Yesterday I was back on my old stomping ground of the Springfield Road for an event at Forthspring, where they hosted the President of Burundi, Mr Pierre Nkurunziza. The purpose was, as I have stated previously, to explore the relationship between dealing with community hostility and social disadvantage.
For those who don't know, Burundi is a tiny republic in Central Africa, which has experienced recurring ethnic tensions, largely between the traditionally dominant Tutsi's (who controlled the army) and the majority Hutu. Since the assassination of a former Hutu president, Burundi has experienced unrest which has resulted in at least 300,000 deaths, putting our little local difficulties in perspective. Pierre Nkurunziza was at one time a rebel Hutu leader, though in interviews he emphasises that he was forced into this when the army came to kill him in his University post in the first throws of the unrest (His father had been killed in earlier conflicts in the 1970s). As the culmination of their particular peace process and reintroduction of representative democracy, he was elected unopposed as President in 2005, and has sought to involve both ethnic communities in his administration. Armed rebel turned inclusive head of state... No relevance here at all!!!
Sadly, we got to hear very little about this, or indeed anything about the stated theme. Part of this, I fear, was because of nervousness regarding his past and the danger of difficult questions. The other major problem was the fact that the whole event was conducted in 2 languages... Not English and Irish, as other events in that part of town frequently are... But English and French, since the latter is literally the "lingua franca" of the main ethnic groups in that area. Maybe we should we have had things translated into Irish and Ulster Scots as well just to make everyone feel included.
But the result of the simultaneous translations and the short timeframe was the fact that no-one got to say too much and nothing was terribly profound.
But as well as using different verbal languages the different speakers were also using different conceptual languages...
Those from here, (including the ubiquitous Duncan Morrow) whilst people of profound Christian faith, standing in a place of Christian worship, spoke the "God-free" language of political theory and community development.
President Nkurunziza, a self-professed "born-again Christian" unashamedly, and simply spoke in the language of the Gospel, claiming that all that was needed in his country to address the issues of reconciliation and social deprivation, was to love God and love our neighbours...
Sadly we didn't have much time or opportunity to tease out the implications of that prescription with the President, and the promised open forum discussion after his departure didn't materialise. But one senior church leader sitting near to me described the whole experience as "fascinating and intriguing" and I have to agree.
Loving God and loving our neighbour may be the answer... I believe it is... But the issue is how we translate that into action. The danger is, we rob it of that which is distinctively Christian in the process...
p.s. On the way out of the building the President announced, in halting English, that his surname means "Good News." I truly pray that he may be good news for his people, as well as speaking about it.