A Belgian citizen visiting relatives in a corner of Rwanda. A 19-year-old woman who will lose her job. A police officer assigned to protect Seventh-day Adventist Church president Ted N.C. Wilson.
These are among the record-breaking 95,890 people who accepted Christ in baptism during a two-week evangelistic series that wrapped up this weekend, church leaders said Sunday.
Additional baptisms connected to the meetings at 2,227 sites across the African country are expected to take place over the next few weeks, bringing the total to more than 100,000 and making the May 13-28 event the largest of its kind in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
“You are an example for the entire world. We praise God for that,” Wilson told a crowd of 6,000 people at a final Sabbath worship service in the resort city of Gisenyi. Among those in attendance were 1,971 people baptized in nearby Lake Kivu in the morning.
Local church leaders credited the Holy Spirit and Total Member Involvement for the unprecedented number of baptisms.
“When each member is involved, there will be a big harvest,” said Sophonie Setako, president of the Adventist Church's North-West Rwanda Field, which includes Gisenyi and had 10,778 baptisms. “By visiting people and assisting people in need, we have gained many members.”
Total Member Involvement is the name of a world church initiative that encourages each of the church’s 19.1 million members worldwide to find ways to share Jesus with friends and communities. The previous record was 30,000 baptisms after a two-week evangelistic series in Zimbabwe in May 2015.
In Rwanda, church’s 720,000 members took Total Member Involvement to heart. Many studied the Bible with neighbors and went door-to-door, inviting people to the evangelistic meetings. Members also donated money for food, cows, and health insurance policies aimed at improving the lives of impoverished people in their communities. Medical clinics at three locations provided free services to nearly 6,000 people over the course of a week.
“A Change Has Taken Place”
Thousands of people packed the sandy shore of Lake Kivu to witness Sabbath’s baptisms. The elderly and disabled were baptized first, followed by pregnant women and long lines of men and women. Eight pastors baptized 1,971 people in about 2 ½ hours.
People emerging from the lake couldn’t have been happier. Wide smiles filled many faces as they exited the water and made their way to white tents, where they changed out of their water-soaked baptismal robes.
“A change has taken place in me,” said Steve Nsabimana, 16, a Belgian citizen who was on vacation, visiting relatives near Gisentyi, when the evangelistic meetings began.
Nsabimana said curiosity brought him to the meetings, and the message about the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation convinced him to give his heart to Jesus through baptism. He will return to Belgium as a Seventh-day Adventist. “After baptism, I feel like all my sins have been forgiven,” he said with a smile.
Obed Twagirasu, 51, a former Adventist with a toothless grin, told how he had felt impressed to seek rebaptism while listening to Nancy Wilson, wife of the Adventist Church president, who was preaching her first evangelistic series, speak about how each person would receive his or her just reward at Jesus’ Second Coming.
“I needed to be baptized so I could renew my relationship with God,” Twagirasu said. “I am very happy to be entering the family of God.”
“An Unforgettable Experience”
Nancy Wilson, who spoke to about 3,000 people every evening on a hilly field outside Gisenyi, had tears in her eyes as she watched 411 people from her meeting site get baptized on Sabbath. Several women joyfully waved and blew kisses at her as they came out of the water. “This was an unforgettable experience,” Nancy Wilson said.
In all, 539 people were baptized from her meeting site over the past two Sabbaths. Ted N.C. Wilson, who led meetings attended by 6,000 people nightly in the yard of a church compound in Gisenyi, saw a total of 1,016 baptisms.
One of them was Clementine Nyiragasigwa, a slight 19-year-old woman not more than 4 foot, 10 inches (147 centimeters) tall. Speaking in an interview as she exited Lake Kivu, she said that she had felt impressed to get baptized after hearing a presentation about the the statue in Daniel 2.
Nyiragasigwa, never before baptized, had been working for another Christian denomination when she started attending the meetings. When she announced to co-workers that she wanted to get baptized into the Adventist Church, they had pressured her to change her mind. “But I decided to leave my job and get baptized,” she said.
Also baptized on Sabbath was Schadrack Rutabayiro, a police officer responsible for escorting Wilson to the meetings from his hotel every day. Rutabayiro, whose mother is Adventist, had resisted her pleadings to commit to Christ for more than a decade, he said. But then he heard Wilson speak about the Second Coming and an Adventist physician talk about the importance of a good health. Fesaha Tsegaye, health ministries director for the East-Central African Division, which includes Rwanda, gave a health presentation before Wilson spoke every evening.
“Water and daily exercise were a question mark for me,” Rutabayiro said. “Dr. Tsegaye’s message touched my heart, and I realized that I needed to be baptized and change my life.”
The newly baptized members were not the only people expressing joy on Sabbath. Pastors and other church leaders joined a crowd of at least 6,000 people for the celebratory event on the shore of Lake Kivu.
“It was very, very amazing,” said Mutuye Nkundakozera, executive secretary for North-West Rwanda Field, who was among the eight pastors who participated in the baptisms. He, like many church members, wore a red tie with a blue logo reading “TMI,” or Total Member Involvement. Nearly everyone present wore blue TMI scarves.
Duane McKey, a key organizer of the Rwanda meetings and the Adventist world church leader responsible for Total Member Involvement, smiled broadly as he and his wife, Kathy, watched the baptisms in the shade of large blue TMI umbrellas. But he said Total Membership Involvement, which was unveiled at the General Conference Session in July 2015, was not as bold or new an initiative as some people say.
“It’s not bold or new,” McKey said. “Jesus said more than 2,000 years ago in the Great Commission of Matthew 28 to go and preach, teach, and baptize. The interesting and exciting thing is we’ve just finished more than 2,000 meetings that commemorate something Jesus said more than 2000 years ago.”
A Rwandan hallmark of Total Membership Involvement — inviting friends to church — was evident even at Lake Kivu on Sabbath morning. Watching the proceedings was a Roman Catholic priest, attending his first Adventist gathering at the invitation of an Adventist friend, the head of a local university. The priest, speaking in an interview, expressed astonishment at seeing people baptized by immersion for the first time. He said he looked forward to hearing the Sabbath sermon afterward.
Need for New Churches
Looking ahead, Hesron R. Byilingiro, president of the Adventist Church in Rwanda, said the church faces a dilemma in finding places for new members to worship. After this weekend, local church membership has topped 815,000 in the country of 11.8 million people.
“That is really a challenge,” Byilingiro said in an interview on Lake Kivu. “By the help of God, this is going to be done.”
McKey, who overhead Byilingiro’s comment, told him that some help was already on its way. He said a small church in the U.S. state of Texas, the Hico Seventh-day Adventist Church, had raised $1,400 for another church project in Africa, but technical issues had prevented the funds from reaching its intended destination last year. So Hico’s dozen members sent the money to Rwanda via the General Conference, the administrative body of the Adventist world church.
“The money is going to be used for a new church that will be built for the new members in a village outside Gisenyi,” McKey said. But new church buildings were far from the minds of many on Sabbath.
Umutoni Feza, 25, who was raised in an Adventist family but had not attended church for years, smiled bashfully when asked why she had decided to get baptized. She said she had realized at the evangelistic meetings that she needed Jesus in her life.
“I am very happy,” she said. “I was born once, and now I have been born again.”