By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
In 1994, a man named Jerome who was a member of our church in Seattle, was in Rwanda during the horrific genocide of Tutsis by the Hutus. He had been in many dangerous situations before, but nothing like this. Jerome was one of the last Westerners to get out safely, but not before he captured photos of the carnage. I will never forget looking in numbed disbelief at the stacks of skulls, skeletons and bodies, trying to get my head around the evil that had occurred there. Then when I was in Iraq, I had to face it again as young members of the Iraqi Special Forces were betrayed and beheaded through an inside job that originated on our base; the head of one young husband having been sent in a box to his widow. Later, when only a few miles away from us Al-Qaeda literally roasted a nine year old child in an oven and then invited the child’s parents “over for dinner,” the commandment to “love your enemies” was tested in a whole new way in my heart. I came back to the States not long after.
It was then, in 2007 that I became aware once again of the power of forgiveness as the media launch of the book, Left To Tell: Discovering God Amidst The Rwandan Holocaust occurred, and for me, the timing was perfect. Left To Tell is the story of a young Catholic Tutsi woman by the name of Immaculée Ilibagiza, who was hidden by a Hutu minister in the tiny, rarely used 3’x4’ bathroom in their basement. That would have been enough of a tale if she were by herself, but Immaculée was crammed in the bathroom with seven other women for 91 days. A lithe 5’9”, she went into hiding weighing 115 pounds, and came out weighing 65 pounds. The Hutu pastor who hid her and the rest of the women even hid them from his own family by moving an armoire over the door so the marauding Hutus couldn’t find them. He would sneak whatever food he could to them when he could, they flushed the toilet only when a toilet upstairs was being flushed, and they did not bathe for the entire time. Once a refugee camp was set up by the French, he snuck them out in the middle of the night to freedom.
Immaculée’s courage in forgiving the Hutu who killed her family, in tapping into a love that can only be explained as divine, and overcoming the most hideous, debilitating terror imagineable has given her a platform that is global, and just this past weekend touched the life of my trusty copy editor, Yvonne Dempsey. Yvonne came home from a conference where Immaculée was the keynote speaker, and to say that she was inspired is an understatement. I will let her tell it in her own words:
I felt a new awakening during my retreat. There were several prayerful moments during which I felt a release of bitterness, anger, resentment that I did not know resided in me. I realized that I needed to dig deep into my soul and cultivate my small seed of faith so that it would grow beyond me and spread its love to everyone. I knew I could be a better, more loving and forgiving person. After all, I am a child of God and I want to please Him in all my thoughts, words, and actions.
Listening to Immaculée tell her story, I couldn’t help but see the parallels between what happened there and some of the recent events in our country. In her book Led By Faith, Immaculée says, “The story of Rwanda is one that belongs to us all … Hatred, anger, mistrust, and fear enter our lives every day in a thousand different ways. We’re all wounded by these evils, but we can all be healed through the power of love and forgiveness – a power readily available to us when we have faith.” Today Immaculée visits Rwanda frequently. She says, “The power of God’s forgiveness has taken root in my country: faith is flourishing where once there was only hatred and death. God’s love is truly working a miracle in Rwanda.” Immaculée’s words give us hope – hope for our lives and hope for our country. And if God can work miracles in Rwanda, we must have faith that He can work miracles in our lives and in our country.”
Since 2007, Immaculée has gone on to publish another excellent book entitled Led By Faith: Rising From The Ashes Of The Rwandan Genocide, and several others geared more specifically toward Catholics. She has been featured on numerous Christian as well as other TV stations including Al-Jazeera. A major movie about her life is in production and is slated to be released in 2018. Also, her house in Rwanda has been re-built by the donations of people whose life she has impacted; she has become a naturalized citizen of the US, and is now the mother of two children.
In an era when people are getting a lot of traction out of being “offended” over statues, monuments, flags, old drinking fountains, and things that happened centuries ago, it is refreshing to know that the age-old promise of healing to the broken-hearted, recovery of sight to the blind, and setting at liberty them that are bruised still works without hindrance or hesitation if you let it. Just ask Immaculée.