Missionaries Who Fled Rwanda to Give Presentation at Church

By Esther Talbot Fenning St. Charles Post Special Correspondent | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 13, 1994 | Go to article overview

Missionaries Who Fled Rwanda to Give Presentation at Church


Esther Talbot Fenning St. Charles Post Special Correspondent, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


When missionaries Paula and Scott Pence went to Rwanda in 1987, they found a peaceful country that visitors called little Switzerland because of its lush and hilly terrain.

But beneath the pastoral setting, ancient hostilities were brewing between Rwanda's Hutu and Tutsi tribes. When Rwanda's Huto president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was killed in a suspicious plane crash on April 6, a violent civil war erupted and reportedly caused the savage deaths and mutilations of 200,000 people.

Tens of thousands of people were forced to leave Rwanda. Among them were a number of Western missionaries, including the Pences and their three children, Heidi, 9, Brian, 7, and Zachary, 5.

The Pence family is living in Denver while they await a new missionary assignment. In the meantime, they're sharing their experiences in Rwanda with fellow missionaries, churches and organizations. They will give a presentation at 7 p.m. May 25 at the Weldon Spring Baptist Church, Highway 94 South, Weldon Spring.

In a telephone interview, Paula Pence spoke about the family's years in Rwanda with the Children's Evangelism Fellowship and their frightening escape from Africa.

Immediately after the death of the president, the family spent two days at home in Kigali with no outside contact. When United Nations security guards came to take the Pences to safety, the family was told to leave everything behind except for one carry-on bag each. They were taken to a Catholic school for 2 1/2 days with 30 other missionary families.

Paula Pence says that at one point as they sat outside the school, gunfire exploded above their heads.

"Our son was running across the parking lot," she said. "I yelled at him to lay down. We took the back roads to the airport and went through a bombed-out neighborhood with pools of blood everywhere. There was one body on the ground and a dump truck full of bodies by the side of the road."

In peaceful times, the Pences conducted training classes for Sunday School teachers and Bible clubs for children. One of their jobs was to translate Sunday School materials into the Kinyardwanda language.

"If you speak only English and French, you're not as accepted," Paula Pence said. "It took us a year and a half of language study to learn, and it was worth it."

The Pences returned to the United States in 1990 so that Zachary, then 8 months, could be treated for cancer. When they returned to their missionary work two years later, there was a new tension.

"For example at the airport there were sandbags of guns where there had been a restaurant," Paula Pence said. "We were stationed in Kigali and we never went out after sundown."

Paula Pence says the physical differences between the Hutus and the Tutsis were obvious even though they spoke the same language. …

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