Alex Joyner travels to Burundi to jumpstart course of study program

By Forrest White

In the United States, we don’t often see The United Methodist Church in the news these days without accompanying talk of division and turmoil and the potential of a denominational split looming on the horizon. But in the East African nation of Burundi, there is much joy and celebration within The United Methodist Church – it is reunited after 12 years of division.

“When I was asked to share a greeting from the United States United Methodists, I talked about the Spirit in the room,” said the Rev. Alex Joyner, who spent 10 days in June teaching pastors in Burundi, “the way that it was bringing new life to the Burundi church, the way we longed to share in that Spirit of unity in the U.S. church.”

  Joyner with people who began the cooperative mission on church land — in Bujumbura, Burundi.
  Photo courtesy of Joyner’s Facebook page

Joyner was the first of a number of instructors bound for Burundi over two years as part of a course of study program for 200 pastors.

The Burundi UMC announced the program as part of a partnership between the Virginia Conference, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and Ginghamsburg UMC, a megachurch in Tripp City, Ohio.

During his 10 days in Bujumbura with 200 pastors divided into groups of 60-70, Joyner’s teaching focused on Reformation and Wesleyan history and theology. He taught a similar course for 19 years at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.

In Africa, he taught in English. The Burundi pastors speak Kirundi. Interpreters were, of course, integral to the process.

“The language was a challenge but I think the biggest frustration was the lack of readings available in Kirundi,” Joyner said. “The course had to depend almost entirely on the lectures.”

Those lectures took place over 12-hour days in the classroom.

“It was grueling but fascinating, too,” Joyner said. “I never knew what sorts of questions I would have to respond to and what things might not translate.”

There was also another factor beyond his control – the heat. None of the classrooms were air-conditioned.

“I always felt well-used at the end of the day,” Joyner said.

He returned to Virginia and went straight to Annual Conference in Roanoke. Adrenaline kept him going.

“When I finally had an off day I found myself falling asleep every time I sat down,” Joyner related.

The Burundi church was split into two factions before the recent reuniting, one led by the Rev. Lazare Bankurunaze and the other by the Rev. Justin Nzoyisaba.

Their fight for church control began in 2005 upon the death of Bishop Alfred J. Ndoricimpa and continued until May 2017, when the Rev. Jean Ntahoturi was elected legal representative of The United Methodist Church in Burundi. Wounds began to heal. Relationships began to grow anew.

“We lost many things during 12 years of internal fighting in the Burundi UMC. We lost our social relationships, and when social relationships are broken it means spiritual relationship with God is tremendously affected,” said Georges Nshimirimana, a lay leader who worked with Bankurunaze, in a United Methodist News Service article from the spring of 2018.

Most of the pastors there went without any formal studies during the 12-year divide.

“I was very impressed with the commitment of the pastors,” Joyner said. “Many of them had hard journeys to get to Bujumbura and had endured great hardships just to be in ministry. They had long days of instruction but were very attentive and had lots of great questions.”

Among the questions Joyner had never dealt with before – “What are the ethics of doing a full immersion baptism with hippos in the vicinity?”

“It’s definitely not advisable,” he said.

With his first trip now behind him, Joyner said he hopes to return to Burundi. “It’s hard not to be attracted to its energy,” he said, describing it as “a young, vibrant, chaotic, beautiful, struggling country.”
Though there were challenges, there were also great rewards.

“Being reminded of the United Methodist connection was probably the biggest reward,” Joyner said. “Developing relationships that were founded on a sense of something we held in common was powerful.”
He brought home with him a greater sense of hope for how the Holy Spirit might shape the future of the denomination in the United States.

“Most of our interactions in the U.S. church these days are tinged with an air of tragedy as we lament the divisions that are tearing at the connection,” Joyner said. “I had a real sense that the Burundi church is at the beginning of a new chapter in their story and the Holy Spirit was evident in their work.

“Despite continuing divisions in the nation around them, they have visions and hopes based on what God can do through a reunited church. I pray we will be moving into a similar chapter soon as we move into something new in the U.S. church. We don’t have to reflect the divisions in the culture around us.”

-Forrest White is a news associate with the conference Communications Office.


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Background photos courtesy of VDOT.

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