Monday, March 9, 2009

Review and Interview: As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda

We are one month away from the fifteenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Fifteen years later, the wounds are still deep. While you and I may pop Hotel Rwanda into the DVD player or pull up info on a social justice website from time to time, victims and offenders are dealing every day with the heavy weight of what was lost, just like it happened yesterday. And a courageous few minister among them, working toward a scandalous grace in the wake of one of the twentieth century's most heinous sins.

Catherine Larson has written an important book. Inspired by the award-winning documentary of the same name, As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda opens up the lives of mothers, fathers, and children, as they open up their wounds. No horrific detail is spared, but the most shocking thing in As We Forgive is the amazing power of forgiveness and repentance. Grace is for sin, and Larson's book depicts miraculous grace fit for horrendous sins.

In the vivid personal stories are spiritual reflections and even practical approaches to experiencing reconciliation in our own lives. And a word of advice: If you are finding it difficult to forgive that coworker or family member who really "did you wrong," pick up this book and read about machete-scarred orphans and widows embracing the men who murdered their fathers and husbands.

Catherine was gracious enough to respond to some brief questions I had about her work:

JW: Can you explain the connection between As We Forgive the book and As We Forgive the movie? The book is not an adaptation, nor did it precede the movie. It was "inspired by the movie." Not having seen the movie (yet!) myself, can you explain the inspiration? Are the stories the same? What is the relation between book and movie now?

CL: My friend Laura Waters Hinson traveled to Rwanda in 2006 to film the documentary film. When she got back I was one of the first ones to hear about the experience as we served side by side on the Creative Arts Team at our church. Working for Prison Fellowship, I was already familiar with the amazing reconciliation efforts happening in Rwanda and so I had a built-in interest. At that time, I told Laura that I wanted to do anything that I could to support getting the message of the film out. I thought I would write a magazine article or two. But the more I began to explore it, the more I realized that the subject really needed longer treatment. I couldn't believe that there wasn't anyone writing about the quest for reconciliation in Rwanda in the book form yet. So I traveled to Rwanda a year after Laura. I followed up with the people in her film and tried to get a wider scope on their lives. I also sought out several more stories to try and get a cross-section of the various organizations and churches at work. I also wanted a sampling of both men and women, orphans and widows, etc.

Laura and I are getting to do a few speaking engagements together these days. And I think as the book gains visibility, it will only help continue to give visibility to her film. She has started a non-profit called the Living Bricks Campaign, which is raising funds for repentant offenders in Rwanda to be able to build homes for survivors, and in so doing practically show their remorse. She is working in partnership with Prison Fellowship Rwanda. And so I've been really glad that I can help get the word out about this important way people here can help further reconciliation in Rwanda.

JW: In some of the stories, we find the Christian Church, or at least clergy, complicit in and/or guilty of murder and corruption. Has this hampered the work of Christian groups in Rwanda today? Is there suspicion on behalf of victims? Is there anger on behalf of offenders who now find those who aided their crimes now taking them to task for them?

CL: Jared, the history of the church's involvement in the genocide is truly tragic. My friend, Emmanuel Katongole, whose book Mirror to the Church came out at the same time as mine has addressed this question wonderfully. He says that Rwanda was 80% Christian at the time of the genocide, held up as an example of modern mission success. Yet, on Easter week, Christians picked up ordinary farm tools and killed their neighbors, their fellow church members. It's horrifying. Katongole so wisely says that this should trouble us profoundly. He talks about how a particular story in the Rwandan culture was more powerful than the Christian story. And he uses that to raise the question of what stories are more powerful in our own culture--to us--than the Christian story, than the reality of the Gospel.

Obviously, this sad history has made the work of reconciliation so much more difficult. Bishop John Rucyhana of the Shyira Diocese in Rwanda says that the church has had to repent of its part in the genocide. Thankfully, many church leaders have done that. Many who were actually involved in the crimes have fled. But others, like Bishop John (he wasn't in Rwanda at the time of the genocide--had been exiled years earlier, but felt the burden to return and care for the people) are taking the lead in calling for repentance to begin in the Church, with its leadership, with its members, before it can ever be carried into the communities.

Betrayal is a real issue for people though. They fled to the church for protection and found it instead a place of death. Of course, there were some Christians in Rwanda who refused to participate. Some of them died for it. Others like Phanuel's family hid the persecuted.

So it's an involved question, but what I can say is that thankfully many in Rwanda's churches understand that repentance must begin first with the house of God.

JW: Can you describe the culture of the Church in Rwanda? (I know that's a big question.) Just wondering about what the native Christian communities look like, what they're doing in the recovery, how they interact with and work with outside Christian or other relief/counseling agencies.

CL: I'm not sure I can do justice to this question. I will say that from what I saw many of the people in local churches have received training in conducting various reconciliation workshops. I heard some of the same themes in diverse parts of the country and so could tell that some of the material in the workshops is being dispersed. The good part of it seems to me to be that people from local areas are getting trained by groups like African Evangelistic Enterprises, and Le Ruchier, and then they are taking this back to their own communities.

JW: Do you have updates? How are some of these folks featured in the book doing today? Any new stories to tell from their ongoing work of reconciliation?

CL: Well, I have some. I'm really excited about one of these updates. Just after finishing my manuscript and sending it in, I found out that two of the people whose stories I wove together in the book, Phanuel and Prisca, are actually getting married in July. Both of them survived the school shooting in Nyange and both are currently involved in speaking on themes of reconciliation and unity. This is really significant because the history of the last fifteen years would say Phanuel, a Hutu, and Prisca, a Tutsi would have too much to separate them. But the reality of their Christian faith is that they have a higher identity, not simply as Rwandans but as sons and daughters of God. Phanuel emails me all the time and it is such a joy to hear from him!

Claude, who is in the book, has been struggling to finish his schooling. He would love to come to the United States and study but the door just hasn't opened yet. Being an orphan has an ongoing toll on his life as there is no one to fall back on.

JW: What can we do? What can the average Christian in the West interested in "doing something" do?

Well, I mentioned earlier Laura's Living Bricks Campaign. That's a great way to help. But also, I'd say giving to groups like Prison Fellowship International and CARSA who are involved in the hands-on reconciliation work. I met several people there working in the mire of reconciliation who receive no salary, but do this "full-time." They basically subsist on people's charity and do what God has called them to do. Prison Fellowship Rwanda would love to be able to have more full-time staff in Rwanda, to do counseling, evangelism, education, etc, but they don't have money for the salaries. This is one cry of my heart. I list a number of these organizations on my website. I think about some of the mediators that I met, people that I'd describe like the Hebrews writer did of the saints, men "of whom the world was not worthy" (11:38) and I just long for them to be fully supported so that they can continue in this necessary work.

Aside from giving, I'd say there is such a need for our prayers. We can pray for those who are still dealing with the trauma of what happened to them. We can pray for those whose hearts are still too hardened to repent. We can pray for those who are counseling others. We can pray especially for the 300,000 or so who were orphaned during the genocide and many of whom now are teens or young adults.

Churches might also consider developing a sister church relationship with a church in Rwanda. The church that I've been a part of for the last five years or so has a vital relationship with a sister church in Nyagatare, Rwanda. We have learned and been blessed by so much from them, and I think we have also been able to be a blessing. That type of relationship can enable long-term mutual fruit and help us remember that even though there is an ocean between us we are brothers and sisters in Christ and when one part of the body suffers all suffer, when one part of the body rejoices, all rejoice.

Get the book; read it. The American Church needs not just awareness of what's happening in the Two Thirds World, we need awareness of the power of the gospel there.

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