It took a bishop

As we drove with Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana north from Kigali, the undulating hills and lush green foliage and fields reminded me of a quaint and colorful Switzerland. Streets were clean; no garbage bags in sight, and no visual reminders of genocide.

My question was how this idyllic land with the friendliest of Africans could have been caught in the swirling fury of a cultural storm that within sixty days slaughtered by hand, gun, machete and fire over a million of its citizens?

In my earlier Dispatch on Rwanda. I noted that in 1959, 300,000 Tutsis had been slaughtered and hundreds of thousands fled, a tragedy repeated in more dramatic fashion in 1994 when 1,117,000 died. I had earlier thought it was tribal warfare between Hutu and Tutsi when in fact it was the result of its colonizers who had created a social distinction which in time hardened into hatred by Hutus for Tutsi. The lid from this boiling pot blew in early 1994 when a plane carrying the Rwandan president, a Hutu, was blown up. And from that a wholesale genocide erupted.

Today the country, while nursing underlying memories and understandable tensions and fears, has been led by one whose own life was disrupted in 1959, forced to flee with his family. Today his story, as told in The Bishop of Rwanda, describes a strong pastoral hand, matured in the service of caring for people and churches, and then brought in by the president to do what had not been done in other countries, including South Africa. In the aftermath of this dislocating and wrenching of human and national life, one was needed to bring grace into hatred, forgiveness into revenge, hope to calm confusion and counteract paralyzing fear.

Born in 1945, John Rucyahana along with family fled Rwanda to Uganda during the 1959 killings. As he grew into adulthood, he left his Catholic upbringing with a lingering anger over the Tutsi killings. In time, nurtured by family friend Mary Mukanurasa, he said, “I was arrested” by Christ.   He became a school headmaster and then studied for ministry in the Anglican Church as a rural evangelist, serving in Uganda during the rule of Idi Amin, and eventually studying in the United States.

After 1994 Pastor John returned to Rwanda as a Bishop. He came to a land of confusion, continuing killings and attempts to overthrow the newly installed Kagame government.

For him this began a long and heart-stretching ministry of caring for the bruised, hurt and traumatized. In time President Kagame appointed him Chairman of the Commission of Reconciliation. To understand the profound evil and resulting sorrow, listen to the Bishop tell of his niece Madu, soon after their return to Rwanda.  She was only sixteen and afraid because her father was a Tutsi and her mother a Hutu and the rebels were continuing their killings in the area, even though the genocide was supposedly over.

He writes,

“I told her that I would take care of the provisions for the move, and they should come immediately. She thanked me and went back home to make preparations for the move. The same evening she arrived home, infiltrators attacked. They held Madu down and took their machetes and peeled the flesh off both her arms from the shoulder to the waist, and then they stripped her naked and raped her while she was in that pain and slaughtered her. They killed her brother and sister too.”

How could reconciliation ever take place after such moments and accruing memories? And how could Bishop John take the lead?

I move from that 1994 family horror ahead some twenty years.

We drove with Bishop John into a prison compound housing 1901 convicts – 25 percent convicted of genocide and about a third of the total number were women. Over 700 had gathered under a tin roof for chapel. As we arrived they were already into worship and praise, all led by prisoners from the camp. The music, prayers and testimonies were riveting; we couldn’t help but enter in. Their words of faith and forgiveness left us gulping for air. I spoke on Jesus’ story of a loving and forgiving father. I ended with prayer, but Bishop John wanted it to go further. He stood and invited those to come to the front if they wanted a prayer of forgiveness of their sins. The area around the platform was jammed. The Bishop turned and said, “Time to pray again.” And so I did.

We then visited a village nearby, a newly built village of residences constructed by Prison Fellowship, bringing together both perpetrators and genocide survivors. The village people gathered in a meadow. A group of ladies danced in praise to the rhythm of the drumbeat. Chantal Mutuyimna, an elegant woman, told of her mother and father and six siblings hacked down by those with whom now she lived side by side. She smiled as she spoke. “Now, I can leave the village and know my goats will be well cared for.”

This process of reconciliation began in prison as Bishop John worked with Prison Fellowship. When I asked how different his commission was to that of South Africa he noted there the focus was on learning what had happened and how they might find a basis for whites, coloreds and blacks to live together, a matter dealing with racial strife.

In Rwanda, he observed, it was about an earlier defined social class distinction, which had been deliberately fanned into flames of hatred and killing. Here, he explained, the goal was to encourage people to seek transformation not just co-existence. This for him was a moral and spiritual issue based in a vision for transformation of all, combined with a forgiveness of those who had killed or were complicit with a goal of them living side by side. In this way both the survivors of genocide and its perpetrators would take responsibility for the past and the future.

Rwanda is still in transition. Even so its collective courage is a reminder how grace can triumph in the midst of calamity and sorrow.  We also learn again, that in any place or moment of tragedy, the Lord raises up people to be his peace, grace and truth.

Over a second cup of coffee I asked Bishop John what was his basis for ministry. He flipped opened his pocket Bible and began to read from 2 Corinthians 5, beginning with verse sixteen:

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

Brian C Stiller
Global Ambassador, World Evangelical Alliance
July 2014

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