“...who despises the day of small things...” (Zechariah 4:10)
Last December 2022, my wife Sharon and I attended dinner with her parents for our birthdays. This had been a tradition for years. We arrived expecting a few hours of eating good, conversation about family, and playing cards. Everything was going as planned as we dined on pot roast with steamed potatoes and carrots, garlic rolls, and a salad.
Once we finished, my mother-in-law asked me to share my Rwandan experience. I shared the history of this small east African country and the terrible genocide that happened in the spring of 1994 in which nearly one million Rwandans lost their lives in a 100-day span. I shared my learnings from participating in Healing Hearts/ Transforming Nations reconciliation training that was used to bring reconciliation among Tutsi and Hutus tribes.
As I finished up my comments, my mother-in-law came out with a question I never saw coming. She said, “Have you forgiven us for how we treated you thirty years ago?” She was referring to the early days of dating her daughter Sharon when they questioned my family background, challenged us to not get married due to race, and hosted many dinners at their Hudsonville home that ended in screaming, crying, and vows of defiance from Sharon and I.
It was only after our April 7, 1990 wedding was completed that my in-laws stopped fighting us and begrudgingly supported our decision. I was blindsided by the question because I didn’t expect something from 30 years ago to rise from the archives into 2022.
I reflected on the two weeks in October 2022 I spent learning the forgiveness stories of Tutsi survivors who lost entire family members during the harrowing days in 1994. They shared that it was the power of the cross that gave them the power to forgive heinous crimes that are still felt in today’s Rwanda. These survivors needed God’s grace just as much as the Hutu perpetrators. By bringing their own pain to the cross of Jesus, God’s grace helped them to see with new eyes. The Rwandans taught me that only Jesus can humanize us. It is an intentional discipleship journey. The Hutus and Tutsis are using intentional community stories I had never seen before. It’s not perfect, but they are doing the hard work of humanizing each other.
The air was thick with tension before I gave my answer to my in-laws. Taking in a calm breath and blowing it out, I responded that I had forgiven them for the many attempts to break up Sharon and I. I commented that I forgave them for my own sake, not theirs. I forgave because I didn’t want my life shackled with pain, anger, and revenge for years that I would have passed down to my three daughters.
Mom switched to Sharon with the same question. Sharon hesitated and tears fell down her face. She responded she was not quite there yet and admitted she struggled to answer her mother’s forgiveness question, which triggered emotions that appeared on the surface. It didn’t take long before our emotions turned to anger, accusations, and hurt. We were now talking past each other. It took a while to get back to the original question about forgiveness for my in-laws. I learned in Rwanda I needed to give my pain back to Jesus and humanize the people sitting across the table from me.
The Rwandans had a hopeful vision of reconciliation for each other and for their country. They took three things seriously. First, they didn’t sanitize or whitewash the past. The Hutus owned up to their deeds. They didn’t try to dismiss nor reconstruct a positive narrative for their benefit. The genocide changed everything in how the past would be remembered like the Israelites who made certain salvation history included the good, the bad, and the ugly. The Rwandans took seriously that “denial is the first step towards genocide.” Hope arose from dealing with history with honesty and humility.
Second, the Rwandans believed healing from the tragedy of the genocide was possible. They believed a better future was possible through hearing stories and finding ways to be in close proximity to each other. A cross is a place of pain and loss, of false beliefs. But it is also a place of healing and redemption. Leaving the pain at the cross opens us to receiving something new from Jesus. I heard small stories of progress from ordinary men, women, college students, and children trying to live into a hopeful future.
Lastly, the Rwandans celebrated small actions of progress. I witnessed small actions of forgiveness from old enemies who didn’t believe redemption was possible. I saw Huts and Tutsi break bread together with laughter and gladness despite the ongoing hard work of reconciliation being far from complete. Every glimpse of progress was celebrated like the prodigal son coming home with the father’s delight was uncontainable as he saw him approaching the family estate.
My in-laws are good, thoughtful, and giving Christian people. I am thankful for their generosity and faithfulness to Jesus. Toward the end of the once-heated conversation, my in-laws disclosed something I heard for the first time. My father-in-law told Sharon and I that he believed racial profiling by law enforcement was real. My mother-in-law shared that when she heard racist comments from friends, she quickly corrected them. My eyes raised a bit and my mind changed about them. They were making progress in their racial education over the last 35 years. Progress is progress. I ask you, “who despises the day of small things.”