Monday, August 8, 2011

Burundi leader to visit Charlotte churches, school

Charlotte is getting a presidential visit-- from the leader of Burundi.

On Sept. 22, Pierre Nkurunziza, who has presided over the east African nation since 2005, will come to town for a day to visit a few churches and speak to an afternoon assembly at Quail Hollow Middle School.

The president's schedule is still in flux, but he does have a few confirmed appearances.

A self-described born-again Christian, Nkurunziza and his entourage will attend a staff meeting at Forest Hill Church, which has sent teams to Burundi since 2008 to work with pastors, teachers and students.

Also on the president's Charlotte agenda so far: a "civic leaders luncheon" at Friendship Missionary Baptist, a large, predominantly African American church on Beatties Ford Road.

The president, who was born in 1963, is coming to Charlotte at the request of Manny Ohonme, founder of Samaritan's Feet, a Charlotte-based charity that has done foot-washings and supplies new shoes to people in Burundi, one of the world's poorest nations.

Quail Hollow Middle School, the site of the president's afternoon speech, is a high-poverty public school where Forest Hill members have worked with students after school. The school's principal is a member of Forest Hill, said Lisa Allen, a member of Forest Hill Church's outreach team.

I asked Allen what she would tell those who might question whether having the church-sponsored president speak to a public school assembly would cross the line separating church from state.

Allen said Forest Hill had started the initiative with a previous principal who did not attend the church.

Plus, she said, when Nkurunziza speaks to the students -- which may be after school -- "the focus will be on servant-leadership, not preaching. It'll be about putting the team ahead of you."

Forest Hill pastor David Chadwick and his wife, Marilynn, met with the Burundi president during one of their visits. A year ago, as the congregation's gift to their longtime pastor, Chadwick's church announced that a center under construction in Burundi -- paid for with $165,000 pledged by Forest Hill -- will be named The Chadwick Center for Leadership and Reconciliation. In a country that's been torn for years by tribal strife -- between Hutus and Tutsis -- and even genocide, the center is designed to be a catalyst for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Burundi, about the size of the U.S. state of Maryland, is a former Belgian colony that won its independence in 1962. It's now home to about 10 million people.

Nkurunziza was elected in 2005. He was re-elected in 2010 with 91 percent of the vote, though the opposition boycotted the election.