Saturday, September 29, 2012

Rwanda’s world witness to forgiveness and love

Our Lady of Grace Shrine in King City, Ontario
On September 28 and 29, 2012,  Our Lady of Grace Shrine, located in the Agustinian Monastery, at Mary Lake in King City, Ontario, hosted an event featuring the Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza. Over the two days she spoke to a spellbound audience of more than 500 on the theme of  “Faith, Hope and Forgiveness”.  She survived the evil of government sanctioned horror as one tribe, the Hutus, tried to systematically wipe out the other, the Tutsis. However, Immaculee's encouraging and faith-filled message is of hope, love and forgiveness. She recounted how prayer, reading the Bible, talking to God and reciting the Rosary helped save and give her life a new meaning. There was heartfelt, empathetic silence in the listeners present in the Church, but there were also moments of laughter and even tears.

Here is a brief summary of Immaculee's tragic story. She grew up in a Catholic family. They were Tutsis, one of the two main tribes in Rwanda, the other being the Hutus. When the war broke out between these two groups in 1994, the Hutus set out to eliminate the Tutsis through a diabolical media campaign and the army.  The holocaust began in April 1994 and lasted for 3 months, but by that time nearly 1,000,000 Tutsi had been slaughtered, in their homes, in churches, in stadiums and the countryside. Rwanda had become a killing field. Death, destruction and blood were everywhere and the evil had touched every family in the nation. The main reason: Tutsis who had been the favoured tribe of the former Belgian colonizers had to be exterminated.

Immaculee addressing the audience
How did Immaculee emerge alive from this culture of death? She was sent by her father with only a rosary in her hand to stay in the house of a neighbour and friend, a  Hutu protestant minister. He hid Immaculee and another seven women in a small washroom in his house. There they remained and after 91 days managed to come out alive. She says that it was a miracle that the killers did not find her hiding place. The tiny washroom was hidden from the killers because the Hutu pastor had put a wardrobe in front of the door.  When she came out and the genocide finally stopped, she came to the sad realization that her family, her parents and her two brothers had all been killed.  Only one brother who was out of the country studying in Senegal survived. During the ordeal, she had lost almost half her body weight, but not her will to live and to forgive.

She told us that she came to understand, in that crowded washroom, the heart of the truths of our faith: the value of prayer, reciting the Rosary and the importance of love and forgiveness. This happened even to point of when it makes no sense. Here she told everyone to think of the words in the Our Father: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." And added the words of St. Luke when Jesus on the cross said to those who killed him, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." What do you do when you have lost most of your family and friends? What do you do when you have every reason to hate, to want revenge and to lose all hope that life is worth living? How do you treat the people who murdered your family, friends and destroyed the life you had? She turned to God and to her faith. It was prayer, especially the rosary, that sustained her life during those dark days of hunger, death, suffering and despair.

In her talk, she made it clear that you never expect that this kind of tragedy will happen to you or in your country. How does it happen? Her answer was not to try to explain Rwandan history and politics. Instead, she said that these horrors can take over a nation when it loses sight of God. The people of Rwanda had been warned by Our Lady of Kibeho.  These Marian apparitions to several young girls took place in 1981 in Kibeho, 80 km from her village.  Here Mary gave a number of ominous warnings, including a vision of the country taken over by violence and hatred. "But sadly," Immaculee told us, "we did not listen and the resulting genocide was the cost of embracing evil and rejecting God".  Thus far the Kibeho apparitions are the only officially recognized events in Africa by the Catholic Church.

Immaculee signing her books
She has now learned that forgiving those who killed everything and everyone she loved is the only way forward.  It is the only way to true freedom which comes from the gift of prayer and God’s grace. She said, “When I left my house and family for the last time, my father gave me two important things, a rosary and the idea not to judge others through the lens of prejudice and hatred.” We must learn, "that if the killers truly knew who each person was, (a son or daughter of God) then they could never kill them.” She reminded the audience that it was a Hutu, yes a minister, but nevertheless a potential enemy, who risked his life in order to save the lives of the eight women hiding in his house.

In her best selling book Left to Tell, published in 2006, she vividly recounts the story of this incredible ordeal, and she would even say a miraculous survival. The reader cannot help but be spiritually inspired by this heroine whose faith gave her something to live for and helped to find forgiveness and compassion in her heart for those who murdered her family and friends. Since her first publication, she has authored a number of other books: Led by Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwanda Genocide, The Boy Who Met Jesus, Our Lady of Kibeho and If Only We had Listened and Visit from Heaven. She has also produced a number of CDs of Marian songs, the Rosary and about the messages from Our Lady of Kibeho. She has been given numerous awards, has become an international speaker and has addressed the United Nations with her message of hope. Immaculee has returned to her homeland several times, has led pilgrimages there, as well as establishing the Left to Tell Charitable Fund to help Rwandan orphans of the genocide. 

Here's the question that I asked myself as I listened to her moving testimony of faith and love and forgiveness: why was she saved when countless people died? The answer:  God sends us many gifts. Some of them are things and some of them are people. Immaculee is God's gift to the world. It's God telling the world that love is stronger than hate, life is stronger than death, hope stronger than any despair and forgiveness stronger than revenge.

1 comment:

  1. Immaculee Ilibagiza's story of survival amongst a horrendous genocide and her forgiveness of the perpetrators that killed her family and one million Tutsis shows both love of God and love of neighbour. Those are the first two Commandments. May a God of love, hope and mercy bless Immaculee and her family.

    Think again if you think this kind of genocide can't happen here or in the west. When you try to eliminate God anything is possible especially when you begin to marginalize a people or a religion the way they are marginalizing Christians especially the Catholic faith.

    It's only a matter of time before a persecution gets physical. The first sign of a persecution getting physical is the elmination of freedom of religious expression.

    If there is one thing that Immaculee stresses in her witness and talks is to pray the rosary every day. I would urge all of you reading this blog to pray the rosary with your families because a family that prays together stays together.