of Burundi. “I think in her eyes, it was a good thing they didn’t have open adoption policies,” said the mother. “What if her children had left the country [for good]?”
Alfred Munyentwari, national director of SOS Children’s Villages Rwanda, a nonprofit that works on family preservation and family-based foster care, agreed that the impromptu adoptions that took place during the genocide left their mark in the minds of many Rwandans. In 2006 he was contacted by the guardians of a nineteen-year-old woman who, with a sibling, had been adopted by a German family as a seven-year-old girl after her parents had been separated during the genocide. The father, left alone with the children, had feared they would be killed if he kept them, so he allowed a German couple to take them out of the country. When the adopted daughter felt drawn to rediscover her heritage as an adult and came to Rwanda under Munyentwari’s care, she found that her adoption had led to her parents’ divorce, as her mother blamed the father for “selling the children” and his community turned against him. “They said, ‘You are terrible, you are foolish,’” Munyentwari recalled. “‘How can you sell children? We sell cows.’” The father was shunned in his town until his daughter’s return cleared his name. “This story is to tell you that sometimes children can go and when they go, they will get homesick,” Munyentwari told me. “They will say, ‘I am well fed, well clothed,’ but no one can feed that need.”
“In some countries there is acceptance of adoption, but in Rwanda we think only God can know the future,” he concluded, arguing that Rwandans are afraid of not knowing whether their children are okay after they leave the country. “There are some people coming and saying, ‘the Rwandese are stupid because they don’t want the good life for their children.’ But people have to think twice. I may be in a miserable situation today and not able to educate my children, but maybe tomorrow can be better. It’s easy to say, okay, you want the child, take the child. But maybe my children will not forgive me. I think it is better to say I’ll keep my children.”
Kathryn Joyce is a journalist and author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption, and Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Support for the reporting in this piece, excerpted from The Child Catchers, came from the Knight-Luce Fellowship on Global Religion Reporting.