When I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, in October 2022, it was in the dark of night after a 17-hour flight from Grand Rapids with stops in Detroit and Amsterdam. Takia, a small-framed young Tutsi woman, found me in the airport. She guided me to the vehicle that took me to Rabagirana Ministries, which housed the Healing Hearts Transforming Nations (HHTN) reconciliation training just outside the capital.
Rwandan Hutus massacred almost one million Tutsi men, women, and children—along with moderate Hutus—over 100 days in the spring of 1994. Author Philip Gourevitch mentioned in his award-winning book that the Hutus killed Tutsi “at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust. It was the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”(1) This quote underscored my deep skepticism that this small country (about the size of Vermont) could change from a killing machine to a beacon of peacemaking and reconciliation in Africa. I suspected my doubts would be confirmed after my 15-day training.
The first day I sat in front of Rhiannon Lloyd, a small framed white woman with short wispy hair and an effervescent smile, as she explained why she came to Rwanda in May 1995. While praying with two other Christians for Rwanda, Lloyd saw the entire country covered with ashes from the horrors of the genocide against the Tutsi. The Lord reminded her of Romans 15:13, which reads “May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace as your trust Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
She wrote the moment in her memoir, “Wherever He is, there is hope, even in a country that has just gone through genocide.” (2) She began the ministry of reconciliation with this hope. Lloyd believed the only way to heal the losses of life and hope in Rwanda was a gospel big enough and hopeful enough that beauty could come from Rwandan ashes.
Some scars were not visible with natural eyes, yet sliced into marrow of Rwandan humanity.
Dr. Joseph Nyamutera, a senior HHTN facilitator, told the group of about 30 participants from the African nations of Ethiopia, South Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda that the new Rwandan government rejected the typical solution of revenge which continues the cycle of violence and death in most of the continent. They embraced the ministry of reconciliation by punishing perpetrators, spreading a vision of unity in all phases of government, and condemning all hate speech.
The government faced its awful history. Tribal labels were replaced by “We are all Rwandans.” The government and church decided to create an alternative narrative of empathy and reconciliation. I realized that the government can play a vital role in a better future if they have the political will to risk it. At the same time, the problems went deeper than the government doing its part. Some scars were not visible with natural eyes, yet sliced into the marrow of Rwandan humanity.
What wounds of Rwandans did I see? I witnessed the struggle of many Rwandans trying to make ends meet on little income. I was approached by many Rwandan children begging in downtown Kigali. I saw men and women with machetes and hoes trying to tame the fertile soil to bring forth potatoes, bananas, and yams. I drove through villages of young people not attending school, but standing by stores or idling among themselves. The wounds of the genocide can’t be seen by the naked eye but through the stories of young people with pent-up pain who came after the genocide. Fears of tribes still existed and it took the auspices of the training to hear their cries.
One way of getting the stories of pain expressed was through the arts. An integrated group of Hutus and Tutsi danced for the visitors after the first day of training. The young boys danced exuberantly, dressed in flowing white turbans of hair, ankle bells, and blue jeans. The young girls wore white bands around their crowns, white sashes around their waists, and contagious smiles. The vision of reconciliation had planted seeds in these young people for a harvest of peace that showed bright signs of hope. My skepticism had taken a direct hit watching these children practice forgiveness right before my very eyes.
It was Rhiannon, Joseph and others who exposed their scars which gave courage to the rest of us that it was a safe place to birth something new in us.
The program was created to train people in places of deep tribal conflict in biblical reconciliation in their local contexts. The cross of Christ stood at the center of God’s answer as the appropriate means of taking deep hurts, losses, and anger between warring factions and receiving the gift of healing towards a new beginning of peace. Rhiannon and other facilitators told us that we had to build a house of reconciliation on God’s terms. They asked me to expose my own vulnerability about the wounds from my own country, where the U.S. government has given only lip service to true racial justice for African Americans.
In a place of communal safety, I expressed my losses and false beliefs about my own people. Other African participants shared their stories of loss that included family members. It was Rhiannon, Joseph, and others who exposed their scars, which gave courage to the rest of us that it was a safe place to birth something new in us. I felt my skepticism crumbling inside of me.
The HHTN training was like taking a train through different countries of the human heart. The first stop was the power of prejudice, the landscape of turmoil between people groups that hadn’t dropped the hatchet of revenge and violence. The quote that stuck in my head from a book on Rwanda was “denial is the first step towards genocide.” The country of prejudice by German and Belgium colonists chose the Tutsi for positions of power over the numerical majority Hutus in the 19th century, which prompted resentment and hatred. Every Rwandan carried an identity card that stated either their superiority or inferiority. Governmental preference set the explosives for the 1994 genocide. The match was the downing of Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane in April 1994. As I traveled through the metaphorical countries of prejudice, racism, pain, and death, the leaders knew I needed a hopeful future.
Humorist Mark Twain said that travel was the best antidote to prejudice. Twain believed travel expands small mindedness and introduces us to people we never thought we had much in common with. After three days of training, we traveled to Unity Mountain. This intentional community of Hutus and Tutsi was birthed by the leaders of Rabagirana Ministries, which sat about an hour’s drive outside of Kigali. The interesting part was our driver maneuvering across potholes large enough to swallow the vehicle since the roads were not paved. I was greeted by smiling children and adults who anticipated our arrival. We were given white plastic seats in the bright sun without much shade.
Then, a beautiful light-skinned Tutsi woman stood next to the interpreter and shared her survivor story with us, visitors. Dressed in a black dress with white shapes, she remembered when her father saw the killers approaching her family home. Her father knew he needed to act fast in order to save his daughter. She remembered her father covered her with his body as he was hacked to death. She remained under her dead father for a full day and found the courage to run to safety. Her eyes closed and her legs buckled to the ground. I applauded her, as a survivor, that she still believed in living at Unity Mountain.
This man spoke with joy that he got something better than his tribal name, he was proud to be a Christian living at Unity Mountain.
Next, a Hutu gentleman came up to share his story. He was dressed in an orange and purple plaid shirt and brown pants. His eyes stared upward rather than looking at people. In Rwanda, he owned up to his acts of horror as a perpetrator during the genocide. He admitted he murdered many Tutsi as he described the frenzy of Hutu power. He was caught and convicted of the murders. He served 10 years in prison for his crime against fellow Rwandans. Along with his wife, they asked to live among the Tutsi at Unity Mountain. The community admitted the couple with open arms. He shared he had never experienced such love and compassion from anyone. Many Hutus had begun changing their names and accents in order to hide their identity. This man spoke with joy that he got something better than his tribal name, he was proud to be a Christian living at Unity Mountain.
On the way back to the compound, I felt humbled by the stories I heard from people who knew forgiveness and reconciliation better than I. I admitted that I didn’t know the power of the cross that gave me forgiveness from a man who didn’t have to die for me. He chose love over revenge. He chose compassion over wrath. He chose restoration over retribution. For the first time in my life, I saw a model worth bringing back to the United States that often feels more like the Divided States of America.
My mind took me back to the Kigali Genocide Memorial of Remembrance and Learning. As a group, we saw the graves where 250,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus were buried surrounded by trees and flowers. I read the granite stones with the names of Rwandans who died in the genocide. The government was still searching for bodies even after 28 years. They were no longer numbers read from Wikipedia or faded editions of the New York Times, these were human souls who didn’t deserve to die in a country where 85% of the people were Christian. It was Christians killing Christians. That meant it took Christians re-humanizing Christians from enemy to friend. Rwandans faced their history and chose re-humanizing rather than de-humanizing as the best path towards a better future. I (or we) have a model for a different future.
Rwanda changed my mind and I hope it changed yours, too.
(1) We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, p. 3
(2) Fire Lilies: Finding Hope in Unexpected Places, p. 79