Jefferson Kern last week discovered a curious thing about a recent wave of refugees fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo into neighboring Rwanda: nearly 100 percent of them are Seventh-day Adventist.
The tip-off came when aid workers noticed most refugees refusing transportation on Saturday, a United Nations representative told him.
Kern, director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency in Rwanda, says 80 percent of the refugees escaping civil unrest are women and children. The UN News Service reported up to half a million internally displaced people from the unrest in the past four months. This led Rwanda to open its fourth refugee camp, which ADRA supports with education and transportation logistics.
In an interview, Kern explained the plausibility of an abnormal influx of Adventist refugees and what ADRA is doing and what the church could do to help. He also discussed individual versus corporate service and ADRA’s projects in Rwanda.
Rwanda, located in Central Africa, is the most densely populated country on the continent. A largely Christian country, about 11 percent of its population is Adventist. Tithe in the Adventist Church here has increased annually by 30 percent over the past four years.
Originally from Brazil, Kern, 39, is the son of a missionary and served as a student volunteer for ADRA in Angola. He went for a one-year term and stayed three and a half years, becoming a regional project director. He later worked as a mortgage broker in New York for 10 years before finishing his theology degree to become a pastor. He previously served as director of ADRA Amazon in Brazil. He has served as director of ADRA Rwanda since 2010.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Adventist News Network: How is it that nearly all of this influx of refugees is Adventist?
Jefferson Kern: This region of Africa is very territorial – one section is Anglican, another is Catholic, for example. That’s why we have this influx of mainly Adventist refugees – the region where they came from in DRC was Adventist. About 40,000 went to Uganda and 12,000 have come to Rwanda. We still have people coming in every day.
ANN: What is ADRA and the Adventist Church going to do to help these members?
Kern: We’re not going to help people because they’re Seventh-day Adventist, we’re going to help them because they’re in need. That’s how ADRA treats everyone. The Rwandan government already operates three refugee camps with a capacity of about 15,000 each, and a fourth camp has opened, already with 12,000. The U.N. and implementing partners are taking care of their basic needs, like food and sanitation. ADRA Rwanda’s role is to help with education and travel logistics. There are about 4,500 students in the new camp. The church or a large academy could pick up a project and partner with us by sending supplies or some toys for kids.
ANN: What have you done since coming here in 2010?
Kern: Three main things. We’ve reduced personal. We were administration heavy. When I came here we had six directors. Now we have three – myself, finance and programs. This is a more common structure for ADRA. And second, we’re also now finishing compiling our policies into a manual. We had policies on finances, vehicle use, human resources, but they weren’t connected. And third, well, I’m sure every director did this, but we’re continuing to focus on creating and generating projects that sustain our organization and help us achieve our objectives to help people.
ANN: What are some of your top projects?
Kern: The Action For Social Change program. Just for you to have an idea, there’s a specific community association for beekeepers. They told us about their difficulties and we realized they were building traditional beehives. We introduced training for construction of modern beehives and the production of honey tripled. So that’s what we do for those associations. We offer techniques on growing corn, cassava plantations, clothing factories or sales or doing accounting or general administration. We’re basically consultants. We want to help strengthen civil society.
ANN: How would you describe your management style?
Kern: I believe we work in a cooperative way. In our administrative committee we don’t take votes. We always approve the decision by consensus. When something crucial needs approval and we don’t have consensus, then I take the decision because I’m responsible to the board. Overall we have 18 employees in the office and 94 around the country, but I mainly work through my other two directors – finance and projects.
ANN: What’s your perspective on development in Rwanda?
Kern: In terms of international development – I’m not going to get into the politics of it – in Rwanda, more and more I believe there will be a diminishing of the importance of development funds and emphasis more on the private sector taking over development, which should be the process in the development of a country. It’s rare for us to find funding for infrastructure projects because all that is done by the government. Sometimes the government can do a better job building a hospital than non-governmental organizations can. That’s why our emphasis is to empower civil societies to better play their role.
ANN: Many young people say they want to work for ADRA someday. Any advice?
Kern: I think working for ADRA should never be different than working for a ministry. ADRA needs good people. It needs committed people. You can be interested in improving the lives of other people, but if you forget mission you’re just going to be like any other NGO. For ADRA, I believe there is another element – we are doing this as a church to bring the corporate social responsibility as ambassadors of the church. I like to say this a lot – what God requires for us in social development, ADRA is now doing for the church corporately. But still each one of us needs to give our individual service.