The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Rwanda recently celebrated 100 years of existence. As part of the celebrations, they inaugurated a medical school during an event that attracted the country’s top leadership and the Church’s top brass as well as other dignitaries.
The New Times’ Edwin Ashimwe spoke to Hesron Byiringiro, the Church’s president, about a range of issues including the milestones, goals, and controversies related to religion.
Below are the excerpts:
It is 100 years for the Rwandan Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church. That is a great milestone. Congratulations. What would you say are the major achievements you are proud about?
There is a lot to be proud of.
The first missionaries who came to Rwanda faced a number of challenges, they started from scratch but when you see where the Church has been able to reach today, it should give us the motivation that there is nothing we can’t achieve as long as we aim for it.
It has been a long journey that has seen very many people contributing without giving up and this can be witnessed by the growing number of church members.
President Paul Kagame and the First Lady joined senior leadership of the Church at the launch of the magnificent Medical school. Tell us more about this facility.
First of all, as the SDA Church in Rwanda, we were honored to have the Head of State and the First Lady join us to inaugurate the Medical school.
We were delighted to receive the President because it demonstrated that the country supports our vision and our works. As a Church, we have a vision that aligns with the nation’s strategic plan.
We believe that such a facility has a big contribution to the nation’s development. When you compare the country’s population and the number of doctors available, there is still a gap.
Seeing such an institution established here then demonstrates that the nation would record an increase in the quantity and quality of doctors. But most importantly we hope to see this facility reduce the number of Rwandan nationals fly overseas for medical training.
This activity also compliments the message taught by the Adventist church. We have four pillars and one of them is health and social welfare, so the establishment of this school comes in line with this.
You can have a state-of-the-art facility but what matters most is the skills and quality of graduates. One of the biggest challenges with a quality education is having a pool of qualified instructors and faculty members. What plan does the medical school have to ensure that the quality of teachers is top of the range?
The SDA Church has a way of recruiting teachers, this includes a selection of teachers from all around the globe, not just Rwanda. Whereas this is not easy, we always make this possible through the organization of the church.
There is another facility ‘Doctor’s plaza’ that was constructed mainly to facilitate [visiting] doctors from all around the world. We have a way in which some of these will be recruited because we want to ensure a good standard for the university alongside quality education.
How much is this project worth and who is financing it?
This project will be funded by the church leadership. Normally the church budget is negotiated from the general conference, and there is a criterion when it comes to payments and provisions.
Several employers say that graduates from the Adventist educational institutions easily integrate into working environments and perform better on the job. What is the trick? What is it your training about?
Discipline is key, I disagree with the fact that having a qualified teacher will ensure a student with quality education. Discipline is the most important lesson for education. We encourage our students to use their time efficiently. We don’t tolerate absenteeism and we also assess the schools on a church level, going even deeper than what the government asks for.
Secondly, our teaching style of grouping students plays a big part in this. Without discussions, students miss out on a lot of things. We also follow them up and not teach for the sake of teaching.
We read a lot about conflicts between the Church and other institutions. For example, some religions do not believe in artificial family planning yet its key to the welfare of citizens or some go to church on Saturday and will not show up at work, end up getting fired or miss exams. We have also heard of others who refuse to immunize their children. How can we get all players aligned without compromising one’s faith, school or job?
First of all, I believe that this all goes down to an individual’s belief. It is upon a Christian to decide whether they should do something or not, whether to compromise their faith or not. But this should not deprive them of their life.
Yes, it’s true that some religions do not agree with these policies but as for the Adventist church, we believe in family planning and immunization. Family planning helps someone to organize and plan for the future. You can choose to give birth to very many children as long as you’re able to cater for them but it’s very sad to give birth to children when you’re not able to cater for them, when you’re not able to educate them, such children will have a reckless life. It shouldn’t be about belief, we should be able to assess and see what’s best for society.
Some use the bible as an excuse for example where it says that “God blessed them and said to them; Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. This also zeros down to someone’s thinking but consider that you are not the only one living on earth and do what you are able to do, and let others do their part as well.
The youth make up over 60 percent of the Rwandan population. As an institution involved with nurturing young Rwandans, what are you doing to ensure we have an upcoming generation of responsible citizens?
The church and the nation have a role to nurture the youth in becoming good citizens. I believe that the youth should first of all be taught the country’s history and be guided on the different aspects that can lead to the development of the country.
The church has a special program for the youth where they are encouraged to be active in different useful activities. We believe that young people can be easily distracted when they are idle.
Let us talk about the Adventist version of being strict. Apparently, students are not allowed to enter campus if they are wearing earrings, or “above knee” clothing. Please explain to us what this is all about?
It is not only the Church’s belief. I believe that it is the country’s culture that should be respected.
There is a lot we imitate from abroad and this makes the youth feel like it’s what is best for them.
Teachers and parents as well are not supposed to accept this. There are others who tattoo their bodies but this doesn’t add any value to someone, yes we have the freedom to do what we want but let’s not forget that how we choose to display ourselves is how society will depict us.
God created us in his image, wearing earrings is not only against the Adventist belief but the culture as well.
The Church should guide people on preserving the Rwandan culture.
If you check other countries, people have lost their identities and if we don’t ban such practices, we may soon witness the same.
That’s where the Church has the responsibility of teaching or nurturing society.
The Adventist Church in Rwanda has about half a million members. We see new denominations springing up and aggressively recruiting members, especially with the popular prosperity gospel. What would you say is your value proposition that helps retain existing members and attract new ones?
The SDA has a structure and organization that governs it. If you follow the philosophy of the church you will realize that nothing should shake your faith. We believe that a person has the right to come and leave the church. But our responsibility is to teach the gospel, we have campaigns, crusades, morning devotions, we give out books, build education and health outreach programs, organize charity funds and all of this displays Christianity. People can be inspired by the way the church serves them.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I believe that the church has a responsibility - not just the Adventist church - to change citizens into followers of Christ. The Church also has a responsibility of enhancing love and unity.
When you see the population of Rwanda you will notice that 90 percent are followers of different denominations. Therefore, if church leaders worked together to change the mindset and people’s characters, the nation would change for the better.