We worked our way down the aisle of the KLM Cityhopper that was about to take us from Birmingham to Amsterdam; where we would connect with our flight to Toronto.
We found our seats in row 16; and squeezed into the tiny middle and aisle seats. A man was already seated in the window seat, and as we waited for take off I closed my already heavy eyelids. I could hear snatches of conversation between him and Paul and wondered briefly how my reserved husband would manage with a chatty seatmate, but I had been up since 2.00 a.m. and the pull of sleep was irresistible.
I woke short minutes later with a jump, to the plane accelerating and rising from the runway, my foggy brain wondering where I was.
Now I found myself straining to follow the conversation over the drone of the plane engine. Paul and the man were sharing details, seeking common ground for conversation. They established where they were going: we to Canada and our seatmate to Africa. Next the man told Paul that he currently lives in Aston, on the outskirts of Birmingham.
"My dad used to have a church in Birmingham," said Paul.
"Oh, you grew up in a Christian home?" said the man, "Are you a Christian?"
"Yes," I heard Paul answer.
"Me too," replied our seatmate.
He turned out to be a pastor: Pastor Jacques Bishweka, from Rwanda. He proudly told us that he was the father of 6, even though he was only 40. I was leaning in now, no longer sleepy, interested in the story this man might have to tell, and there was a wonderful story.
I wanted to know his faith story and he told us that he grew up with parents who were "religious" but not Christian. His father was an alcoholic and his mother also drank and died when he was very young.
A crisis or turning point came when he was studying for his A level exams and was extremely stressed. He only had one chance to pass; everything in his future depended on this opportunity; without which he could not go on to higher education.
Jacques's 12 year old sister, who was a Christian, said, "I think you should come to church, there is a pastor speaking whom I think that you would find interesting."
He scoffed at her at first, but she was persistent, "No, really you should come," she said, so he did go. The pastor who was speaking had a prophetic ministry, and at the end of the service he prayed for Jacques and said, "I see you speaking before people. You will go to Europe and speak. God is going to use you to heal people."
The prophesy seemed incredible. Jacques couldn't see how that could possibly happen, but he went back a couple of days later when there was an all night prayer meeting. Again the pastor prayed for Jacques and this time Jacques began to speak in other tongues as can be read about in Acts 2 , and was filled with the Holy Spirit. His life was set on a different course than it had been just days before.
After leaving school, he began to prepare for the ministry and went to Bible school in Kenya, then a man came to him and said, "God has told me that I have to help you by supporting you to go to Bible college in England." This was beginning to sound like a chapter from the book of Acts!
Indeed, the man supported Jacques, who went to stay with a bishop in their church in England to continue his training. At the point we met Jacques he was working on his Ph.D.. and pastoring a church in Aston.
He lived through the Rwandan genocide in 1994 when 800,000 Rwandans were killed in 100 days, but lost 6 siblings and witnessed the brutal murder of his step mother.
He told us how hard it had been to minister to people who had lived through the massacres in his country and who asked, "How could God allow this? Why didn't he protect us? Where was God?"
Jacques's eyes, which had been animated and dancing until then, were serious, "It was hard to help people understand that God had nothing to do with what happened." I thought that this was perhaps how God had used him to heal people.
Due to government red tape only 3 of his 6 children in England. The other 3 are in boarding school in Rwanda, and he was on his way to visit them there when we met him. He goes there twice a year to give them support and meet with their teachers.
In spite of everything that could be considered hard, the overwhelming impression of Pastor Jacques Bishweka was joy. We were strangers for only a moment.