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Grace and Mercy at Christmas

Ishmael Vetter Issa

Martha with Ishmael and Issa

During this Advent season, as we anticipate the beauty of Christmas, I am forever grateful to those who have walked alongside of me in this ministry to our friends at the Dufatanye Organization (DO) in Rwanda. As we have shared during the prayers on Sundays at St. Philip’s, the DO is a nonprofit organization that ministers to victims of genocide and AIDS. This ministry assists in four different areas: The Dufatanye Cooperative, which is a farm; the Dufatanye Ministry Center, a community center; The Village of Hope, an outreach to the impoverished community near our site; and Medical Ministry and Navigation, where we assist sick and traumatized people at the DO and in the surrounding area.

The over-arching purpose of this ministry is to bring Jesus Christ, the living Word and the written Word, to all peoples with whom we minister. It is our prayer and desire that all may enter into a vibrant, growing relationship with Christ as their Savior and Lord.

Recently, I have been particularly moved by the story of a man I’ll call “Ishmael” who has been a DO member since before 2006. Throughout the years, though Ishmael has been a Muslim for much of his life, he has attended almost every one of my and others’ Bible studies at our Ministry Center. He always sits in the first or second row and eagerly participates in our discussions and skits. All this time, he has straddled the fence between his Islamic faith and his interest in Christianity.

Ishmael is getting older and was recently admitted to the hospital multiple times. During these hospitalizations, he was pronounced “dead” five different times. His irregular, thready heartbeat and shallow breathing kept stopping, but each time he would come back! 

Soon after this, Sandi Harding, a committed Christian nurse and counselor who had previously lived in Rwanda, returned to visit for the first time in ten years. As God’s providence would have it, my old friend Godfrey Karema, the founder and president of DO, took her to see Ishmael at home. She explained that because of Christ’s love for him, God had allowed him to survive all five near-death experiences so that he could have this opportunity to be reconciled to Christ. She emphasized his need to repent from his sin, relinquish his Islamic faith, and place his full trust in Christ as his Lord and Savior.

That day, in his dark concrete house, as the light of Christ filtered in and the wind of the Spirit flowed among them, the angels rejoiced as Ishmael quietly prayed to receive Christ as his Lord and Savior. Later, he told Godfrey that he wanted to have a Christian burial, which was a sincere and sure testimony to his newfound faith.

What I haven’t shared is that Ishmael has a son, Issa, whom I’ve written about previously. This is the very same Issa who required two surgeries to prevent him from losing his leg––or perhaps even his life––from a bone infection. Issa himself, you may recall, also made a commitment to Christ while he was in the hospital over two years ago!

Now, his father has trusted in Christ too! After Ishmael’s prayer, his wife confessed that she used to be a Christian and wanted to recommit her life to Christ. This means that all the children in their family will now be raised as Christians instead of Muslims!

This reminds me of the account in Exodus where Moses stands lodged in the cleft of a rock, hoping to get a glimpse of God’s glory. There, the Lord pronounces, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” Let us thank the Lord that he has shown grace and mercy not only upon Issa, but his father and the entire family. How I thank God and you who have prayed and given for your beautiful ministry to this community of people, most especially Ishmael, Issa, and their family, who are desperate to have the hope and peace that only Christ can give. 

As we remember that mystical night long ago when the radiant angels and heavenly host shone down brightly from heaven and joyfully praised God before an audience of lowly shepherds, let us also praise Him for the way He reached down to this humble family in a backwater village in rural Rwanda. Amen.

I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. ––Exodus 33:19b