My apologies to all of my five readers along with my Mother, of course. It is hard to believe that my last blog was in the fall. It is a really good thing that I didn’t quite my day job!
In some ways, there was just too much going on to stop and write about it. In other ways, I found myself at a sticking point in trying to explain this bizarre story of sport development that God has had me doing in Rwanda for the past ten years.
Well, anyway, I am back at it now.
We have had some incredible events occur in the last few months that I will touch on. We won medals at the World Para Taekwondo Championships after only having Para Taekwondo for seven months prior. We were able to start a partnership with the powerful sports nation of Egypt. We had a peaceful general assembly and election of a new president and executive committee. We sent two athletes to South Korea for a world event and brought home a silver medal. We were able to join the World Police Taekwondo Federation to support the development of Police Taekwondo in Rwanda. We were able to help another nation develop Taekwondo for those with disabilities. We were able to participate in the Africa Championships in Morocco, winning thirteen medals and a third place trophy as well as the World Junior Championships in Tunisia. At the Tunisian event, I was even asked to address the general assembly of all the world’s nations and share principles of development we have learned in our journey.
Wow, I guess we have been busy.
What grips me most when I read this synopsis, are two things. First, is that this work is only eight and a half years old. I shake my head in disbelief. Second, is that this was all done with power and design that are well beyond me. God has blessed this work and I can only hope that as I now continue the endeavor of writing, reporting, and story telling; He will be glorified and you will be inspired.
A tall order indeed! Prayers and readers appreciated.
Expanding the Sport – One thing I realized immediately was that we had to expand the sport of Taekwondo in Rwanda as quickly as possible. We had too few athletes to make any kind of impact in international competitions and all in Rwanda didn’t even know the sport existed. With that in mind, we encouraged each person, that as soon as they achieved a black belt, they should begin a club. This later developed into our one adult master per club policy for expansion. Before we realized the impact, we found ourselves having more than twenty clubs of Taekwondo and around four hundred athletes. The previous year we had only forty athletes and three clubs.
Buying and Making tools – At this time Taekwondo had just undergone a successful transition from being manually scored to electronic scoring making it a more fair and less subjective competition. The problem was that the systems cost was on average $9000 of equipment for one mat. A typical tournament needs at least three mats worth of equipment. World Taekwondo, our new partner, had an annual development fund that you could request assistance for equipment. We were able to use this for a few years and amassed about $40,000 worth of electronic scoring equipment. This made Rwanda the first country in Central, Eastern, and Southern Zones of Africa to possess the system. It also put Rwanda in a leading role for hosting the highest levels of competitions from among those countries. Additionally, Rwanda has a big push for self – reliance as a nation. Out of this we began creating and manufacturing our own equipment specific to Taekwondo such as uniforms and targets.
Coaching the Sport – I was all we had. At this point, I had to administrate the sport, fund the sport, work to expand the sport and coach the sport. Out of this, though, I was able to bring a different perspective to the coaching. As I had been a runner and cyclist and had also studied exercise physiology at the master’s level, I analyzed the sport and realized it was like racing three 800 meter races back to back with a one minute break in between. Out of this we then took traditional activities in Taekwondo training and modified them to achieve results more like training for running the mile or two mile. I loved this part. I also loved the immediate impact on our athletes as they won much more easily and experienced less fatigue while competing. I dearly loved getting to pray and study with the team daily and we really grew together in the sport, the art and life.
Internationals Near and Far – From my experiences as an athlete, I realized that Africa, at that time, did not have enough high level events to prepare our athletes for winning on the international or world level. Out of this came initiatives to send our athletes abroad to compete in Europe (German and Dutch Opens) as well as to begin hosting our own international events here in Rwanda. I was aided by the Embassy of the Republic of Korea, as they desired to sponsor an annual event honoring their Ambassador and their history of Taekwondo. Our first event attracted five nations. We added to this the annual event of the Gorilla Open which also attracted several nations to Rwanda. Rwanda’s athletes won handily and they established themselves as the country to beat in Taekwondo for this part of Africa. As well Rwanda was able to send two athletes to the qualification event for the London 2012 Olympics. Sadly, we didn’t qualify, but our vision and goals expanded. Our big event during that time was the World Championships of 2013. This event was a real stretch for us as we sought to send seven athletes and it was the first time for the government of Rwanda to step up and assist with the cost of the flights. It was a good thing they did, too, because for the team and myself it averaged more than $3000 per person and forty hours of travel to get from Kigali, Rwanda to Puebla, Mexico! We performed well and our team was received wonderfully as superstars by the Mexican people.
Leveling Up – We now had some credible athletes ready to retire from international levels of competing and they had been identified as ready to take over roles that I was currently fulfilling, namely coaching and administrating. This was timely as after I had presented a seminar to all of Rwanda’s sport federations on best sport practices, I was asked to become the CEO of Olympics for Rwanda. During that same month, I received an invitation from the President of World Taekwondo Africa to attend the biannual general assembly on behalf of Rwanda and while there I was informed that I had been chosen to sit on the executive council for the continent of Africa. These were two shocking and surprising changes for myself as a missionary and for Rwanda’s sports. I interpreted these changes, though, as opportunities from God and we sought to make the best of it all.
It reminded me of John 3:8 where Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Truly, I was being blown around, and didn’t have much of a clue where I was coming from or going!
The first Taekwondo Master (black-belt) Dan certificates arrived from Korea and the Kukkiwon (agency overseeing accreditation for Taekwondo) in November of 2010. It was a great moment for Rwanda and a great step in our journey. Until this point, all that had been done with Taekwondo in Rwanda had been on a very small scale. In fact, if I look back now, this was the moment when the vision for Taekwondo turned from something simple into something very complex and far reaching.
I’ve often thought about that point when I could have just worked and focused on a single club of Taekwondo. In the more difficult times, especially the expensive ones, I find myself wishing that I had. In reality, though, God, who knows me better than I know myself, knew that I just wouldn’t be able to do that. It was the “all in” moment where the dream of impacting Rwanda through the sport of Taekwondo began to emerge.
I had been advised to meet with KOICA (the Republic of Korea’s International Aid Agency). I had no idea where they were in Rwanda, but on our first Boy Scout camp out, I just happened to be wearing a Korea Tiger’s soccer shirt, and the head of KOICA was walking out of an office. In that moment the Republic of Korea entered mine and Rwanda Taekwondo’s lives. At that time also, we received recognition from the Rwanda National Olympic and Sports Committee.
2011 held many incredible firsts: our first national championships, first international events (there were three), first international medals, first All Africa Games, and our entry into World Taekwondo as a national federation.
First National Champonships
First Competitor in All Africa Games ’11
First International Trophy
Bear with me as I relate that experience:
It was March of 2011 and Rwanda Taekwondo had been invited to join World Taekwondo (the overseeing body for the sport). Travel would be to Eastern Kenya with our small team for an event and then on to South Korea for the World Championships and the General Assembly where we would become members of the then 187 member nations. The trip was going to cost about $7000 and in truth we really didn’t have it. On top of that, we were scheduled to take our family back to Togo that summer and I knew it would cost around $10,000. So, here I was about to use $7,000 for some crazy trip to South Korea? I kept thinking as I discussed this with my wife that there would be push-back from her or from others, but everyone just kept giving me the go-ahead. So, I did.
I packed up our small team and we all struck out for Mombasa, Kenya. I even road the famous train called the Iron Snake from Nairobi to Mombasa, an experience in and of itself. We learned so much as a team, won a match, and even got a little trophy (I think for furthest traveled). While there, though, I was concerned about the money and found myself kneeling in the hotel room, asking for God’s affirmation for this trip through somehow supplying the money needed. In the middle of the tournament, I received a message. A church had given an unsolicited gift to our work of, wait for it $16,800. The exact amount needed to cover both trips! Affirmation had come.
Two days later, I arrived in Seoul, South Korea. I traveled on to the city hosting the event and waited in my hotel, wondering what next, as I still had three days until the General Assembly. There I would stand up when Rwanda’s name was announced and then sit right back down. That would be it. It seemed so little reward after such a great cost to come. So, I knelt in the room and prayed. I was prompted to make my way to the hotel for registration and to get my credentials. As I waited in the lobby I was prompted, yet again, to introduce myself to a gentleman sitting across from me. At first, I hesitated, but eventually, I got up and made my way over. As I presented myself to the gentleman, he became really excited and informed me that he was the head of the expansion committee and they had been trying to initiate the federation in Rwanda for more than five years, unsuccessfully. Here I was and had done it for them! Within 36 hours, I had met with the Executive Committee for the world, had been given VIP credentials for the event and dinners, and even began having meetings with vendors. The rest of the week was spent meeting with the world’s best coaches and directors of all the top programs. It was a PhD in sport management particular to Taekwondo, compressed into one week.
I see, now, in retrospect, that it had all been by God and for God, for Rwanda.
I am still shocked at the telling of it.
Ephesians 4:20-21 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
After the first two training sessions in Kigali in September of 2009, the group of twenty trainees, asked me to start a federation for Taekwondo in Rwanda. I quickly informed them that I had no idea how to do that. They replied that Uganda had a federation and that maybe I should go and speak with them.
So, on the 30th of October, 2009, after locating the federation training center in Kampala, Uganda via the Web, I boarded a bus. It probably wasn’t that simple and if I had written this eight years ago, I am sure that a very colorful commentary of this journey could be given. Now it is just a blur. I think, in looking back, I was hoping for someone on my team or maybe my wife to pull the plug. It seemed very ludicrous to board a bus, barely knowing where you are going, into an unfamiliar country, to meet with people who not only don’t know you but that don’t even know you are coming. Nevertheless, I went.
After a restless night in a hotel, that I promptly checked out of the next day (a different blog – maybe a how not to travel in Africa post), I took a long walk in search of the training center for Uganda Taekwondo. I found it and happened to be the second one in the gym that day. I was a bit early and the other person there was a professional kick boxer. He didn’t think too much about me being there, so I dressed out in my uniform and waited and waited and waited. I do wonder often if that was why God brought me to Africa, to teach me to wait. After about two hours some children showed up along with four Taekwondo masters, Peter Kamau, Judith Aujo, Andrew Mugisha, and Badru. They had just returned from the world championships in Copenhagen, Denmark. I was in awe. They welcomed me and, to expedite matters, asked why I was there. I quickly caught them up and informed them that I came so they could teach me how to start a national Taekwondo federation. As well, I asked if they would let me work out with them, as I was suspicious that the Taekwondo I had learned in Togo might not be of the highest quality and up to world standards. They had me warm up with the kiddos and I was admittedly ashamed of the quality of my kicks; and then I worked with Peter Kamau for four hours (yes, four hours) on all the forms of Taekwondo! We had a meal together in the afternoon and they shared with me all they had known about the processes of a national federation, including their statutes.
My mind was blown. It was classic African hospitality. Knowing me not, they trained me, hosted me, fed me, befriended me, and educated me. It became reciprocal as I began having them come to Rwanda and help me to train our athletes. In many ways, I have since found out that this is inherent to the Taekwondo culture. Yet, looking back, I also realize that this was extreme and unique. The only way, I can explain it, is that God made them favorable towards me, not for me, mind you, but for Rwanda. I had not taken this trip on my own behalf and it was the first of many sacrifices I was to make in this sport development for discipleship journey. Yet, God affirming the journey by numerous unmerited graces, or as I like to put it, favor; has been and continues to be a constant that prompts me to take that next step of faith into the unknown.
Isaiah 30:21 Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
Well, all of this was very unknown, but it was with a lot of encouragement and now I had help from those I find myself eternally grateful to: my friends Peter, Judith, Andrew and Badru. Looking back, I also realize that all we have done in Rwanda could not have occurred had they not taken me in.
Hebrews 13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers …
It was actually not an easy transition from Togo to Rwanda. Rwanda, even though it had undergone such tragic events between 1959 and 1994, was a much easier place to live than Togo. It was immaculately clean, the people were, for the most part, very reserved and soft spoken and the country itself is one of the most naturally beautiful countries that I have ever seen. “So, what made it difficult?”, you may ask. It was that our work was needing a complete overhaul. In Togo, it was very straightforward. You go to a new village that had never heard the gospel. You asked if you could teach about Jesus. If they agreed you then began teaching and with time a church was born and then … It was traditional missions, only with the challenges of Southern Togo, which were many.
Typical village in Southern Togo (photo credit to Radford University)
Rwanda was a different story. It had a very complicated history. It was one that also included great fault and guilt on the traditional church and missions for not only aiding colonialists to set up and grow an ethnicity division campaign but, also, during the genocide many churches actually assisted the killers by inviting in those being hunted under the guise of protecting them only to then call in the perpetrators to murder them in the churches themselves. Like, I said, complicated and tragic. We were told that we would need to prove social and economic benefit to Rwanda before being allowed to obtain long term visas. In doing so, it also necessitated us forming an NGO (non-government organization or as we would say a non-profit organization) instead of coming in as a church group. We were left scratching our heads and then scrambling to figure out what each of us had to offer Rwanda, that Rwanda itself would value.
The thing is, it fit as a different model of missions that we were actually shown the year before at a conference that presented a “Church Planting Movement” model. It had been very effective in India and in other nations that stood opposed to traditional church planting methods. Oddly, even though in the early 1990’s Rwanda had been considered the most Christian nation in Africa, the post genocide Rwanda definitely seemed “fed up” with church. As well, in this model you focus on relationships through service that is valued and in those relationships you are provided the opportunity to initiate studies that are led by others and not yourself and have all the “DNA” of what church should be but often falls short of.
Still we were left with the perplexing question of: ‘What do we have to give?’. I chose to build rocket stoves initially. They are these great cooking stoves that cook in half the time and use half the fuel. We could get really bogged down in the science of it, but I just knew everyone in Rwanda would want one! They didn’t. Their list of complaints was long and I found out that Rwandans don’t change traditional things very quickly. I then jumped on the environmental and economic opportunity bandwagon and quickly developed a press for making biomass charcoal. It provided businesses, utilized waste wood and field cuttings, and was a low cost startup. It was a bust. Turns out they didn’t want to change their cooking fuel either.
The problem with all of this is, that God had already told me what I would do that Rwandans wanted, but my issue was that it just didn’t make sense, and I was a bit terrified that all our supporters would call it quits when they found out. In my sons’ first week of school they came home incredibly excited to tell me that there was a Taekwondo club at their school. I decided to visit. In visiting, I observed that my 13 year old son was a better instructor than this young man. I asked him for his credentials and he asked me for mine promptly as he didn’t have any. After inspection and his agreement for me to teach him how to teach he then asked me if I would be the grand master for Rwanda and start a federation here as that is what the people really wanted. I laughed and said, “No way!”
John 10:27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
Too many words! Story to be continued in next post …. 3b – Launching
I hesitate to write this, but I long for you to understand more clearly that in many ways, the beauty that is now Rwanda came from such deep tragedy.
In 100 days from April to July of 1994 a horrific genocide occurred in Rwanda that brought about the death of an estimated one million Rwandans. That is an average of ten thousand human lives extinguished each day.
It happened twenty-three years ago. As a foreigner, I can only listen to, learn about, observe, and imagine what it was to survive, grow up in, or be born into the aftermath of Rwanda’s genocide. It is now considered to be one of the most brutal in the history of man. It happened neighbor to neighbor and hand to hand with machetes and clubs, as to not “waste” bullets because those killing didn’t consider those being killed worth a bullet. You can read about it in the many books, some that even debate the reasons for and origins of such carnage. You can find pictures, videos, and movies about it and can even muse about the world’s lack of response and what could have happened if countries had cared enough to intervene.
Many, more scholarly than myself, can detail for you the psychological damages of witnessing such events and living in an entire populace of those affected by PTSD. Upon our arrival to Rwanda in 2008, the average age of the country was, I believe, nineteen. All those fourteen and above had witnessed and survived the genocide. The government had already taken great strides in rebuilding the country physically and helping the people to move forward with reconciliation as well as judgement for the perpetrators.
I would use two words to describe most of the people I met when we arrived in Rwanda: vulnerable, which creates a natural caution to trust no one and hopeful, which gave a deep longing for the better in all things. Families and communities had been destroyed and with it all the good that comes from loving relationships such as encouragement, protection, culture, faith, history, and achievement. Yet, there was hope that better days would come and the past would not be repeated.
I had not been here long and two events deeply impacted me. I was asked by a group of orphans from the genocide to drive them around during the period of mourning to visit other groups of orphans and encourage them to persist in life. I stood before a crowd and was asked to encourage them. To say that I struggled for words was an understatement. They had known pain that no human should ever know and had persisted through trials, I could never understand.
While on this tour, we visited memorial sites that contained the bodies of those victims. One of them called Murambi, actually had the bodies preserved in their clothes and positions as they had been killed. As I was touring and weeping, I looked up to see two horizontal scars across the base of the neck of the young man I was following. I asked, later, what had happened to him and they let me know that by the time all of his family had been murdered before his eyes, that the machetes had been too dull to sever his head and that after two attempts, they had just thrown him into the river to bleed to death or drown.
As we are chronicling this journey into faith development through sport and establishing its value, I just wanted you to imagine with me, for a moment, what it would have been like for you, to survive one hundred days such as this.
Friday the 13th of June, 1997, I turned in badge and keys to the district manager and resigned as an area director of Wal Mart. It was time to pack our container, say goodbye to our families and, along with our two young sons, fly to Togo, Africa, our future home for the coming several years. We had become missionaries heading to a new life in Africa. How ironic after my bold declarations of nine years before that I would never be a missionary and would absolutely never by a missionary in Africa. What in the world would have led us to such a risky and somewhat bizarre change in our lives?
A tribute to my wife – Louise
All who know her love her. She is undoubtedly the most talented woman I have ever met. She is a fine artist, a gifted seamstress and designer, a graphic designer, a professional photographer, an exceptional teacher, an amazing wife to me and mother to our four sons, and a deep lover of God. She is truly a beautiful woman. She had married me assuming I would be a physician and an Olympian. After the injury, though, I had assessed my direction and realized I would make a proper physician but would likely be a poor husband and father while doing so. She was in a solid career in advertising but was supportive as I transitioned out of grad school and a future in medicine to working in retail for Wal Mart. She knew what I did not. We were destined for missions in Africa. So, in 1993, while on a visit to Memphis, she dined with some future missionaries heading to Togo in West Africa and confided in them, unbeknownst to myself, that we as well had some interest in missions one day.
Three years later in 1996, many things had changed. I had become successful in my new career and had matured considerably, by God’s grace. Nothing like walking into a 200,000 square foot Wal Mart with 600 employess and 20,000 visitors a week; being handed the keys and wished good luck, to grow you up a bit. We had moved to the beautiful small town of Remington, Virginia and were part of a vibrant church in Warrenton. Over the previous years my faith had taken hold and permeated most of my life (would love to say all but am trying to be honest!). Our preacher quit and I began, alongside my 80 hours or so with WM. After five months of dueling works, a businessman and his wife took us out for a meal, looked across the table and asked, “Why don’t you quit what you are doing and do what God has called you to do?” With a start, we said, “Excuse me?”. He then said, “Why don’t you quit Wal Mart and go to Africa and be the missionaries that God has called you to be?” We wept, right there in Jerry’s Pizza. It was time.
Two days later, we were encouraged to call a missionary who was home on furlough from Togo, West Africa. I did and brought him up to date. He then asked if I was sitting down. I was. He then informed me that since Louise had visited them three years prior he and another teammate had been praying for us daily that we would quit our jobs in the US and come to Africa as missionaries. We wept.
How could God love me that much that he was so patient to “wrestle” with me for those previous eight years? Amazing. Just call me Israel (one who wrestles with God), bum hip and all.
Later, just before leaving for Africa, someone approached me and remarked how great our faith must be. Immediately I responded that with all that God had shown us, and even with a repeated “calling” after eight years and all the answered prayers, it would be a greater show of disbelief in God to stay in the US than a show of belief to go.