Jon Tevlin: Pastor who saw much to see more

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 23, 2011 - 8:57 PM

Lutheran from Africa with local roots gets free eye surgery.

Emmanuel Manirakiza was born on Christmas Day, the youngest of eight children, in one of the poorest countries on earth. His mother fled genocide in Rwanda in 1959, only to witness more carnage in violent battles between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes in Burundi.

Manirakiza watched his neighbors die of malaria, and during the civil war it was not uncommon for him to leave the house in the morning and find bodies strewn on the ground.

Manirakiza, a Tutsi, would eventually become pastor of the Free Lutheran Church in Burundi. Most of his parishioners are Hutu. The church has been instrumental in efforts at reconciliation between the two tribes, keeping the peace between people who used to kill each other for being on the wrong side of the city.

Dr. Bill Neresian, chief medical officer and a pediatrician for Fairview Physician Associates, would not seem to have much in common with Manirakiza. But they share at least a couple of things -- their faith, and a coincidence: they were both born with starabismus, better known as a "wandering eye."

Neresian was lucky to be born in New York, so even though his family was poor, his condition was treated when he was a child, preserving his eyesight so that he could later become a successful doctor. "We didn't have much money, so I'm sure we didn't pay for the operation," said Neresian. "So, someone else did."

Perhaps it is only fitting, then, that Nerseian and his wife, Pam, would be part of the effort to fix Manirakiza's eye, which had deteriorated so badly that the pupil points almost 90 degrees to the right, robbing him of vision in that eye.

On Friday -- Good Friday -- Manirakiza hid the deformity behind dark sunglasses as he waited in Neresian's office for the procedure to straighten the eye and give him a kind of rebirth that seems fitting for this week.

"I am lucky to be here," he said. "I am blessed."

The Neresians and Manirakiza met through their church, Emmaus Lutheran Church in Bloomington. For Manirakiza, it was a circuitous and improbable journey that he credits to his faith.

When Manirakiza was just 17, he said, he was called to become a pastor, and he had visions that he would one day come to this country. There were two impediments to that dream: He didn't speak English, and he had $10 in his bank account.

But he wrote to the Association of Free Churches, and to his surprise was invited to study in the seminary in Plymouth for free

While he was at the seminary, Manirakiza attended services at Emmaus Lutheran.

'A man who lives by his faith'

"It was pretty evident that this really was a man who lives by his faith," said the Rev. Tom Gilman, pastor. "He's got the charisma to be in influential circles, but he committed himself to the poor and built a church in the ghetto."

The Bloomington church was so impressed with his work that they raised money to buy the land for the Burundi church, which has dirt floors, outhouses, no running water and serves a destitute congregation made up of former gang members and murderers.

A friend of Manirakiza originally arranged to have his eye surgery done in Boston. But when the pastor got there, the doctor said the condition was so severe he couldn't do it for free. Manirakiza, also a singer, lives simply on sales of his music, and didn't have the $7,000 to $8,000 for the surgery. He was heartbroken.

The Nersesians were so saddened that they brought Manirakiza to Minnesota and asked Fairview if they could get a deal. The hospital agreed to waive charges, as did Dr. Jafar Hasan, who specializes in the procedure.

Manirakiza still will not be able to see out of the eye, but the cosmetic change will be dramatic, and he should be relieved of his headaches and fatigue, said Hasan, who has done several free procedures for people who could not afford them.

"He may see a little better, but emotionally and psychologically it will be significant," said Hassan. "In many cultures there is a stigma against people with [deformities]. I guess when you do good things for other people, it comes back to you."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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