Songs of praise bellow from an accordion, reverberating off the smooth plaster walls of the prayer room in which the People of Love savings group meets in Gasharu Parish, Rwanda. The instrument, a rare sight in Rwanda, is only the first sign that something extraordinary is happening. Its owner, Pastor Joseph Iyakaremye, weaves a tale of God’s provision and faithfulness as moving as the most beautiful chorus.
As a child he first saw an “air machine” in the hands of a German missionary. He marveled over how it could produce such beautiful music and, long into adulthood, hoped to own this instrument that brought such joy to him and others.
As tensions escalated in Rwanda in 1994, eventually erupting in a genocide that claimed over 800,000 lives in just 100 days, Joseph received word that there was an accordion for sale. He walked three days across the country in pursuit of his dream, and when he found the accordion, he sold his only cow to finance its purchase. He taught himself to play and, though not yet a pastor, immediately saw the ministry possibilities of this instrument. “When I played it, people used to come to hear it, and then I got the opportunity to tell them the Word of God,” he explains.
Soon he felt God’s call to full-time ministry, and he left his job with a water tank construction company to lead a church. “In that time it was not easy to teach people,” he remembers, with many survivors questioning, “Where was that God you are teaching us while our people were killed?” Pastor Joseph also taught in the local jail, which he soon realized was filled with former church members swept up in the ethnic violence of the genocide despite their religious affiliations. “We’ve learned that what matters is not to be an Anglican, a Methodist, or an Adventist. What matters is to have Jesus in your life,” he says, going on to quote from 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
“When you see what happened in Rwanda—how people killed their neighbors—it was very hard after the genocide for people to reconnect … The Church found that there is no other solution but to use the Word of God, reaching to people and comforting them.” But Pastor Joseph quickly identified the need to address physical poverty as well as spiritual: “The non-believers passing around said that there is no God there,” he explains, because they saw, “words without action.”
On his own initiative, he began economic development projects, uniting the community around fighting the common enemies of evil and poverty. When he learned of savings and credit associations being launched by HOPE International in partnership with the Anglican Church, he eagerly participated, launching 13 groups in Gasharu that have saved over 3 million Rwandan francs (nearly $5,000). “People are working together in harmony; they are transformed,” he explains. In the past 2 ½ years, 100 community members have found Christ, and the savings groups and the church are flourishing as incomes have grown, financial security has improved, and generosity has blossomed, with tithes tripling what they were just one year ago. “Now everyone is saying, ‘There is a living God in this place.’”
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