I met Jean when he was 10 years old. He died tragically young at 18.
Born in Tanzania, Jean Mpawenayo was a refugee, the son of refugees fleeing war in Burundi and Congo. His family won the lottery and immigrated to Houston when Jean was a boy. Like the baby Jesus, he was evacuated from a dangerous place by family who loved him and welcomed by us, a family who wanted him.
Gethsemane staff would pick up Jean and his family in the church bus and drive them to worship on Sundays. Jean’s family embodied, and still does, the reason St. Luke’s merged with Gethsemane. Cramped in a little apartment, all they wanted was a church home and church family who would surround them with tangible expressions of God’s love. Jean grew up in the Gethsemane extended family. He embraced his faith after Confirmation, and I baptized him a few months later.
Jean was an overcomer. His mother worked around the clock to support the family, and when Jean became a teenager, so did he. He became the man of the house. He allowed himself to be nurtured by the St. Luke’s Student Ministry, applied himself at school and football, and was securing college recommendations before his life was taken from him.
It’s not that Jean didn’t make it. Jean did make it. He made it out of the life he wanted to escape. That’s what’s so heartbreaking: Jean was able to overcome mind-boggling odds by age 18. Imagine what he could have done with more time.
When I think about why we should build a community center at Gethsemane, I see Jean’s face. There are thousands more like him. I see their faces when I drive the Gethsemane neighborhood. They’re our kids. They’re overcomers. All they need is a place to go when hope runs out.