Voices of concern and celebration
Elizabeth Beane of the Hope Gate Way United Methodist Church in Portland made it clear that the cultural event hosted by our church on Sunday would carry two very distinct messages about life in Burundi.
“There are horrible things going on in Burundi,” she told a gathering of more than 200 people who filled our sanctuary to near capacity, “but the people of this country have also brought wonderful gifts to America with their music, singing and dancing.”
For more than two hours, we listened, absorbed, and experienced a striking contrast between sorrow and joy that was almost unfathomable. There were the personal stories of killings, violence, abuse, discrimination and torture. But just when it seemed as if the depths of human suffering were the only stories we would hear from the people of Burundi, we were introduced to another side of their lives; one that was uplifting and full of celebration.
Interspersed with their stories of tragedy and despair in a country torn by political strife, members of the Burundi community also brought to Sunday’s cultural event vibrant music and dance. On four occasions a troupe of young women danced in front of and down the aisles of the sanctuary, bringing spontaneous clapping from people in the pews, some of whom were their country men and women while others were members of our congregation and its surrounding communities.
There also were interludes of singing and guitar-playing, all as a means of reflecting a positive side of the Burundian people who have immigrated to the Greater Portland area during the past year while seeking political asylum.
A similar cultural event was held at the Hope Gate Way UMC in February and it was decided to hold Sunday’s event at our church as a way of spreading the stories of these immigrants to a wider audience. Elizabeth from Hope Gate Way has organized her church’s Friends and Families of Burundi program and coordinated Sunday’s event at our church.
At Sunday’s event, background information about Burundian history and culture was delivered by Norbert Kanteyineza. Then, four individuals — three men and one woman — offered poignant personal stories about the struggles of living in their country, including killings, torture, imprisonment, and violence against women.
The emotional stories were made even more heartwrenching because three of the four were translated to the audience by Norbert. While the individual telling the story would pause for each segment to be translated, he often was visibly shaken by what he had just revealed and it was apparent from their reactions, the audience could feel the pain.
Photos were not taken nor identifications revealed of the individuals who shared their experiences because members of their families are still in Burundi and there is great concern for their safety.
After the final presentation of singing and dancing, some members of the gathering were asked to stand up and join the dancers in the front of the sanctuary for a melding of cultures. It was a joyous celebration.
At the end of the stories and cultural entertainment, Judith Hill from the Cape Elizabeth UMC addressed the gathering about her own personal connection with the Burundian community.
During a Martin Luther King Jr. event at our church in January, Judith sat with a gentleman from Burundi who offered Judith a handmade bracelet from his country. Judith was so impressed by the gesture that she organized a group of women from our church to create homemade quilts over two weekends — and much work at home in between — to be given to the Burundian community during Sunday’s event as gifts from our church. Click here for more information on the quilting project: Quilting
Following the gift-giving, everyone moved from the sanctuary to the Narthex for a sumptuous meal prepared and presented by a Burundian chef and two of his assistants. They had worked on the meal and its presentation for eight hours.
Sunday’s event was free and open to the public, but there was a generous response to an offering taken to help the Burundian community with security deposits for apartments in Portland and for the hiring of asylum lawyers.
Elizabeth from Hope Gate Way explained that while the City of Portland will provide housing for people in need, they still require the payment of security deposits.
Click here for more images of Sunday’s Burundian cultural event: