In Rwanda, the gift that best says “I love you” is a cow.
A husband who truly loves his wife will give her a cow. A man who wants to marry a woman will often follow the old tradition of providing a cow dowry to her family. A cow offers nutritious milk to children, a source of income, and a steady supply of natural fertilizer for gardens.
Seventh-day Adventist church members presented 25 cows to impoverished families at a festive outdoor ceremony over the weekend.
The cows — which exchanged hands at a gathering attended by 6,000 people in a grassy field outside the lake resort city of Gisenyi — were among nearly $350,000 worth of livestock, food, medicine, health insurance, and other items donated by church members to improve the well-being of people in their communities on Sunday.
Hesron R. Byilingiro, president of the Adventist Church in Rwanda, described the donations as a key component of evangelistic meetings that are taking place at more than 2,200 sites around the country and are expected to culminate in 100,000 baptisms next Sabbath.
“We cannot go to heaven if we are not in good health. We cannot go to heaven when we sleep on empty stomachs,” Byilingiro said, looking out into a crowd of deaconesses in flowing bright-blue dresses, smartly dressed Pathfinders and Master Guides in green uniforms and yellow scarves, and attentive young Adventurers in blue shirts and orange scarves. Many people wore scarves, shirts, or ties emblazoned with “TMI,” or Total Member Involvement, symbolizing their commitment to share Jesus and His love with others daily.
“We can preach the gospel to everyone only after we have given them something to eat. That is how our message will be heard and fulfilled,” Byilingiro said.
Listening under a white tent behind Byilingiro were the governor of Rwanda’s Western Province, Gisenyi’s mayor, the local police chief, and an Adventist delegation led by world church president Ted N.C. Wilson and Blasious M. Ruguri, president of the church’s East-Central Africa Division, which includes Rwanda.
The meeting site, nestled among majestic rolling hills, was recently purchased by the Adventist Church for the construction of a church, school, and medical clinic.
When the cows were brought in, a column of Pathfinders, some with cell phones raised to take pictures, formed a solid boundary around the restless animals to keep them in place. The cows and their ownership papers were handed over to 25 people selected by local church leaders together with the authorities.
Rwanda’s government sponsors a cow giveaway in which all families, starting with the neediest, qualify for a free cow. The program is being implemented gradually in the country of 11.8 million people, and the Adventists are providing welcome support, Western Province Governor Caritas Mukandasira told the crowd.
“With all these activities you are promoting what the Bible teaches: that a healthy spirit lives in healthy body,” Mukandasira said, alluding to 3 John 2, which reads “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.”
“This is exactly what the pastor said,” she said. “You cannot preach to a person with an empty stomach.”
In all, church members donated 63 cows, costing an average of $215 each, across Rwanda on Sunday.
Wilson and Mukandasira shook the hands of two men who had donated one cow each. The new owners accepted the cows with a pledge to continue the good deed by giving away their first calves to other needy families.
Among the other donations reported Sunday, church members built 122 new homes at a cost of $119,000; repaired 302 homes ($65,000); and gave away 797 sheep and goats ($4,500), according to a spreadsheet provided by the Adventist Church in Rwanda (PDF). Another 12,430 people received health insurance ($48,000), which allows them to pay only 10 percent of the total cost of their medical bills.
Church members have helped their communities in the past, including by providing free health insurance, but this was the largest single initiative yet. Nearly every one of the 720,000 Adventist believers in Rwanda contributed in some way to the effort, and many expressed joy that they could improve the lives of others.
“When I am giving that offering to buy cows to give to poor people, I am very happy because I know that that money will help those who are in need,” said Juvenal Nsengiyumva, a father of four who teaches at a Gisenyi university and serves as an elder in his local church.
He added: “There is no better way to say that you love someone in Rwanda than to give them a cow.”
Byilingiro, in his speech, thanked all church members for their generosity.
“May God remember all these actions done by each and every one,” he said.