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Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2007 01:02 am

Bringing Moses home

They went to Africa to give. They got something unexpected in return.

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PHOTO BY LARRY CROSSETT
Untitled Document Valentina was at Goma, a small town in Zaire just across the Ruzizi River from Rwanda. A trader, she had come downriver from her home in Bukavu to purchase items for resale. The open-air market was unusually crowded. Rwandan refugees, who were fleeing the bloodbath in their country, were everywhere. As Valentina made her way through the market with her head down, a vendor spotted her and called out. She went to see what the woman was selling from the small pushcart behind her. The cart did not hold goods for sale, only a girl, about 4 years old and sick with cholera. Next to the cart stood an older girl — sick enough to be on a cart herself — and a teenage girl with an infant strapped to her back. The vendor had taken pity on a refugee family and was trying to enlist aid. Valentina listened to their story. The children’s father had been shot and killed in Kigali at the start of the fighting. The mother was gone now, too, a victim of cholera. Only these four children were left. In another place, another time, the story would have drawn tears. Here and now? The refugees, who had been drinking from and bathing in Lake Kivu, were dying by the thousands. Nothing Valentina could do would make any difference. Even as she stood there, the child on the cart stopped breathing. She was gone. “Only the baby,” the vendor was pleading with Valentina. “Take the baby with you. He’s not sick . . . ”
“No,” Valentina said. If the baby wasn’t sick yet, he soon would be. She walked away. Mama, uko na deni mbele ya Mungu!” the vendor called, out of desperation, in Swahili. “Mama, you have a debt before God!”
Valentina, a religious woman, turned back. The 9-year-old girl was ill, but the vendor had a place for her. Valentina took 17-year-old Clementine and the baby, Moise, back to Bukavu to seek help from the orphanage near her home. At the orphanage, Valentina and the baby were refused. Howard and June Crowl were running the orphanage. They could not take the child in, for fear of spreading disease. Instead, they provided Valentina with antibiotics and formula. “If he survives five days,” they told her, “bring him back. We know a couple willing to adopt an orphan.”
So began the life of Moses Rogers, 13 years ago.

Phil and Angela Rogers, missionaries from Lincoln, Ill., did not go to Africa looking for a child. They did not go looking for most of what they experienced that year as they rode out the savagery that tore Rwanda apart. Before leaving for Africa, the couple had a rather quiet life in central Illinois. Both graduated from Lincoln Christian College, and they married after Angela completed her sophomore year. Phil graduated from the seminary in 1984; four years later, Angela earned a master’s degree in elementary education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Phil was serving as pastor of the Hooton Church of Christ in Danville when the couple began thinking about making a radical change in their lives. “I had never really thought about missionary work,” Angela recalls, “but Phil’s mom had always invited missionaries into their home when Phil was young, so he’d grown up with that. He came to feel he was being called to Africa.”
They joined the Africa Christian Mission (now known as ACM International), and by January 1990 the Rogers family — which now included Michelle, 4 years old, and Rebecca, 17 months — moved to Zaire. Phil was going to teach at a Bible institute. “The trip was about planting churches,” Phil says, “and taking safaris. We had a lot of fun doing that. We distributed a lot of Swahili Bibles to village churches and showed the Jesus film.”
Many of the nations of central Africa were in various stages of unrest. Zaire was ruled by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko; neighboring Rwanda was experiencing deepening ethnic and social divisions between its Hutu and Tutsi peoples, but those weren’t readily apparent. “Rwanda was considered to be a paradise by the poor of Zaire,” Angela says. The Rogers lived in a small jungle village named Bafwasende — so remote, it took two hours in a six-passenger plane from Bukavu to get there.
The couple committed to a three-year term, after which they would be furloughed home for one year. It was a standard missionary arrangement. But that’s not how events played out. “We were there a little over a year and a half when we had to evacuate suddenly,” Angela says. “The soldiers in the capital [of Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo] had gone unpaid for a month or so. Their families were beginning to starve, so they decided they could use their AK-47s as currency, so to speak. They started rampaging, going store to store in Kinshasa. All U.S. citizens were told to leave the country. Two mothers and five children, including Angela and her daughters, were picked up first by the six-passenger plane that served the missionaries. As soon as the pilot reached Bukavu, he had to fly south for other women and children. The next day, it stormed. The men would have to wait several more days.
After the family was reunited, they returned to Lincoln for a three-month stay while the events in Zaire played out. Though the Rogerses were safe, they felt that they had been torn from their real home. “The three months we were back, there wasn’t a night Michelle didn’t cry herself to sleep, because we didn’t have a chance to prepare her [for the move],” Angela says. Despite the considerable risks, the couple never considered not returning to Africa. “We’ve decided the safest place you can be is in the center of God’s will,” Angela says. “If he’s asked you to go somewhere, that’s the place to be.”
There was no repetition of turmoil during the remainder of their three-year term, but the Rogerses had learned to expect the unexpected. “I don’t think that incident changed things, except the realization that anything could come crashing down at any time,” Angela says. “The last year of the three-year term was productive and calm, and we were grateful to be there.”
The Rogers family still numbered four on returning to Lincoln for the first furlough, in 1993. “Furlough is necessary because you have all these supporters you really need to touch base with,” Angela says. (The financial needs of missionaries are generally met by contributions from churches and individuals back home.) “A lot of times we would go to a church and Phil would preach and we would teach Sunday school. Healthwise, it’s good to get out of the area where malaria is prevalent — to get much-needed rest and to see family.”
After about 15 months, the Rogerses returned to Africa, but because the pilot who flew them to Bafwasende was on furlough they were forced to wait in Bukavu. It was 1994, and soon Rwanda would run red with blood.
Bukavu is directly across the river from Rwanda and upriver from Goma, the Zairean city to which refugees first fled where the cholera epidemic broke out. “We were house-sitting at our pilot’s house,” Angela says. “I didn’t realize my daughter and a friend were able to climb on a wall [at the friend’s house] and see over the Ruzizi River into Rwanda, seeing things that were haunting. For the first time in my life we had to get used to gunfire at night — all kinds of scary noises — and knowing we were helpless to do anything about it.”
Soon the refugees began pouring into Bukavu as well as Goma.
“They just kept streaming in,” Angela says. The Rogerses grow passionate as they talk about the efforts made to save lives, how, even before the missionaries began mobilizing, the impoverished residents of Bukavu and other cities in Zaire gave clothing, food, and shelter to the Rwandans. Then the Rogerses were given what they felt was an amazing opportunity to make a difference. The ACM trustees sent word that International Disaster Emergency Services had funds to offer, if the area missionaries could use them to ease the refugee situation.  “Phil and I became part of the refugee committee that helped distribute these funds. We had African pastors, missionaries, laypeople. . . . We would buy, like, 50-kilo bags of beans and rice. “It continued months and months. One of the best decisions we made: We hired some African nurses to provide medical help for free to the refugees. We had a clinic at the church [in Bukavu]. “Then we started praying about helping in what some might say was a smaller but more significant way,” Angela relates. “A couple of missionary families were talking about the possibility of adopting orphans. Phil said, ‘Well, are we going to do it?’ So we started praying about it in April, just after the full-scale war broke out.”
In July, their friends the Crowls called about a baby named Moise.
“We had only a day or two of warning,” Angela says. “They didn’t want to get our hopes up [in case the child was taken by cholera].”
All the Rogerses knew about Moise was what 17-year-old Clementine could tell them. They had to rely on interpreters with the International Red Cross to learn the child’s story. “Moise is French for Moses,” Angela says. “That’s what he was named by his mother. We decided the name was fitting, as it means ‘drawn out.’ The Biblical Moses was drawn out of the river, and ours was drawn out of the Rwandan war.
“Phil had no idea, but we found out later that he had an uncle named Moses and a great-grandfather named Moses. It’s a family name, and we didn’t know it. Moses’ other name, given him by his mother, Ndayambaje, means, ‘special blessing . . . answer to prayer.’ I always wished I could talk to her.”
With Moses in their care but not legally adopted, the family went back to Bafwasende and remained there until 1995.
“Then things kind of deteriorated in the country,” Angela says. “All of ACM left Zaire in 1995.”
Obtaining a visa to get the child to the United States was an ordeal, and the family was suffering from parasitic diseases — three had malaria, two schistosomiasis. But that was just the beginning of a lengthy struggle to legally adopt the child. The adoption was still uncertain as the family prepared to return to mission work a year later — this time in Mali. The judge overseeing the lengthy adoption process had taken a vacation at the wrong time. Hoping to salvage their trip home and running out of time, Phil and Angela made a car trip to the Rwandan Embassy, in Washington D.C., hoping to expedite matters, but the effort proved futile. “We got nowhere. We were in D.C. less than twenty-four hours,” Angela says.
The complication arose from the fact that anybody who could prove a family tie had legal rights to the child — and in the chaos that was Rwanda, finding relatives was a slow, difficult process. “We knew they’d searched for family,” Angela says. The only known surviving relative was Clementine — the 9-year-old sister was dead by then — and Clementine, with whom the family no longer has contact, had initially agreed to the adoption. Rebuffed in Washington, the Rogerses returned to Lincoln on the day before their scheduled flight to Mali. Angela’s mother, Patsy Wilson, was waiting for them in the driveway. As soon as they arrived, she told them to get back in the car and drive to the courthouse — a judge was there, ready to sign the adoption paperwork. Forty-five minutes late, the adoption was approved. Patsy’s take on this: “God is seldom early, but he’s never late.”

The Rogers served in Mali just nine months. Phil had begun showing symptoms of Huntington disease, a degenerative neurological disorder.
“It’s genetic,” Angela says. “His father, grandfather, great-grandfather each died of it. That’s why we came back. It was May when we came back.”
On learning that the Rogers family would be returning early from their mission, members of the family’s church in Lincoln, Jefferson Street Christian, fixed up the Rogers home. “It was amazing what they did. The house was fully furnished — couches, chairs, washer, dryer, appliances, swing set, you name it. Toothpaste, towels, milk, and cereal. They wanted it to feel to us like we had just come home from an overnight trip.”
The girls were 12 and 9. Moses was 3. Angela started working in the public school system as a reading specialist, but her husband had to retire because his illness.
Phil served as a church elder for some time. He still fights to stay involved. “I’ve got to live every day for the Lord,” he says with difficulty. “We’ve got to give him our whole heart.”
“Even now,” Angela says, “he greets at church. He uses his walker, stands right inside the door. I’ve had so many people tell me what it means to them to have Phil there, what a testimony it is that he continues to praise God. “What we decided was, God changed our location. We’re still missionaries; God just changed our mission field.”

Today Moses Rogers lives an ordinary life, but it’s one full of promise. The young man who will carry the Rogers name forward without the specter of Huntington disease speaks for himself: “I’m in eighth grade. I play a lot of sports: football, basketball . . . I do good in school. I’m on the honor roll and stuff…”
“He’s in the Scholastic Bowl,” his grandmother Patsy Wilson chimes in. “And he plays pingpong with his grandpa,” adds Bob Wilson, his grandfather. Moses continues: “I play the drums in a jazz band, concert band, and the marching band in school. I’m learning to play guitar. I know I want to go to college. I’d like to get an academic or sports scholarship. I’m not sure about after college.”
His mom tells of his football prowess with a twinkle in her eye: “He’s amazingly consistent — 1,700 yards’ rushing last year.”
He’s also done some acting in several plays at the Lincoln Community Theater. “He was in Annie,” his mother says. “The person who wrote the review said, ‘Moses Rogers stole the show.’ He only had one line.”
Asked how he feels about his older sisters, Moses rolls his eyes and goes mute. “Typical teenage-boy response,” his mother says. The Rogerses know the ethnic group in Rwanda from which their son came, but they won’t divulge whether he’s a Tutsi or a Hutu.
“That’s something we’re trying to protect,” Angela says. “I’m not sure if he even remembers. “I think people simplistically think there’s one ‘good’ tribe and one ‘bad’ tribe, and that’s not the case. That’s why I appreciate the movie Hotel Rwanda. The hero was from the ‘bad’ tribe, but it’s not so black-and-white. It has to do with whether people are trying for a peaceful resolution.”
Moses understands his unique heritage — but he doesn’t think much about the past. “It would probably be different if I remembered about my family, but I don’t have any memories about it or anything,” he says.
That’s just as well. For Moses, the time for building memories is now.
Larry Crossett is a regular contributor. His profile of the Rev. Frederick Nettles, “Tightrope,” appeared in the July 19 edition.
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