The Rev. Carl Buffington of New Covenant Church traveled to Rwanda March 3-9 for the funeral of Archbishop and Freda Kolini’s son, John, who passed away suddenly from brain cancer. As a parent who has also lost a child, Carl shares his moving experience.

Dr. Rwigamba Balinda is a retired senator (2003-2011) and now Founder and President of Kigali Independent University, a man who would later be described to me as the most important person in Rwanda. After introducing me to him, Archbishop Kolini leaned over and said to me, “He lost a daughter two years ago.” A few minutes later I asked him, “How old was she?” “Twenty four,” he replied. Just about the same as our AJ, I thought. (Our son was killed in a car accident in 2004, survived by his wife and three-month-old son.) The shared pain was palpable—and this was the third child the Archbishop and Freda had to bury.

But then this was Rwanda, now on the cusp of celebrating a second decade since the genocide—10,000 people murdered daily for 100 days beginning in April of ’94. Shake Hands with the Devil is more than a book title; it’s an experience for so many. While there, I heard new stories of unimaginable loss. Unfathomable!  It was good to be back and yet so hard, and suffering is never relative.

As I sat in the St. Etienne’s Cathedral that Friday, I expected to sense whirlwinds of animosity dancing in the air following The Mission’s severing ties with Rwanda in 2011. They seemed absent.  Perhaps those spirits take a break when death and suffering are in the room, or perhaps it was my singular focus and I just didn’t see them.

Maybe I just didn’t care about all the feelings; I was there for one reason, to somehow share in the sufferings of my friends, the Archbishop and Freda, in the loss of their son, John—the same way they had opened their arms and heart to us after AJ’s death. Just weeks before this we had hosted them at New Covenant Church following Winter Conference. No one saw this coming.

Now, as I arrived at their home, three large, lighted tents consumed the Kolini’s back yard. People were coming and going constantly, people like the former senator, bishops from Uganda, Burundi and all over Rwanda. Freda sat in the porch area surrounded by friends and family, and the Archbishop greeted people under the tents. They were so gracious and had to be so tired.

The service had been scheduled for Ash Wednesday but was moved to Friday due to complications with getting John’s body home. He was now due to arrive at 8 p.m. on Thursday. Worship under the tents began about 6 that evening. Choirs from all over the diocese took turns leading the worship. A bishop from Burundi delivered a sermon, and others shared.  A little before 8 p.m. a number of us left for the airport which literally backs up to the Archbishop’s backyard.

We returned about 9 p.m. with John’s body and continued to worship till midnight. An old friend and I sat up past 2 a.m. telling tales.  Morning came early.

There was a reception and viewing at 7:30 a.m. on Friday at their home, and the service at the Cathedral was to begin at 11. People stood outside; some sat on the steps to the balcony. It was overflowing. The Dean of the Cathedral guessed there were about 800 people. While Archbishop Rwaje was the preacher, several others were invited to speak:  Bishop Sospeter of our College of Consulters; the Archbishop’s son Heri, someone who had been with John these last days; myself; and Archbishop Kolini. He talked about the source of his strength, Jesus.

From there, we drove to the cemetery for a service that lasted about two hours and was followed by a hand-washing ceremony. It was unlike any graveside I had seen. There must have been 1,000 people under one tent after another, and 10 times that amount in flowers. There were a dozen flower girls—I had wondered about so many matching dresses—and as many ushers. I experienced the ushers’ ministry when the Prime Minister, Pierre Habumuremyi, suddenly appeared behind me—I was whisked out of his way.

My flight had been moved to the next evening, and Saturday the Archbishop came by my hotel and took me on a tour of Kigali and to lunch with friends. On the way to the airport Saturday evening, I got to give Freda a last hug. There were still about 30 women gathered round her including her children and relatives. It was clear that it is indeed our Lord’s love manifest through relationships that sustains us through excruciating events.

Carl Buffington is the Rector of New Covenant Church in Winter Springs, Florida. Contact Carl.