PETERborough/Dublin

They’re off to Africa

Couple who met in middle school to start new churches

Last year, Brandon and Emily Walsh made their first visits to Rwanda, the small African nation that’s still recovering from the horrors of mass genocide in 1994. That year, as many as 1 million people, most of them members of the Tutsi minority, were murdered by fellow Rwandans. It’s now one of the most stable countries in Africa, says Brandon, but Rwanda is still a place where people are working to reconcile and forgive each other. The Walshes are now hoping to help with that process, by serving as missionaries for PEARUSA, the North American outreach arm of the Anglican Church of Rwanda.

“I first went to Rwanda in February, where I spent 10 days traveling and met the bishop,” says Brandon, 24, who is completing work for a Masters of Divinity degree at Duke University. He was ordained as a deacon in the Anglican Church of Rwanda in November and expects to be ordained as a priest in the church on May 11, the day after he graduates from Duke Divinity School. And a month or so later, Brandon and Emily, and their daughter Elsa, who was born on Jan. 11 — ”at 11:11 a.m.,” Brandon says, — will arrive in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

They’ll be working on a project called Hope on 1,000 Hills, helping local members of the newly formed Gasabo diocese to plant 10 new Anglican churches in Kigali with the help of local people.

“We personally will not be starting this, we’ll be helping to empower local leadership,” says Brandon. “The Anglican church has 1 million followers in Rwanda. They run 100 schools. We have a new diocese and we want to bring that number up. There are essentially no social services in Rwanda provided by the government. Christian churches are really the only social services network.”

Emily, who is 26, and Brandon spent three weeks in Gasabo last summer, visiting existing parishes and school and talking to priests before making their decision to commit to moving. They expect to spend at least two years in Rwanda.

“It’s definitely an open-ended thing,” Brandon says. “We also see ourselves doing a lot of work with Rwanda from here in the U.S.”

“We’d love to return to the Monadnock region eventually,” says Emily.

The couple met as students at South Meadow School in Peterborough, although they didn’t start dating until after Emily graduated from ConVal and went to Messiah College in Grantham, Penn.

Neither Emily nor Brandon were raised as Anglicans.

“I grew up in a Christian Protestant family,” says Emily, who is the daughter of Dave and Margaret Nelson of Dublin. “I’ve been going to Trinity in Peterborough as long as I can remember.”

Brandon, the son of Jim Walsh of Peterborough and Linda Walsh of Hancock, said his family started going to the Monadnock Congregational Church in Peterborough when he was about 10 years old. He didn’t join the Anglican church until he was in college at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.

“Most of the people I know in the [Anglican] church are converts from evangelical type churches who just fell in love with the liturgy,” Brandon says.

Anglican churches around the world grew out of the mission efforts of the Church of England, which has also long had a relationship with the Episcopal church in the United States. Recent changes in theology within the Episcopal church, especially related to attitudes toward sexual ethics, have caused rifts not only within the Episcopal ranks, but also among Anglican churches around the world.

Brandon says the issues between Anglicans and Episcopalians run much deeper than sexual practices. The Rwanda diocese, he says, has been working to establish churches in the United States since 2000, well before Gene Robinson was consecrated as the Episcopal bishop of the New Hampshire diocese, the first openly gay man to hold that level position in the Episcopal church.

While theological differences are important, Brandon says he’s focusing on ways to help people in need. While studying at Duke, he’s been a social worker helping Latino families in Durham, where the university is located. He says he and Emily have always wanted to live abroad in a place where they could be of service to others.

Emily, who has a Bachelor of Social Work degree from Messiah College and a Master of Social Work degree from New York University, says she’s not especially concerned about taking their daughter to Africa.

“I think the hardest part will be being so far from our families,” she says. “That’s more of concern than worries about malaria or other health issues. There’s a strong community of expats in Rwanda. We’ll be fine.”

The couple won’t have a place to live until they arrive, but that doesn’t bother them. Instead, they are looking forward to the challenge of living and working in a totally new environment. In a post on the PEARUSA website, Brandon describes how they were inspired by their visit last year: “Seeing this diocese in action helped highlight why our relationship with Rwanda is so important. We are a fledgling group of churches that exist in a world that at times can seem hopelessly inoculated against the Gospel by cultural moralism and embarrassing sound bites. Church planting can seem like an uphill struggle and community transformation a fantasy. But when we look at Rwanda, we see that God is able to raise the dead and change bitter waters into sweet wine.”

On March 10, Emily and Brandon will be showing a documentary about Rwanda titled “As We Forgive” and talking about their ministry plans. The event will be at the Peterborough Community Theater at 6 p.m. Admission is free, although the couple will be encouraging donations.

“We could really use funding for our school nutrition program for kids in a slum and for training that includes reconciliation work,” Brandon says.

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