Early September, at the Nyabugogo market in Kigali, market-goers were surprised to see the Sainte-Famille parish priest. He had come to the market with worshippers from the Emmanuel Catholic community, to preach.
This is quite uncommon for Catholics. “We are preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of our parish. It is a great opportunity to bring Catholics and non-Catholics together without having to wait for them to find us,” explains Rémy Mvuyekure, the parish priest.
He does not want to be left behind by all the hordes of preachers who have been taken over the streets, hospitals and hotels, Bible in hand.
Itinerant preachers are booming in Rwanda. Their goal is to reach out to those who do not go to places of worship -- or do so only on their day of prayer: Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Adventists and Sunday for Catholics and other Christians.
Rev. Antoine Rutayisire from the Episcopal Church of Rwanda explains that modern society built churches, so that now people who preach in the streets are seen as freaks by locals. But “Jesus himself said to spread the gospel in every nation, and it does not say anywhere that sermons must be delivered only in churches,” he says.
Bishop Smaragde Mbonyintege, President of the Episcopal Conference of Catholic Bishops in Rwanda agrees: “It is not forbidden to preach in the streets. We should encourage this church,” he says referring to Sainte-Famille Parish, whose members often preach the gospel door to door.
Disturbing the peace?
Yet these street preachers have sparked major controversy in Kigali. “Streets belong to the people. When preachers improvise on the pavement, they disrupt the lives of those who had not planned to listen to them. They should stay in their churches. It’s as if they were setting up a hardware store on the road,” says a merchant from Kigali.
People are complaining about those who stand up in mini-buses to preach. Some ask for permission, but others do not.
“Some people make fun of them, but what they say gives me strength. I cannot follow them everywhere, but listening to them for a few minutes is enough,” says Immaculée Karinganire, a mother from Kigali.
In the streets of the capital, they preach from dawn till dusk. Even during heat waves, they wait patiently for worshippers to sit and listen to their sermons. With nothing but their Bibles, they often arouse pity from their listeners. “Some give them bottles of water, others, moved by their message, discreetly slip bills in their pockets,” says Pierre Célestin, a journalist at the local KFM radio station.
Their sermons cover every topic: religious conversions, adultery, fraud, charity. Yet these sermons are forbidden by Rwanda’s law. Sheikh Saleh Habiman, in charge of registering political parties, NGOs and religious organizations at the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB) explains that there is a legal framework governing which religions may and may not set up shop in Rwanda, and in particular where they are allowed. “Those who preach in the streets without a written authorization are outlaws.”
In their defense, preachers claim that they do not disturb public order. “As we are preaching, police and security officers walk by and do nothing. Because they know that we are not a threat.”
They also say that police forces ignore soccer fans who ride buses around town to the sound of screaming vuvuzelas, or concert promoters who drive around announcing their shows on loud microphones. “And we’re the problem?” asks a preacher.