I asked Sylvestre Nsengiyumva how many people he had killed when he was a rebel soldier. He hung his head and told me, “I don’t want to say or guess. Too many.” Sylvestre had been telling me his life story. He was one of the leaders at our Burundi pastors’ conference last weekend. Listening to his story reminded me that God’s grace through Jesus Christ is enough to redeem any sinner. Sylvestre is one of millions in East Africa who have spent practically their entire lives caught in ethnic strife. Below is his story.
Although Sylvestre’s parents were both Burundians, he was born in Rwanda where they were living as refugees at the time. When Sylvestre was 3 years old, his father was murdered and his mother consequently hung herself. A local family had pity on him, took him in, and raised him in the Roman Catholic church. But when he dutifully lined up to be baptized at age 13, he discovered that the officiating priest was requiring a fee for performance of the rite. Repulsed that he had to pay a priest for a ticket to heaven, Sylvestre returned home without being baptized. His host family reacted angrily and beat him. He ran away from home, an orphan again.
Sylvestre was eventually taken in by another Burundian refugee family, headed by a Seventh Day Adventist pastor. Together, when they felt it was safe, they returned to Burundi. But when civll war errupted three years later, Sylvestre’s host family was killed while he was at school. He saw their dead bodies as he fled for his life again across the border into Rwanda, an orphan for the third time.
In 1994, war broke out in Rwanda. Once again, Sylvestre found himself in the middle of the conflict. Falsely accused of aiding the enemy, Sylvestre was captured by a small group of Rwandan rebels. They took him into the bush in order to execute him, but they were ambushed by enemy soldiers and Sylvestre escaped. He fled back to Burundi.
The same ethnic tension that fueled the holocaust in Rwanda between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis erupted again in Burundi. In 1996, Hutu and Tutsi school students were killing each other. Sylvestre was wounded by a gunshot and fled to Tanzania, and then Kenya, where he spent two years as a refugee. Seething with hatred, Sylvestre decided to join the rebel army in Burundi. He connected with such a group in Tanzania and journeyed with them into to the D.R. Congo, where he and others were trained to be soldiers by rebel Congolese. They all made a deal to help each other fight in their home countries, and Sylvestre spent six years of his life surviving by plundering villages to finance his killing-mission. His conscience was screaming at him, but was locked into a lifestyle that was fueled by bitterness.
When a peace agreement was reached in 2005, Sylvestre was given an opportunity to join the Burundi military. His experience as a soldier propelled him through the ranks, but he was often given assignments that bothered his conscience.
Finally, in early 2008, he found himself contemplating suicide. Remembering some of what he learned as a child in the Roman Catholic and Seventh Day Adventist churches, Sylvestre decided to surrender to God and ask for mercy. He experienced amazing grace and was genuinely born again. He quickly joined a Seventh Day Adventist church and started taking a year-long course to prepare him to become a pastor. A natural leader, Sylvestre was assigned a pastorate in early 2009.
It was not much later that he attended a Heaven’s Family-sponsored pastors’ conference where he heard biblical concepts contrasted to traditions. He was challenged to make disciples instead of just build Sunday morning attendance. At the end of the conference, he stood before all the pastors and declared his intention to follow the Bible. He stood alone.
To make a long story short, Sylvestre had to resign his pastorate, but he started with 20 genuine sheep who wanted to obey Christ’s commandments. He began to disciple them, and before long his house church had to split into 4 house churches. Sylvestre and some of his sheep began walking to nearby villages preaching the gospel where it had never been heard before. Now, just 16 months later, Sylvestre and his disciples have planted 63 churches in Kirundo Province, mostly filled with new converts.
Sylvestre told me, “I passed through many provinces in these countries robbing and killing people. Now I want to go through those same provinces healing and saving people from their sins.” He is an evangelist at heart.
Heaven’s Family is going to provide him a bicycle and small-business loan so his dream can begin to be fulfilled. Plus, I hope we can raise about $100 per month in national missionary support that will help meet some of his travel expenses as he goes. If you are interested, please send an email to David Growden at DavidG [at] HeavensFamily.org. We will do our best to see that you receive monthly email reports from Sylvestre, translated into English in case you can’t read Kirundi! — David