Restoring Rwanda

Coach Joe B. Stewart trains athletes in this African nation -- and gets to see God change students and himself.

Joe (middle) meets with Athletes in Action teammates for a devotional time before heading out for the basketball camps. Photos by Tom Mills

Standing on the court’s free-throw line, Coach Joe B. Stewart hunches his shoulders slightly forward. His eagle eyes monitor each chest pass, jump shot and wrist snap. Colorful jerseys and 4 basketballs orbit in concentric circles around him.

“Shoot to the back half of the rim,” Coach Joe calls to Dusabe Nkua Daniel, a teen in a light-blue jersey.  Moments later, the ball swishes gracefully through the net. “That-a-boy!”

A whistle sounds, echoing off the empty bleachers into the warm African air. Stopping their drills to gather at the top of the key, the participants form a crescent around the American.

Though Rwanda is far from home, the 53-year-old basketball coach from Ohio is in his element. Today the junior-college coach and English teacher must coach through a translator who repeats everything into Kinyarwanda, the national language of the small, east-African country.

A dozen pairs of ears and dark-brown eyes wait, fixed on his every word about the importance of personal character in an athlete. In the translation pause, Coach Joe’s eyes fall on the irregular scars plastering the arms and head of Dusabe, seated at the back of the group.

To ask the young man about his wounds would be impolite, as would be the question of his Hutu or Tutsi heritage. These two tribal labels, Hutu and Tutsi, were decreed in 1897 and based solely on appearance and economic factors.  A man who owned less than 10 cows was labeled Tutsi; another labeled Hutu because of a particular facial feature.

Almost 100 years after the division, corrupt leaders waged a propaganda campaign that called for the extermination of the Tutsi “cockroaches.” Corrupt leaders turned Hutu nationals against Tutsi neighbors, friends and coworkers, resulting in nationwide hand-to-hand combat.

The young men before Coach Joe were babies in 1994 when Rwanda endured a 100-day genocide. More than 1 million people died, leaving 300,000 children orphaned.

Joe and 40 other volunteers from the United States and Canada spent the previous afternoon touring Kigali’s Genocide Memorial in mournful awe. They are on a 3-week mission trip with Athletes in Action.

Dusabe’s scars brought the nation’s tragedy into the present for Joe.

“For the first time in 30 years of coaching, I ran a drill and prayed for healing at the same time,” says Joe, his voice catching in his throat. Though he couldn’t be sure, Joe assumed that Dusabe’s physical wounds were the remains of this stain on the now-peaceful nation’s history.

Today the people of Rwanda describe themselves as one, united. Many prefer to remember the tragic month of April 1994 as history, a lesson to be learned as Rwanda moves toward a hopeful future.

“If you have good leadership, you have unity and reconciliation. If you have bad leadership, you have genocide,” says Eric Kalisa, president of the Rwanda Basketball Federation.

There is a growing interest among Rwanda’s young people to be leaders in the sport of basketball. Many Rwandan students name NBA players as heroes and dream of playing on the national team someday.

“To pass the ball, you don’t think about the separation that is between you and me outside of the court,” says Kalisa. “I give you the ball because you are my teammate and you are in a good position to make that shot.”

“Only God could bring me across this ocean with basketball as just one of the tools,” says Joe. “And then to find teenagers on a basketball court and save them for eternity? What an awesome God.”

The opportunity to travel with AIA opens unique doors for volunteers like Joe.

“To go so far from home,” he says, “and have basketball be the key that turns the lock and opens up people’s hearts and minds to what I have to share -- it is truly amazing.”

As a successful coach, Joe was honored as Ohio’s Coach of the Year in 1989. In spite of leading teams to championships and undefeated titles, Joe acknowledges it came at a cost.

For several years, success and the sport became idols he oriented his life around.

“Basketball is a great game,” he says with heartfelt enthusiasm, “but it is a pitiful god.”

In 1998, after 19 years of marriage, Joe and his wife went through a painful divorce. Joe hoped to reconcile and move toward a future together. Sadly, though, the marriage ended.

Joe can empathize with the pain of betrayal and personal devastation. Brokenhearted, he questioned whether anything good could possibly come from such searing pain. “The best piece of advice I have ever heard,” says Joe, “is to be thankful in times when life gets really tough, because God is teaching you something.”

Later, Joe reconnected with Debbi Hollar Jennings, his 7th grade sweetheart. “Debbi was the first love of my life,” he proudly declares. Thirty years after their middle-school romance had faded, the reunited couple married in March of 2001, building a new life together from the ashes.

Joe and Debbi are acutely aware of God’s hand in their lives. Most recently, they watched Him provide the needed financial support for them to travel to Kenya and Uganda, and for Joe to continue on to Rwanda for this 3-week mission trip with AIA.

This is Joe’s 3rd trip to the continent. But for Debbi, it marks the fulfillment of a childhood dream to do mission work in Africa. “We may very well live here one day,” she says.

From the surface, Rwanda’s wounds appear to be mending beautifully. National healing started with 5 years of reconciliation meetings, village-by-village and family-by-family. The process is ongoing.

“One thing we have learned here in Rwanda is the capacity to pardon someone,” says Robert Kaume Rwubaka, who coordinates AIA in Rwanda. “You must learn to forgive someone who killed your whole family.”

Robert, a retired soldier of the Rwandan Army, attended last year’s AIA coaches training in Kampala, Uganda. The clinics and camps were so beneficial that he asked AIA to consider coming to Rwanda in 2010 to help build the nation’s basketball program. He knows these young players are the future of Rwanda; being part of a team encourages them to be contributors, not bullies or victims.

A year later, Joe serves as emcee for a clinic for coaches from middle schools, high schools and professional teams in Rwanda. Breaking the ice, Coach Joe pokes fun at himself and his 5-foot-7-inch stature. His warm, animated delivery makes it easy for his audience to connect.

Later that day, Joe hits the court to train teenage players in various technical skills as the Rwandan coaches watch, taking mental notes. A long whistle signals the next rotation for the athletes.

Seizing the last few moments, Coach Joe asks, “Would you mind if I pray with you?” The young men bow their heads.

Coach Joe asks God to develop humility and confidence in each man. After closing the prayer, he looks each player in the eye as they walk by and says, “Nice job!”

The last day of camp, an AIA staff member challenges Joe to tell his story of becoming a Christian. He skillfully weaves together the message of salvation with his story of coming to know and follow Jesus.

Then, Joe challenges the group of Rwandan coaches to entrust Jesus with their future. He asks the men and women who respond to meet a Rwandan AIA volunteer on the far side of the gymnasium. That week, 40 Rwandans indicate that they made decisions to follow Jesus.

Later that night, the mission team celebrates and debriefs together, beginning their transition home. As they break into smaller groups, Joe sits with 7 fellow missionaries for a time of encouragement and prayer.

A 21-year-old college athlete from Canada turns to Joe: “The thing that you said to me yesterday -- to read my Bible just as hard as I play -- I will definitely take that to heart,” she states gratefully.

Joe’s contribution to the team is not confined just to the court.

“I love the game,” he says. “The fact that something that used to be an idol has now been reshaped by the Lord into a tool that I can use....” Sensing the pleasure of God and the power of restoration in his life, Coach Joe’s voice trails off as his face flushes with emotion.

This trip hasn’t only been about helping the people of Rwanda. It’s also been for Joe.