Family and friends gather to celebrate Jean Marie Vianey Mugabo-Kenda's life

Wednesday, June 2, 2010 | 1:53 p.m. CDT; updated 12:04 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 3, 2010
From left, Michelle Munyantarama, Caritas Habimana, Sofia Nabigondo, Perusi Ndabazaniye and Mariane Bihomora sing during a memorial gathering to honor the life of Jean Marie Vianey Mugabo-Kenda at the family's home on Wednesday evening.

COLUMBIA — With his Bible in hand, its red-edged pages bound in black leather, Nene Peter Rwenyaguza spoke with conviction.

“If you want to see God, if you want to go to heaven, the way is death," Rwenyaguza said in Kinyarwanda, a Bantu language, as part of a sermon honoring 35-year-old Jean Marie Vianey Mugabo-Kenda.

Memorial services for Mr. Mugabo-Kenda

Visitation will be held from 10 to 11 a.m on Friday at the Seventh-day Adventist Church at 1100 College Park Drive . Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. at the same place. There will be an open mic for anyone who wishes to speak in Mr. Mugabo-Kenda's memory, and the burial will be held at the Memorial Park Cemetery immediately after the funeral.

Donations to help cover funeral costs can be made in the name of Mr. Mugabo-Kenda at any Landmark Bank location, said Sam Whatley, pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. To make a donation, give Mr. Mugabo-Kenda's full name.

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Mr. Mugabo-Kenda drowned in Stephens Lake on Monday evening.

On Tuesday night, a crowd of at least 45 gathered within the four white walls of Mr. Mugabo-Kenda's family room, a place made colorful by posters that picture the sign language alphabet, Mizzou baseball and messages of faith.

A framed piece of art featuring nine embroidered hearts hangs above one couch, while a calendar hangs above another. Its page still reads “May 2010,” though it is June 1.

The medical examiner's office said Wednesday it could not precisely say why Mr. Mugabo-Kenda drowned, but investigators are trying to determine whether he might have suffered a seizure. On Tuesday, police identified Mugabo-Kenda as Jean Magabokenda, but his family provided his actual name — as well as the story of a man who was defined by his faith.

During the gathering on Tuesday, Mr. Mugabo-Kenda's wife, Gicanda Mushirarungu, sat near a wall in the back of the room.

“He was Christian, and he loved God,” Mushirarungu said in her native language.

Mushirarungu and Mr. Mugabo-Kenda married when she was 17 and he was 18. They lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo where Mr. Mugabo-Kenda was a sixth-grade school teacher.

“We lived the good life,” Mushirarungu said.

Trouble broke out when Congo became embroiled in warfare. The couple became refugees and moved to Rwanda.

In the refugee camp, Mr. Mugabo-Kenda continued to teach, trying to educate refugee children. The family later moved back to the Democratic Republic of Congo and, eventually, to Rwanda a second time.

In 2007, Mr. Mugabo-Kenda became sick and lost his hearing. He and his family were brought to the United States so he could receive proper care, but the treatment wasn't as effective as they hoped it would be, Mushirarungu said.

“He was troubled, but he was strong," Mushirarungu said. “It was a problem, but we took it as easy because there’s nothing we could do.”

Mr. Mugabo-Kenda never regained his hearing.

“The Bible says those people that died can hear,” said Rwenyaguza in his sermon. “We know Jean Marie loved the word of God. And he heard it.”

After Mr. Mugabo-Kenda and his family moved from Jefferson City to Columbia in August 2009, he met Stanis Bihomora. Bihomora and Mr. Mugabo-Kenda quickly found they had much in common, including mutual friends and acquaintances in Africa. The became good friends, and Bihomora often stopped by the Mugabo-Kenda household two or three times a day.

“I’ve never seen him in Congo,” Bihomora said in his native tongue. “But I felt like I knew him in Congo.”

“He was a brother,” he added.

Caritas Habimana, a friend of Mr. Mugabo-Kenda and the translator at the sermon, also described Mr. Mugabo-Kenda as a brother.

“He had a good heart,” Habimana said. “He was a man that wanted everything good for his family.”

Faith was one of the main things Mr. Mugabo-Kenda worked to provide for his family. Every night, he would sing with his children, Habimana said. Then they would all get down on their knees and pray.

In Mr. Mugabo-Kenda's kitchen, a schedule on a brown piece of paper hangs on the wall. The name of each of their seven children is written next to each day of the week. It's not a schedule for chores, but a schedule for who will wake early, teach the Bible and lead prayer for the rest of the household before school.

The schedule is a quiet reminder of the strong Christian faith that permeates the  Mugabo-Kenda’s home.

Mr. Mugabo-Kenda attended Seventh-day Adventist Church. After its pastor, Sam Whatley, finished his prayer on Tuesday, the gathering of people broke into song.

Rwenyaguza began clapping in rhythm, singing the words in his native language.

“Wherever we are going is a place for millions and millions of people,” Habimana said, translating the song.

More voices joined almost instantly.

New clapping rhythms layered in over the first. Women wearing traditional garments began singing a different melody, as if on cue; their voices complemented those of the men.

“We remember him. We know him," Rwenyaguza said. “Don’t be afraid. The death is nothing.”

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