On a military helicopter headed to Rwanda's remote Western Province, Rick Warren -- the best-selling author and evangelical superstar -- takes in the beautiful view of one of that nation's poorest areas. The sights, however, are far less spectacular once on the ground.
"I've been coming to Rwanda for three years now," said Warren. "I think this is my 10th extended trip. The Rwanda I read about in the press and the real Rwanda are two different things."
Rick Warren is leading a mission. He went to Rwanda, he says, to help alleviate the suffering in a deeply wounded nation, a place where 200,000 people have HIV and 800,000 children are orphaned.
"The problem with so many humanitarian efforts is that they just come in and leave," said Warren. "They come for a little while. They take a picture. They go home and put it in a brochure and raise funds. We're not into that. We're into long-term relationships."
Fourteen years ago, the world turned its back on Rwanda as 900,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days. The residue of the genocide is still fresh amid the grinding poverty. Everyone has lost someone. The average income in the country is $260 a year.
As Warren departed the helicopter, he was warmly greeted by a crowd of children and their parents. But it wasn't only the helicopter that attracted the welcoming party; Warren is seen as someone who cares -- someone who is making a difference.
A similar reaction was seen days earlier in the country's capital of Kigali, where Warren was to preach to a stadium of 20,000 people in honor of the 200 Rwandan pastors graduating from an intensive three-year program designed by Warren and his team.
"God has never made a person that he doesn't love," Warren proclaimed in his sermon. "God has never made a person that he doesn't have a purpose for. No human being is an accident. There are accidental parents, but there are no accidental children."
But how did he wind up in Rwanda preaching his gospel of purpose and hope? Whether by coincidence or divine intervention, it happened in the house of a man named Joe Ritchie, who knew Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame. While visiting Ritchie's Chicago home, Kagame saw Warren's book "The Purpose Driven Life" on a bookshelf and asked to take it.
"Right after that I got the letter from President Kagame saying, 'I'm a man of purpose. Can you come help us rebuild our nation?'" Warren recalled.
That was more than five years and many, many conversations ago. Kagame remembers it too. He remembers thinking Warren could be helpful.
Kagame says he really didn't know how he expected Warren to help. "Well, nothing very specific," Kagame admits, "but the very fact that I could tell that this is a man who is very practical and thinks in a very straightforward way and is very forward-looking. If he is willing to partner with us, that could be very useful."
"That makes sense," Warren said after hearing Kagame's comments, "because I had no idea what their country needed... [The] P.E.A.C.E. plan is in some ways about flying the plane while we're building it. What we're doing, a lot of it hasn't been done before."
The P.E.A.C.E. Program is a long-term development program aimed at promoting reconciliation, equipping servant leaders, assisting the poor, caring for the sick and educating the next generation.