To Be a People of Resilience (Audio Available)

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 22 November 2015

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I know that many of you remember when Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana came to visit us back in May of 2013. Fulgence is the minister of L’Assemblée des Chrétiens Unitariens du Burundi, which is the Unitarian Church of Burundi, in the capital city of Bujumbura.  If you met Fulgence then, you know what a beautiful soul he is.  

This past week, Fulgence was arrested at gunpoint, taken into police custody and interrogated severely regarding the activities of his church. He was threatened with physical harm and death, and at the moment, he remains in custody.

I have known Fulgence since 2010 when we met at a conference. Since then we have spent many hours together speaking about theology and our hopes and dreams for this world.  Fulgence studied with the Dominican Fathers, and was in process to become a priest, when he discovered that he was really a Unitarian at heart.  Research on the Web connected him with Unitarian Universalists around the world and eventually led to his becoming one of the founders of the first Unitarian congregation in Burundi.

Fulgence has built a strong ministry in Burundi that has provided care for his poorest neighbours, including helping them to access health care and schooling for their children.  He has created programs to address domestic violence, and has set up a foundation to provide care for children with HIV/AIDS.  He is an amazing man of peace who has been unjustly detained.

Burundi is a country that is bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like Rwanda, it has been challenged by ethnic and tribal tensions that have led to two civil wars and left Burundi as one of the poorest nations in the world.  Today the country is sadly near the brink of yet another civil war, and our fellow Unitarians in Burundi are caught in the middle.  

Back in October, a heavily armed group attacked the Unitarian Church in Bujumbura. They detonated grenades and opened fire. They vandalized the church offices and stole a sizeable amount of money.  

Nearly a month later, this Monday, November 16, a group of three armed men arrived at the church. They abducted Fulgence, commandeering his car, and forcing a member of his congregation to drive to a remote and dangerous area outside the city.  They demanded money, tied Fulgence up and threatened his life. Thanks to a bystander, the authorities were notified and he was rescued. The member of his congregation, who was forced to drive, is still missing.  Two of the captors were later taken into police custody.  

Details of what followed are confusing, but we know now that Fulgence was arrested on Tuesday, released and arrested again on Thursday. There is serious concern that he is being set up on trumped up charges and that his human rights are being violated, to say the least.

Since Thursday, UUs around the world have been advocating for Fulgence’s release. I’ve been in contact with members of his congregation who send us these words of thanks and courage: 

Nous sommes très reconnaissants de ce que vous entreprenez pour le moment pour que notre frère Fulgence puisse enfin recouvrer sa liberté après avoir échappé à la mort. Votre amour et votre solidarité envers les unitariens burundais nous réconfortent en ces moments de confusion.

Nous avons de l'espoir malgré ces moments de troubles. Le combat pour la liberté, la démocratie et le respect de la dignité humaine est un travail de longue haleine. Nous y sommes malgré ces souffrances presque quotidiennes, ces humiliations de l'être humain. C'est vrai, nous avons peur de cela mais nous restons courageux.

We’re grateful for your help. We have hope, despite the humiliations we are suffering. We know that liberty, democracy and human dignity is work for the long-run.  

These are a people of resilience who are trying to keep their Unitarian community alive in a dangerous time.

I know that there are so many social justice issues that call to us constantly. We are about to vote today on whether to support a Syrian refugee family. We could be marching in the streets right now to remind people of the human worth and dignity of refugees. We could be working to build ties with the aboriginal communities that are so close to us. We could be crying out on behalf of the safety of the whole world, calling for creative solutions not violence.  

I am aware that one more cry for help can feel like too much. So I thank you for the letters you have written and for any support you can send to ICUU. (I’ve set up paper and envelopes for if you’d like to write letters on behalf of Fulgence. I’ve been told that real letters still make a difference!)  I’d like to believe that we can act abundantly, even as we need to choose where to focus our efforts.

To be a people of resilience. I had been thinking of this congregation, this collection of people and its ancestors who built this church, before all of this happened. The entire length of our history is a continuous collection of stories about why the Unitarian Church of Montreal should never have survived from its very inception, and yet keeps bouncing back from adversity.

Consider those first days in the 1830s. A group of Unitarians dream of building a church here.  They invite a promising minister to lead them and he and his daughter die of cholera one month after their arrival. Just as the group starts to make plans for another minister and a building, the Rebellion of 1837 breaks out. The community is divided.  Some are loyalists to the crown, others join Les Patriotes. The whole plan for a church has to be set aside.  Still, these resilient people persevere. They manage to form a congregation in 1842, and call a minister a year later.  

Over the years, there are many challenges. Divisions between the board and its very strong but sickly first minister, John Cordner. Divisions between the congregation and its pacifist minister Frederick Griffin during the First World War.  Significant losses of young men from the community during the First and Second World War, and so it goes. They build a church on Beaver Hall Hill.  When part of the church catches on fire, they rebuild. Then they decide that the location is too far from the centre of the community, so they build a grand Gothic building on Sherbrooke and Simpson Street. They live through major social changes in Quebec, and watch as a significant number of its membership move to Ontario and beyond.  Its membership is diminished, and still it survives.  

Then one night, the glorious sacred space, with its huge stained glass windows, its ornate woodwork, the sanctuary that was once home to this community is set on fire.  The fire itself is famous in Montreal history. The tall Gothic pillars that stand in the sanctuary are steel tubes that act like chimneys conducting rushing fire through to the roof. The roof collapses, and two firemen are killed. This horrible event changes building codes and changes the way that fires are fought in this city.   

The next day, the church sat in ruins. It would take nine years before the congregation would buy this piece of property and build this church. Today, all around us, you can see artifacts from the former building. The stained glass windows. The burnt angel in the memorial corner, the beautiful doors that open into this sanctuary, the door to the Thomas Room upstairs — and these were the few things that were left. There was so much more that was lost.

This story is not my story.  I was not here then. I only encountered the eerie ruins of the old church during my first visit to Montreal in 2003, before they were removed and a luxury apartment building was built on the old site.  

I want to give the last word to Rev. Charles Eddis, our minister emeritus. I’ve asked him to tell you the story of the day after the fire, a story of resilience.

[Charles speaks]

To our new members who have joined us today, to all of you here today, I say that this is a place that has forged a people of resilience.  We are living through times of transition and we are not the same people or community that we were in the past. We are forever changing and evolving.  Whether we are here, in Burundi, or elsewhere in the world, whatever tragedies we may face, we humans do have a capacity to rebuild. Again and again. This is what we become part of.  We don’t do this alone.  We learn from each other how “to stick to it,” as Charles says.  For this, I am very grateful.

Note (added November 27, 2015): I can joyfully report that Rev. Fulgence has been released and is now in another country, thanks to the many emails, letters, and contributions made by our congregation and UUs around the world.

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