Rwandan students raise their voices to God in song
Despite being in a new city, thousands of miles away from his native Rwanda, Jean Claude Mbarushimana recently stumbled upon a little bit of home on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.
The UNL international student who is Catholic had been looking for a place to worship and discovered information about the Newman Center online. When he attended his first mass there, he was greeted with voices singing in his native tongue. A Rwandan choir was performing.
Mbarushimana, who also is a singer, was overjoyed. He quickly signed up to join the choir, which sings at Newman Center masses once a month.
Mbarushimana, 24, was born in Gitarama, Rwanda, and didn’t know a thing about Nebraska until he read about a scholarship that helps Rwandan students who are interested in agriculture study at UNL and eventually return to Rwanda.
“I applied, I then passed so many tests and here I am,” he said.
But the integrated science major said adapting to a new culture, meeting people and learning the English language has been challenging. That’s why Mbarushimana was so pleased to find the choir, which has 20 to 30 members.
“It’s a good way to come together and just do something,” he said. “We can meet, we can sing and we can have talks, conversations in between. It helps us coming together.”
The choir also allows him to sing in his native language. Mbarushimana started singing in a choir when he was 5 and then he joined the choir at his high school seminary. But singing in English can be less enjoyable and difficult, he said, especially if it is a fast-paced song.
“When I sing in the Rwandan Choir it’s amazing to sing the music which is not in English,” he said. “When I can sing a song from Rwanda it’s awesome. It makes me feel good.”
The Newman Center congregation also receives benefits from the choir, said the Rev. Robert Matya, chaplain at the center.
“The music is good if it is uplifting to the soul so that’s really what the music should do,” he said. “In this case, it’s a beautiful experience because what it shows to the students who are there at the Mass, it shows them a little bit more about the universality of the church. These are Catholics from another part of the world but they live and practice their faith like we do here.”
The Rwandan choir offers other learning opportunities for church goers, Matya said.
“We sometimes get wrapped up in our own little worlds but there are a lot of other people in the world that we don’t know about their lives, customs or how they live,” he said. “There is diversity in the world and it’s good for us to encounter that and experience it.”
Matya said the Rwandan singers came to his attention in the summer, when a group of Rwandans came together to sing at the funeral of a Rwandan student who had died.
“Out of that event we started to interact more with them and got to know them better,” he said. “They sing beautifully together so they had the idea of putting a group together and singing at mass sometime.”
The choir’s first performance was at the 10 p.m. Sunday mass on Sept. 24.
Since then, Matya has noticed a supportive reception for the singers.
“When I am a priest celebrant at the altar in the sanctuary and I’m looking out over the congregation, I can tell by the peoples faces during the music how they are responding and how it’s affecting them,” he said.
The Rwandan choir plans to perform during the rest of the school year. And Mbarushimana hopes they can bring happiness every time they sing.
“We just follow our hearts when singing and I feel like it’s awesome to make an impact in a big community like this one at the Newman Center,” he said. “Some people enjoy music as a part of the mass and it’s awesome to be a part of that. To help people to grow closer to God and to grow in our faith is awesome.”