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Column: Rwandan’s story is testimony to God’s grace

Archbishop Naumann

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

During the summer, I had the opportunity to read “Left To Tell,” a book authored by Immaculée Ilibagiza – a survivor of the Rwandan holocaust.

The book provides a frightening account of the human capacity for cruelty and evil, while at the same time relating Immaculée’s own personal journey — a remarkable story of faith, hope and mercy.

Immaculée begins her book with the sentence: “I was born in paradise.” Her experience of “paradise” as a child was in part because of the incredible natural beauty of her homeland, but even more so because of her almost idyllic family life. Her parents were remarkable people of faith and goodness. They provided Immaculée with wonderful examples of living her Catholic faith with joy and fidelity. Both of Immaculée’s parents were teachers. They instilled in Immaculée and her three brothers a love for learning.

However, her parents did not teach Immaculée about the ethnic divisions that scarred Rwanda. Immaculée did not even know what tribe she belonged to until she had her first experience of tribal bigotry in school when she was subjected to an “ethnic roll call.”

Despite achieving the second highest grade point average in her class, Immaculée was denied acceptance into the public high school because she was a Tutsi, the minority tribe. As a consequence, her parents made heroic sacrifices to send her to a private school. Despite such discrimination, Immaculée’s intelligence and excellent study habits would gain her admittance to Rwanda’s National University.

In 1994, Immaculée was home from the university for the Easter holidays when ethnic violence erupted in Rwanda. For three months, extremists of the Hutu majority tribe massacred more than a million members of the Tutsi tribe. Immaculée’s parents and two of her three brothers were killed during the genocide.

Immaculée survived because her father sent her to take refuge in the home of a Hutu Protestant pastor. The pastor was a widower, whose wife was a member of the Tutsi tribe. The minister hid Immaculée and seven other Tutsi women in a tiny bathroom for three months. There was not enough room in the bathroom for all of them to sit down on the floor.

During the three months of the genocide, the pastor’s home was searched numerous times by Hutu extremists. They knew that Immaculée and some of the other Tutsi women had been seen last at the pastor’s home. Immaculée and her seven cellmates had to remain absolutely silent to prevent being discovered by the marauding, murderous gangs.

Immaculée prayed fervently, calling on God to protect her family and to spare her from being raped and killed. She battled with what she described as “evil whisperings,” tempting her to succumb to despair. These evil whispers taunted her, accusing her of pride for considering herself so special to be spared when so many others had already died.

Even more, Immaculée struggled with her anger for the killers. What made this horror even more incomprehensible was that those who brutally massacred her family were not strangers. They were Hutu neighbors and friends, many of whom her father and mother had helped. Immaculée describes how, in her mind, she cursed them and wished they burn in hell.

Again she heard the evil whisperings: “Why are you calling on God? Don’t you have as much hatred in your heart as the killers do? Aren’t you as guilty of hatred as they are? You’ve wished them dead; in fact, you wished that you could kill them yourself! You even prayed that God would make them suffer and make them burn in hell.”

Immaculée describes her heart feeling hollow. She was no longer able to pray to a God of love with a heart full of hatred. She tried to pray for the grace to forgive the killers, but her prayer lacked sincerity because she did not believe they deserved it.

Finally, after prayerfully struggling with her anger and hatred over a couple of days, she was given the grace to realize that in God’s eyes the perpetrators of the genocide were also his children. She understood that she could not ask God to love her, if she was unwilling to love his children.

She was finally able to pray for the killers “that God would lead them to recognize the horrific error of their ways before their life on earth ended – before they were called to account for their mortal sins.” She heard the Lord say to her: “Forgive them; they know not what they do.”

A tremendous peace came over Immaculée at this moment. God had given her a great gift. He had freed her heart from being held captive by feelings of hatred and revenge. As difficult as the weeks ahead would be for her, she began to experience a remarkable spiritual growth.

The only possession that Immaculée had, besides the clothes on her back, was a rosary that her father had given to her. Immaculée prayed her way through the next three months. She writes: “I found a place in the bathroom to call my own: a small corner of my heart. I retreated there as soon as I awoke, and stayed there until I slept. It was my sacred garden, where I spoke with God, meditated on his words, and nurtured my spiritual self.

“While horror swirled around me, I found refuge in a world that became more welcoming and wonderful with each visit. Even as my body shriveled, my soul was nourished through my deepening relationship with God.

“I entered my special space through prayer; once inside, I prayed nonstop, using my rosary as an anchor to focus my thoughts and energies on God. The rosary beads helped me concentrate on the gospels and keep the words of God alive in my mind.

“I gave myself over completely to God. When I wasn’t praying, I felt that I was no longer living in His light, and the world of the bathroom was too bleak to endure.”

Immaculée Ilibagiza’s story is a remarkable testimony of what the power of God’s grace can accomplish in the human heart, even in the most horrible of circumstances. If you want to be inspired and challenged, I encourage you to read “Left To Tell.”

If you would like to hear Immaculée’s own testimony firsthand, she will be speaking in Kansas City, Mo., on Oct. 14 in the Rose Auditorium at Rockhurst High School. The proceeds of the event will benefit Pure Fashion, an organization that strives to empower young women to live lives of faith and virtue. Tickets can be purchased on line by visiting the Web site at:

About the author

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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