Sulphur Springs couple answer call to aid healing in Rwanda

By PATTI SELLS | News-Telegram Feature Writer

May 11, 2007 - It was April of 1994 when Chris Shelby, then a senior in high school, stayed home from school sick one day, only to find himself made sicker by watching the news coverage of the genocide taking place between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes of Rwanda.

Collecting for a Rwandan book drive is just one outreach Chris and Jill Shelby, along with their 10-year-old son, Fred, are taking part in. The family is preparing to leave early next year for long-term missionary work in the country still recovering from the 1994 genocide that took the lives of 800,000 people within a 100-day period.

Overwhelmed with conviction for the lack of action taken by the United States — and the world, for that matter — to stop the slaughter of an estimated 800,000 people during a period of 100 days, Chris said a simple prayer.

"Lord, if you want me to, I'll go to Rwanda," he said.

Now, 13 years later and the associate minister of League Street Church of Christ, he, along with his wife and adopted son, is going.

"His dream has become our dream," said Jill Shelby, his wife and a third grade teacher at Austin Elementary. "We have received a powerful and undeniable call to Rwanda. We believe God has placed this on our hearts. He is already there, and we believe He is calling us to work along side of Him."

The Shelb's will leave in January of 2008 for a three-month apprenticeship under veteran missionaries already in Rwanda. They will return home from April to September to make final preparations for their long-term missionary work that will last anywhere from eight to 10 years.

"We will be there first as learners," explained Jill. "The people there have much to teach us.

"Our hope is to demonstrate the heart of Christ for a broken people who have difficulty trusting their neighbors. Ours is truly a ministry of reconciliation — to God, and each other."

According to Chris, some of the outreaches they could be involved with include working with orphans and AIDS patients, reconciliation ministries, and establishing Christ-centered communities, as well as churches.

"We don't want to bring an American agenda church and plant it on Rwandan soil," explained Chris. "We will be ministering in the context of their culture, believing the Rwandans possess the ability to self-theologize and read God's word and apply it to their own context."

The Shelbys are also collecting books for the Kigali International Community School, founded by missionaries and embassy workers already in the mission field, as well as a new library started by missionary Christy Dolinger.

"When the genocide came to Rwanda in 1994, the entire academic system was wiped out," said Jill. "Most of the teachers were killed and almost all literature was destroyed including text books and other materials."

According to Jill, Dolinger, a teacher and librarian by trade, was looking for work in Rwanda in addition to her work serving in the mission field. What she found was a half-finished building with no books and no more money to spend for the facility's completion.

When the minister of education in Rwanda heard that Dolinger was a librarian, he asked her to start a public library.

"Literacy is the key to education," Dolinger emphasized. "We need to encourage and increase literacy in Rwanda."

According to Dolinger, many African American families struggle to put their kids through the third grade, and the library will serve as an educational center for those families. 

A drive held recently in McKinney was able to accumulate 400 books for the library, according to Dolinger, who said they are still very much in the gathering stage of the project.

"We primarily need quality children's literature suitable for ages [kindergarten] through 12," said Dolinger, who explained that while Kinyarwandan is the native tongue, English is also an official language spoken there.

´┐ŻBook drives are taking place in North Richland Hills, Arkansas and Sulphur Springs, in addition to the one held in McKinney.

Rwanda is still recovering from the genocide in many ways, according to the Shelbys, who will be working with a team of three other families from Lubbock, Fort Worth and Fayetteville, Ark., all with varying backgrounds.

"Teaching or whatever vocation we choose is a mission," said Jill, who was named  Teacher of the Year at this year's Hopkins County Chamber of Commerce banquet. "I know that much of what I have learned in the classroom here, God can use in Rwanda. And I hope that I have touched some of my students with the need to reach out to humanity in love."

Naturally, they are experiencing a gamut of emotions about leaving their home, family, friends, church and careers behind.

"But there is an overriding peace that we are fulfilling God's calling," she said. "This is about comforting those who mourn. It's about restoring joy in the midst of brokenness. It's about restoring hope to a people who have seen hope driven out with a machete and with hatred. We don't have the words or ability to make what happened in Rwanda better. But we believe, through Jesus Christ, Rwanda will rise again."

The Shelbys believe that God has a special place in his heart for the poor, marginalized and oppressed.

"This is a chance for us to come and minister as a display of God's love for the hurting," Chris said. "It's a chance to show compassion and enter into suffering with these people. Rwanda has been a place where darkness reigned for a time. We believe this is an opportunity to share God's light. We are very excited about what God is doing and is going to do in Rwanda, and it is very humbling to be a small part of His plan." 

According to the Shelbys, there is a tendency to look at people in foreign countries as somehow being second class citizens, particularly in third world countries where poverty and disease are prevalent. 

"But they are people just like us," said Jill. "They laugh. They love. They cry, and they hurt. If our situations were reversed, if we were the ones to suffer as they have suffered, I hope someone would respond. The worst thing in this world isn't suffering. The worst thing is to suffer alone. We don't imagine that this will be important to everyone, but we hope it is important to someone. All it takes to make a difference in this world, is to care."

Books, as well as funds to help ship the books, are being collected through the month of May at League Street Church of Christ. For more information, call 903-243-3529.

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