From Rwanda with love…

I spent Wednesday evening at a new business networking group where one of the speakers was Martin Garner. I’d heard of Martin but never met him and he’s one of those guys who although they come over as quiet and unassuming, have a radiance and peace about them that’s tangible and infectious.

Martin talked about a new initiative through his Rwandan charity which offers individuals, businesses and churches in the UK the opportunity to sponsor a Rwandan woman for 12 months (at £50 a month) giving her the chance to learn a new skill which will allow her to support her family. Photographs and a brief biography were available and I just wanted to be able to sponsor them all! (http://rwandachild.com/team_and_contact.html)

Rwanda continues to be of international interest as the producer of The Passion of the Christ, is developing a movie about the Rwandan genocide, based on Immaculee Ilibagiza’s autobiography, titled “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust,”. The film will join a growing list of films that have dealt with the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath over the last few years. Martin highly recommends the book and suggests reading it before the film comes out.

Activate Your Life supporter, Faye Smith recently interviewed Martin and his wife Sharon and writes,

Martin and Sharon run Free Spirit, a pioneering mission organisation. “It’s difficult to box because it’s so organic,” says Sharon. “Free Spirit is about serving the poor in Rwanda, visiting someone from our estate who’s in prison and helping their family, helping people learn how God can meet and use them in a powerful way…basically we believe that the Gospel is truly for everyone and God has a bias towards the poor.”

And what about their relationship with the local church, I ask? “We work alongside the church in a complementary way”, Sharon replies. “There are other ways of doing church- empowering those people who will never set foot in a church building to go and spread the Gospel in their own communities, enabling people to access the kingdom.

Locally a few us just offer to do people’s gardens and clear their rubbish. There’s one lady, not a Christian but very open, who we met again recently and have been invited into her home a few times. Now we have introduced her to a Christian friend of ours we thought she would get on well with. They choose a book of the Bible and read and talk about it together each week- it’s discipleship, people accessing the kingdom whatever shape that takes.” In fact, a prominent local Moslem spotted the Garners having a coffee together in the local community centre and said, “I’m so glad to see you. When are you coming back down?!”

Where does the Rwanda connection come in I wonder? “We love serving the church in Rwanda and empowering others in the UK to make a difference,” Sharon exclaims passionately, “We’ve had forty street children sponsored since Christmas which is so thrilling. We’re helping to build the Kigali Dream Centre where street children will be able to go. At the moment they can serve 200 boys twice a week in their rented property. They have a meal, wash their clothes, learn carpentry skills and hear about Jesus. Right now they can’t help the girls because they just don’t have the facilities.”

There is a women’s centre however, ministering to those who have AIDS or were raped during the genocide, the widows, abandoned and destitute women. Here they have a chance to learn hairdressing or get trained as seamstresses to help them work themselves out of poverty and give them some hope. “It’s a double benefit”, Sharon reports, we go out to help, but we learn so much. They have nothing but the faith that God will provide- and he does. In fact, we are so close to the team out there, they feel like family now.”

Sharon and Martin have returned from a trip out there with a group of young people from our church. What really hit me this time is when we are bumping along on the minibus, the team are like “yeah, we’re going to help street kids” remembers Sharon, “then on the way back they were all just silent. They had been overwhelmed by the scale of the need in the refugee camps. We had to pray God would provide. None of them wanted to come home. We had a taste of what heaven will be like- God breaking through into the dark places and bringing life. Although there is suffering and desperation, it’s easier ground to work on than the West. They are so hungry for God in their lives. At times we felt like we were watching a TV programme- our brains just switched off- but these are real people and it’s really happening. We learn their names, hear their individual stories and can relate them to our own lives.”

I ask Sharon what’s changed for her since the trip? She replies, “I’m much less likely to be bothered by the small things now….and I’m so grateful for my home, my comfy bed. I remember the women I saw in their 80’s lying on the floor and I realise these are privileges I must not take for granted.”

Sharon is a teacher “in real life”, and confessed she was humbled by the way ‘ordinary people’ have taken the Rwanda project on. “I’m in a C of E school with probably half a dozen Christian families”, Sharon explains, “and when I did an assembly on my return, it was the staff who weren’t Christians who bought a brick for a pound. They who came up with the idea of a display for the hall- every time the children bring enough pennies in to buy a brick, they add another to the display. I’m not initiating anything, it’s like the spiritual in them is linked to the Father… people are just responding. Earlier this year Pastor Charles from Rwanda came to Sheffield and called into the school. He went into each classroom and talked to the students. There was a real sense of partnership.
This is personal and relational charity. We had 80 bricks by then and Charles was so moved. We took a photo of him holding one of those bricks on site in Rwanda and Martin came in and showed it in assembly. He talked about what the children might be when they grew up, and that they should always remember the moment when they partnered with God to make a difference in a country far away- you could have heard a pin drop.”

Lest you should think Sharon is some spiritual giant, she is keen for me to point out that she has her moments of weakness just like the rest of us. In fact, it is this story that made me seek her out to interview for Activate Your Life, because I knew it would resonate with so many of us.
“It was in the supermarket that God showed me my British-ness recently, and how I’m one person in Rwanda and another here”, Sharon recalls. “God has been convicting me that if I can preach and look for miracles in Rwanda, I should be able to do the same here too. His Spirit needs to infiltrate my whole being.”
It was coming up to Mother’s Day and Sharon had nipped to Morrison’s for a few bits. She found herself in a long ‘basket’ queue behind a chap in his late 60s, who was trying to engage the younger man in front in conversation. He was complimenting the guy on his Mother’s Day card and sadly commenting that he no longer had a mother and it was rubbish. Then he launched into a tirade about how badly the NHS had treated her. “My heart was full of compassion”, Sharon recalls. “I just wanted to reach out to that man and offer to pray with him, but we’re British and I didn’t want him to think I was some weird Christian, so instead I prayed quietly, ‘Lord, please put some Christians around this man to minister to him’. Then I stopped short as I realised I was the Christian around him! I asked the Lord to give me words but nothing came, my tongue was firmly tied and my mouth was dry. He left. I missed my moment. Then I remembered when I first became a Christian, I wouldn’t have cared what others thought.

Sharon concludes, “You know we can’t be passive, we have to be actively looking for opportunities. We’ve got to exercise our gifts in the small things. It brings God’s kingdom into the situation. I like to bring calm. People comment that my home feels peaceful- even my lesson observers have said ‘it’s so calm in here.’ I’ve learnt I need to allow God to draw out what lies dormant and stop hiding behind Martin. We’re all women of God. Let’s walk in it and receive it!”

Faye Smith

For more information on any of these resources, Sharon can be contacted on rwanda@myfreespirit.org or see www.freespirituk.org

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