Blog: April 2021

April 4, 2021

“Love makes us inventors.”  -Maggy Barankitse

Long drawn out committee meetings, endless conversations, lecture halls and planning retreats are not my best friends.

Practitioners tend to be the superheroes who inspire me. People who birth ideas into organizations, companies and programs that make a real and lasting impact in our world spark my sense of awe.

So Easter is more than a historical idea for me—more than a ritual to re-enact between a morning Easter egg hunt and a post-church ham supper once a year. In the spirit of the late management guru Peter Drucker, the practitioner in me asks: Does Easter still fulfill its mission?

Then I read a story about a Christian woman who builds a swimming pool for Burundian orphan kids in the middle of a former killing field—a place where Hutus and Tutsis butchered one another during their civil war. My curiosity is piqued. When she claims her motivation for building a swimming pool (besides giving poor children a place to swim) is to remind her country of the Christian ritual of baptism—and its power to bring healing, forgiveness and redemption—I’m really intrigued. She’s a theologian who builds swimming pools. That’s cool.  I’m ready to buy a plane ticket to meet her.

So I apologize this Easter morning to take you down a disturbing path en-route to a more uplifting place. But that’s actually the Easter story, isn’t it? It’s the path to the Cross. The betrayal, suffering and death of Jesus is really quite disturbing. A sobering reminder of the evil human beings can inflict upon others. But stay with me. 

Imagine showing up to work one day and being interrupted by men wielding machetes. Your first reaction—this isn’t really happening. Disbelief. But then those same men begin to separate people on the basis of their physical features. Once that is done, the bloodshed begins. Gruesome.

That’s what happened to Maggy Barankitse.

Burundi in the late 1980s to early 1990s was the epicenter of one of the most horrific manifestations of modern ethnic cleansing. Working for a Catholic service organization—an organization that did good work in her community—Maggy worked in a peaceful and nourishing place.  One day it all changed.

The Tutsis had mobilized and began to systemically eliminate anyone belonging to the Hutus.  Fortunately Maggy was a Tutsi, so she was passed over by the murdering mob. All she could do was watch the insanity and fervor of the moment while these crazed men executed her colleagues—nuns and priests—in front of her eyes. 72 human beings total.

Forgive me for oversimplifying and not sharing too much history. Tutsis were a minority group of Burundians who had held power over the majority Hutus. Tension and violence existed between the groups for decades. In 1993 this volcano of hatred erupted again. Tutsis organized and killed Hutus, followed by Hutu retaliation. Estimates of 300,000 were murdered in these cycles of revenge.

But the most personal moment was Maggy witnessing her Hutu friend Julia being murdered in front of her eyes. Julia’s last words to her: “Please educate my children. Love them like your own.”

It’s hard to know how any of us would respond to such a traumatic event—and how we would move forward with our lives.  We might turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain. We might lapse into deep despair and live ineffectual lives. We might become bitter, cynical and angry and continue to perpetuate a cycle of revenge and violence. We might be disillusioned and turn away from our faith. 

Maggy chose none of the above.  She leaned into the Easter story. She chose to replace violence with forgiveness, revenge with love and fear with courage. A response deeply rooted in her personal faith.

So Maggy honored her friend’s request and took Julia’s children as her own—a subversive and dangerous act considering the national climate. Maggy didn’t stop with just those children, she started an organization called Maison Shalom,  bringing thousands of orphaned Tutsi children and Hutu children together to be raised in a community of “God’s abundant love.” Maggy believes her country can only survive and heal by creating a community where Hutus and Tutsi orphans grow up as brothers and sisters.

I’ve always believed when people chose the path of love their lives become bigger, deeper and more purposed. Just watch and observe. People who love attract others. People who love with abundance have broader circles of friends, can live with the complexity of diversity and are not threatened by difference. And people who love are inventors.  That’s what Maggy has learned in the aftermath of this genocide:

“Love makes us inventors.”  Words I won’t forget.

Invent is what Maggy does. She’s invented a community to raise Hutus and Tutsi children under the same roof. She’s invented small businesses for youth—car repair, tailoring, and barbershops. She’s created a hospital. She had the audacity to build a swimming pool where blood once flowed. She had the presumption to build a movie theater.  Because, in her words, “poor kids need more than our used clothes—they need to dream.” Oh, and she’s created a morgue so families can appropriately mourn their loved ones.  Maggy is inventing a new future by creating tangible expressions of hope and opportunity.

When I witness Maggy’s work I think of one word: resurrection. I think of what this Easter day means for you, me, our world and its promise of new life and new beginnings for those who embrace this unique path.

Is Easter simply a historic event, or an event charged with the potential to transform broken hearts, broken lives and broken communities?  If Maggie can invent a new future for the children of her country, rooted in the resurrected love of our risen Lord, we can as well. And that’s hopeful news for us all this Easter Sunday—Good News indeed!

Let Love make you an inventor—


PS. Check out this short inspiring video about Maggie.

April 2, 2021

“Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Ephesians 5:14

“How’d you end up working in North Camden?”

Cross-legged, shoulder to shoulder on a crowded office floor, sat 15 curious Princeton Seminary students.  Their annual weekend retreat to UrbanPromise included visits to local non-profits and meeting ministry leaders. This particular Saturday—an audience with Father Jeff, the founder of HopeWorks.

“Just like you I was in seminary at Boston College,” chuckled my Jesuit friend. “One Easter weekend I came to visit some missionaries who worked in the city.” 

He paused, looked at the wide-eyed students, and shared a story about a unique Easter tradition in North Camden.

“On Good Friday a number of the local churches re-enact the last hours of Jesus’ life,” he reminisced. “A big wooden cross is carried throughout the neighborhood streets and planted at different locations. Scriptures are read. Prayers shared. People dress up. It’s a somber, reflective journey.” 

As the procession continued that particular day, followers slowly dropped away as the event drew to its conclusion.  Our young seminarian stayed to the last stop. 

“We end up at a vacant lot just around the corner,” he motioned out the office window. “The temperature was dropping, but a small circle of people continued to huddle around this big wooden cross. The moment hit me unlike anything I’d ever experienced.” 

Father Jeff’s memory vividly recalled the details of the moment as if it happened, not a decade ago, but a few hours earlier. He recalled the broken glass, trash and needles under his shoes. A row of abandoned homes, a burned out factory silhouetted the afternoon sky. 

“Even though everything around the cross suggested despair and decay,” he reminisced, “here was a committed group of people praying—claiming life, hope, peace, healing, restoration....resurrection.  Seemed I was in the presence of something special.”

Jeff gave a contemplative pause, then ushered his final words: “I decided I needed to be around these kinds of people.”

After graduation, Jeff packed his belongings, moved to State Street on the north side Camden and joined that faith-full little community. He bought one of those abandoned row homes, restored it, created an oasis for youth and birthed a wonderful organization called HopeWorks—a group who continue to play a significant role in equipping youth with computer and life skills. “I knew nothing about computers,” he mused. “I just learned alongside the kids. That made us partners.”

This is what Good Friday people do.  Good Friday people move and act in the promise of Easter.

For many, this has been a challenging year. There’s lots of reasons to despair, be anxious and retreat in fear. That’s why this day is so important in the Christian calendar—especially right now. Our story begins with betrayal, an unfair trial and a horrific act of violence. Good Friday people can acknowledge difficult stories, yet refuse to retreat and surrender to the caustic voices of cynicism and defeat. Good Friday people can absorb life’s pain, yet still choose to act in faith—even when the tomb is sealed and all seems lost.

For me, that’s why we still call this holy day good. I’ve witnessed the remarkable good that can arise from remarkably bad situations. Every day I’m awed by the extraordinary generous lives of ordinary people who compassionately embrace those overwhelmed by life-eroding forces.  In our world’s most challenging communities I meet saints who labor with persistent Hope where many have lost hope. Ordinary lives, empowered by God’s spirit, huddled around the cross—claiming there’s a better story coming.

Easter expresses itself in new ways with each generation—birthed anew for all who say yes to the God of this day.  As the prophet Isaiah beautifully reminded, “God is doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (43:19). Yes, a new thing is happening! Let’s be part of it.

Rise up, Good Friday Friends—


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