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Burundi Minister's Journey To Become a Canadian Unitarian Minister

In the next year, Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana, a recently arrived refugee from Burundi, will be working with the Unitarian Congregation of Saskatoon, as he as he fulfills the requirements of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (of the Unitarian Universalist Association) toward becoming a credentialed Unitarian minister in Canada. Rev. Fulgence says, “I really felt it was important to go work in a church to learn the culture and learn how church is done here in North America.” Having worked as a minister at the Unitarian Church in Bujumbura, Burundi for the past 12 years, the MFC has been supportive, taking into account Rev. Fulgence’s experience and training, as he prepares to appear before the MFC panel next year.

“I think since I’m here, the fates wanted me to be here, I want to use that as an opportunity to continue my calling serving as a Unitarian minister. That allows me, in different ways, to continue my work back home. I’m glad that it’s working out.” The fates, in this case, guided Rev. Fulgence into our Canadian Unitarian community, after he was forced to flee his home in Burundi where, through his Unitarian church, he had been fighting against the violence and injustice of war that threatened the safety of thousands of Burundians.

Rev. Fulgence goes on to explain more fully, “I feel that many people do not know the story and it is important that they know.” The history of violence in Burundi stretches back almost half a century, and this history informs the current crisis. “Because the situation is so complicated, I would like people in the West to have some understanding.”

“So [Burundi] has been plagued with violence for many years, since we got independence in 1962. There was violence between Hutu and Tutsi, the main ethnic groups, and a series of killings in ’65, in ’72, ’88, ’93. But ’93 seemed like a very serious turning point. Tutsi leaders had been in power for a long time and in ’93 we got, for the first time, a Hutu leader elected, and then the president was killed after only 3 months in office, and a civil war started, with Hutu leaders getting angry and asking Hutu villagers to kill their neighbours. That’s how 50 or 60 thousand people were killed in a very few days.

“And the civil war went on from 1994 up to 2005 when we got elections and the current president got elected. Before that, Tutsi and Hutu leaders went to Arusha, a city in Tanzania, where they reflected on all the problems, tried to analyze and understand, and they come up with a peace deal.

“The treaty was not perfect, but it was something we could live with, it definitely allowed the two communities to live in harmony for 10 years. One of the things the treaty said was power would be shared and the presidential terms would not exceed two.

“So the current president was elected in 2005, and then again in 2010, and in 2015 he had this idea that the first term was not a term, because he was actually not elected by the people, but by the parliament. And that is the beginning of the problem, and the serious breach of trust between leadership and the people, resulting in the very reasonable fear of everyone that we are going back to war. And that’s what we have today.”

This complicated history set the stage for civil war, while the Unitarian Church in Bujumbura, led by Rev. Fulgence worked to fight against injustice and restore the peace treaty that had calmed the conflict for the past decade.

“Personally in our church, I was very involved in fighting that. It was the right thing to do, I still believe that, that something that helped Burundians after 50 years to live together, at least for 10 years, was worth protecting and was worth fighting for. So I wrote about it, I spoke up about it, and the government was definitely not happy.

“In November 2015 I was kidnapped, taken in the bush for many many hours and later I was saved by a group of the police who were not part of a clearly laid out plan for the government to harm me. Then I was detained again and later on released, thanks to very strong pressure from Unitarians around the world. Then I had to escape Burundi, I stayed for a few months in Kigali (Rwanda), and then was able to come here, thanks to the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC).”

Many Canadian Unitarians know some of this story. Rev. Fulgence’s life was threatened, but ultimately he managed to escape Burundi, making it to Canada as a refugee in February of 2016. What many may not be fully aware of is the impact that Unitarians had in this process, and the significant role played by the CUC in ensuring that Rev. Fulgence made it to safety and successfully applied for refugee status once arriving in Canada.

As part of an internationally coordinated effort from Unitarians worldwide, many Canadian Unitarians signed the petition to release Rev. Fulgence, some people called or wrote letters to different embassies, others called on the Canadian government to do something. “Many Canadian Unitarians sent donations to the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), who was spearheading a campaign to support my case, pay my lawyers (who did most of the work for free), and also assist others in exile with basic needs and enough protection for their safety and their survival.”

When it came to beginning life in Canada, “The CUC made sure I had a place to stay, a lawyer to guide me through the immigration process, which was very complicated, and so I think all the way the CUC has been very helpful and I’m grateful for that. I’m also glad that I ended up in Canada, because the CUC becomes a way for me to just be part of that community that cares about me, that I know will continue to do so, and will be happy to learn and to serve the movement from up here.”

Rev. Fulgence originally hoped to move to the United States, where his wife and son have been living for the past three years. But being granted a multi-year Canadian visa led him first to Montreal, then on to Saskatoon, where his family will hopefully be able to join him soon.

Saskatoon may seem an odd choice to many Canadians, but Rev. Fulgence explains that good Burundian friends and a strong connection to the Saskatoon Congregation are the primary reasons that drew him there, where he will serve in a modified intern minister position for the next year. “There is also the fact that Montreal seemed to be a very big and overwhelming city and my son, who goes to school in English, would have a difficult time getting an English school in Montreal.”

And what about the cold Saskatchewan winters?

“I didn’t think about the weather. Everyone says it’s cold and terribly cold, to be frank with you I don’t think anywhere in Canada would be warm enough for me, so I just imagine it will be cold. It was cold and snowy and gloomy in Montreal, and probably will be the same in Saskatchewan and I will learn to cope,” he laughs.

Adapting to life in Canada also means recognizing some of the differences between our Unitarian church culture, and the culture he is familiar with back home. “I come from a very (from Canadian perspective) a very God-centred, Christian Unitarianism, and it can be a striking difference if you go to any Unitarian congregation in North America. There are however things in common, and those are probably the reason people care about Unitarians in Burundi and in other places. We have the same values.

“We value social justice work, we want people to have a voice, and be able to make their own decisions, and we want to fight against oppressive powers, and all those things we have in common and I think that is what helps us stand out as Unitarians. We have differences but also many commonalities that unite us as a family, and I am personally glad we have those and we can build on those to have this good and thriving family.”

Although many Unitarians have pride in the autonomy of our congregations and our individual members, Rev. Fulgence emphasizes the absolute importance of our collective voice and responsibility. “This was a very good case where people from different congregations and different backgrounds worked together on an issue, and luckily there was a very good ending, so this is something people should be proud of. We are capable of doing something if we work together. Unitarians like to talk, but they also like to do things, and this was a very good example of not only the talking but also walking the talk.”

Now that our collective work has brought Rev. Fulgence out of danger and to the congregation in Saskatoon, Canadian Unitarians are once again being rallied to put our support behind him. The Unitarian Congregation of Saskatoon, supported by the CUC, has recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to support Rev. Fulgence’s intern ministry, as he works towards his MFC credentials. As a small congregation without even full time Ministry, the Saskatoon congregation is aware they’ll need support from across the continent to fund this internship fully. Visit the Faithify campaign to learn more.

Saskatoon has high hopes for Rev. Fulgence, who also has high hopes for his ministry in Canada:

“I am in the process for the MFC to be a minister in North America. I definitely bring myself and my cultural background and everything. I’m open to learn and to serve, to be a minister with all my capabilities. But I also have a hope that by me being here, it becomes a bridge between the churches here, Unitarians in North America, and the world, beginning with Africa and Burundi.

“I hope that everyone knows that with our collective Unitarian voice we can do something, we can work for peace, we can work for justice, and the work for refugees that is being done, and we can do even greater things. And I want to be not only a witness or a beneficiary of that possibility, but also be a bridge for even more of those possibilities.”

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