Rwanda Revisited: Awakening Empathy

Rwanda Revisited: Awakening Empathy

REMEMBERING THE TRAGEDY: A Rwandan genocide survivor visits the Gisozi memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, where he views pictures of some of the 800,000 people killed in his nation's 1994 massacre. (Photo: Radu Sigheti/Newscom)

When I studied abroad in Rwanda in July, friends and family expressed concern for my safety. To them, Rwanda conjured images of genocide that tore through this small African country in 1994.

Now, after learning about what happened during the genocide, their concern seems terribly ironic. Because if anything like the genocide were to happen again, my American passport would have gotten me a seat on the next plane home. I never would have been in any danger.

But I can’t say the same for the people I met in Rwanda: fellow students I took classes with, pastors I interviewed, street children I gave food to, and the leaders and scholars who lectured for our class. People who were like me, sharing my passion for ministry or my hope to make a difference, but without the American passport.

When the Rwandan genocide began in April 1994, Americans and other Westerners were immediately evacuated, while the most vulnerable people—the Tutsi being targeted, and the Hutu moderates who stood up for them—were abandoned.

The international forces that poured in to evacuate foreigners could have stopped the genocide right then if they’d teamed up with UN peacekeepers and other nearby troops. But they didn’t. And 100 days later, a million people were dead.

Seventeen years after the genocide, Rwanda is now one of the safest countries in Africa. But in other parts of the world still experiencing conflict, this scenario is not so far from the horrifying truth of what could happen when crisis hits: foreigners are saved, and Africans are not.In Rwanda, the killers were sharpening their machetes and waiting for the evacuation team to do their job, so they could close in on their victims without interference. The message to Rwandans was disturbingly clear: you were only getting on a UN rescue truck if you had that passport—or, in plainer words, if your skin was white.

“Mass slaughter was happening, and suddenly there in Kigali we had the forces we needed to contain it, and maybe even stop it,” UN General Romeo Dallaire told journalist Samantha Power in The Atlantic’s “Bystanders to Genocide.” “Yet they picked up their people and turned and walked away.”

ABANDONING RWANDA: The extremist Hutu militia killed 10 Belgian soldiers at this site to scare Belgium out of Rwanda. Belgium pulled its soldiers from the UN peacekeeping mission, severely reducing its force. The bullet holes are still visible at this former military camp, now a memorial in Kigali. (Photo by Tyler Hutcherson)

You can’t help but ask the difficult questions: Why were foreigners saved and Africans abandoned, when their lives are just as valuable? Why didn’t the rest of the world pull their troops together to save a million lives, rather than just rescuing the Westerners, calling the mission a success, and getting out?

I think of watching Beyond the Gates, a fictional movie about the Rwandan genocide, and listening to a white journalist compare her experiences seeing death in different countries. “When I was in Bosnia, I cried every day,” this character said. “I looked at the white faces of women dead in the gutter and thought, ‘That could be my mother.’ In Rwanda, I look at the bodies and I think, ‘It’s just dead Africans.’”

Looking back at what happened in Rwanda, I can’t help but wonder if a similar lack of empathy enabled the rest of the world to turn its back on Rwanda, reasoning that the people they left behind after the evacuation were “just dead Africans.” Has American culture become so numb to the suffering of Africans that it sees their continent as a lost cause? How can we help Americans see Africans as brothers and sisters in Christ, people who could be our family?

As I left the genocide memorials, I often felt empty, dead inside. I wasn’t sure I was capable of feeling even a fragment of the horror that happened there—let alone put it into words. Because there are some things that can’t be put into words, that are so mind-blowing that to even begin to describe them would be to trivialize the truth.

In such moments, it can be tempting to shut down emotionally, because although we may feel empathy, it seems that there’s not much we can do to put it to use. And so it’s all too easy to discard it, and move on.

I wonder what would happen if we instead clung to our empathy, aching and trusting that God can understand even when we have no words and don’t know what to do. As Romans 8:26 puts it, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

Because if we hold on to our empathy and cry out to God when we feel helpless, maybe we won’t give up so easily. Maybe we’ll open our eyes and see that a million lives could be saved. And then maybe we’ll use our voice as a church to do something about it.

CONFLICTS IN AFRICA TODAY:

South Sudan’s foreign minister is warning that Sudan and South Sudan are “on the brink of war” after border violence, and the UN said Tuesday the fighting has displaced about 417,000 people. If that conflict explodes, it would easily become the largest conventional war on the face of the earth,” wrote George Clooney and John Prendergast in a TIME article about famine as a weapon in Sudan.

• In Somalia, 250,000 people are still facing famine. The Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab has worsened the crisis, recently ordering 16 humanitarian aid agencies to leave Somalia, including the World Health Organization and UNICEF. The New York Times has disturbing photographs of the crisis—and one glimpse of hope, a photograph of one child giving another child a drink.

What’s the duty of the American church now? Is your church taking action to help stop violence and famine in Africa?

Voice of the Hispanic Christian Vote

Voice of the Hispanic Christian Vote

THE AGENDA OF THE LAMB: When it comes to the Hispanic community, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is challenging both 'the Donkey' and 'the Elephant' to rise above the usual politics.

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez represents tremendous vote-getting power for a demographic that could sway the 2012 election: the ethnic Christian vote. A Sacramento-based pastor and the founding president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, he’s known for his efforts to see that Hispanic Christians have a political voice.

But rather than using his influence to propel a particular political party or candidate, Rodriguez wants to use it to mobilize the Hispanic Christian voter base. “I want the candidates to endorse us and our position, not the other way around,” Rodriguez said.

Since starting the NHCLC in 2001, Rodriguez has become the “go-to guy” for political and religious leaders looking to partner with Hispanic Christians.

In August, he was a speaker and honorary co-chair for The Response prayer rally organized by GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry — causing some to speculate that Rodriguez would throw his support to Perry: “Getting Rodriguez on board with The Response is a coup d’état that should have Democrats shaking in their boots,” Grace Wyler wrote in the Business Insider.

But Rodriguez said he isn’t going to endorse anyone, and his involvement in The Response wasn’t a political statement. He said the agreement behind the prayer rally was that it would not be political.

“My commitment is to engage the Hispanic community in prophetic action, swaying them from apathy,” Rodriguez said. “I’m not committed to the donkey or the elephant. I’m committed to the agenda of the Lamb.”

Still, even as Rodriguez strives to walk the middle road, he generally appears to lean conservative. This makes his recent challenge to the Republican presidential candidates to clean up their rhetoric on immigration even more significant.

UrbanFaith recently spoke with Rodriguez about the issues and values that resonate with the ethnic Christian community and their growing political influence, as well as the challenge of confronting the anti-immigrant mood that has settled over the Republican Party. The interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.

UrbanFaith: Looking at what’s playing out in the political field right now, from President Obama to the rising GOP candidates, what could be the impact of the minority Christian vote?

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez: The ethnic Christian vote will play a significant part in the 2012 election. It’s more energized and mobilized than ever before. The reason is that we really want to see a righteousness and justice agenda, that’s both John 3:16 and Matthew 25, that represents our Christian value system in a way that is comprehensive. It’s not the agenda of the donkey or the agenda of the elephant that really resonates. As a Christian, I’d encourage all African American, Hispanic and other ethnic minority groups that are Christian to vote our Christian faith. Those values transcend any and all other values.

What do you mean by a ‘righteousness and justice agenda’?

That’s an agenda that supports and defends the values that are biblical, values that help the family continue to be the institution where God glorifies himself. Biblical values of life, reconciling those with horizontal values of biblical justice, like fighting poverty, addressing issues of education, confronting racism, human trafficking, sex trafficking, injustices throughout the world.

We have a prophetic voice as the church. Our prophetic voice is both vertical and horizontal. We speak both to the church and to the community. We’re both righteousness and justice, we are sanctification and service, and we are both Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. We have to speak with anointing, moral clarity, integrity, and above all we have to speak with love and passion.

What are some of the key issues important to minority voters right now?

First would be the economy. The poverty rate in the communities of color, especially the African American community, continues to increase in a very aggressive manner. We have Latinos and African Americans confronting an economic reality that we as communities have been confronting for decades. So the level of anguish in communities of color is greater than in the general community.

In addition to the economy, we’re looking at education, high school drop out rates over 50 or 60 percent. That means over half of the kids of color never graduate from high school. This is an epidemic that needs to be confronted sooner than later. Right now, we’re ignoring it. That increases the propensity for the proliferation of gangs, teen pregnancy, fatherlessness, so many other social ills that are totally weighted to the lack of educational mobility.

Third is the issue of the family. How do we strengthen the family? How do we address the number of fatherless homes in urban centers in communities of color around our nation? So we need to strengthen the family in order to push back any social ill that I mentioned previously.

You’ve said before that the Republican Party needs to change how they’re handling immigration to get the Latino evangelical vote. Is that still a major factor too?

Oh sure, the Republican Party has done a terrible job in reaching out to the Latino community, by embracing an immigration reform stance that’s not just anti-illegal immigration — it seems to be very anti-immigrant. And that’s the problem. On the other hand, the Democratic Party has equally failed the Hispanic community on the immigration issue. We had a Democratic majority in both houses and a Democratic president. They made us a promise that they would pass immigration reform and they did not. So the Democratic Party did fail the Hispanic community, and the Republican Party has alienated the Hispanic community. Both of them are going to have to repair the breach in order to engage in the election.

I recently wrote about the ‘Rainbow Right,’ or African-, Hispanic- and Asian-American Christians who are becoming conservative despite being part of a racial group known for a liberal bent. Is that a trend?

I don’t embrace the nomenclatures that try to pin us on the right or the left. I’m committed to the agenda of the Lamb. The donkey’s not going to own me, and the elephant’s not going to own me. This Rainbow Right idea, it is what it is. There must be a Rainbow Left, right?

African Americans defended Proposition 8 in California, even more than Hispanics and whites. How can African Americans, in one ballot, be successful in November 2008 in protecting the biblical definition of marriage in the state of California, and they also vote for Obama in the same day? Does that make them Rainbow Right African Americans? No, it’s because the African American community and the Latino community have values and we’re not going to stick to the marching orders of one political party.

The moment you see African Americans say, ‘There are certain things in the Democratic Party that don’t resonate with us, and we’re going to push back,’ and that they embrace ideas that are conservative values — I don’t think it’s justifiable to deem them as the Rainbow Right. It’s just African Americans, Hispanics and Asians saying, ‘We don’t like to be held hostage by any political party.’ It’s a political moment of emancipation.

That’s powerful. I’d love to see more African Americans in the Republican Party, and I’d love to see more Asians in the Democratic Party. My point is, I’d love to see diversity in both parties. But I would love to see communities say, the idea of voting one party line for the rest of my life — I don’t think I should be subjugated to that. We should vote the candidate according to the values that they hold near and dear.

The Lessons of Derrion Albert’s Death

The Lessons of Derrion Albert’s Death

Demanding More from Ourselves for urban faith

TOO YOUNG: On Sept. 24, 2009, Derrion Albert became the innocent victim of mob violence as he walked home from school.

Two years ago, on Sept. 24, 2009, a mob of teenagers attacked and killed a young man outside a Christian community center on the south side of Chicago.

Derrion Albert, 16, had been an honors student at Fenger High School before his death. He died outside the Agape Community Center in Roseland, seemingly caught in the middle of a gang fight that had nothing to do with him.

Two years after Derrion Albert’s death, the youth violence epidemic continues in many inner cities. On Monday, Sept. 12, a family friend of Derrion Albert was shot and killed on the south side of Chicago. Alexander McDonald, 23, was the father of 2-year-old Jaylen. He was shot in the head on his way back from a funeral, cutting short his plans to graduate from college and marry his fiancée, according to ABC News.

The next day, 14-year-old Brian DeLeon was brutally beaten into a coma in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. His horrified girlfriend Dayana Vazquez found him bleeding on the sidewalk. She told the Chicago Tribune, “He didn’t talk to gangbangers. All he did was play soccer. He wanted to be a professional soccer player.”

And yet these stories are only recent examples of the daily gang violence in America’s inner cities, with traumatic repercussions for urban youth.

Ministering amidst gang violence

The Agape Community Center, part of Campus Crusade for Christ’s Here’s Life Inner City Chicago, has been serving the Roseland community for more than 30 years. Their staff came to Albert’s aid after the beating.

Milton Massie, director of Here’s Life Inner City Chicago, declined an interview, explaining that his staff wanted to put the tragedy behind them and move forward.

Massie wrote in an e-mail:

We have sought and have experienced some level of healing. The last two years have been very difficult and painful as you might imagine. I am not really interested in talking more about this tragic and sadly “normal” state of violence in our community.

We still believe God and HIS Gospel is THE ANSWER. We must remain faithful, prayerful, and willing to endure the “hardships” that come with ministry in the “urban context”. His message is not ineffective. We as many in ministry in the U.S. (urban, rural, and suburban) are dealing with the “waxing cold” of “mankind’s heart.”

It is our responsibility to “keep our face to the plow.” His message of love and discipleship found in the “Great Commandment” and the “Great Commission” (Matthew 22:38-40; 28:18-20) [is] still vital, powerful, relevant, and effective (Romans 1:16)! That is how we address plight of our neighborhood and those are my comments.

UrbanFaith has added links to biblical references.

In an interview with UrbanFaith editor Edward Gilbreath in 2009, Milton Massie said youth in the neighborhood were angry and afraid — angry because parents weren’t taking responsibility for their kids, and afraid that they could be the next victims caught in gang crossfire while going to and from school.

“That’s a lot to ask from a child whose primary focus should be just trying to learn, and enjoying being a kid,” Massie said.

Turning to Scripture

Faced with the youth violence epidemic, UrbanFaith turns to the Book of Isaiah for glimpses of peace and redemption during turmoil.

Isaiah 1:15-17: “Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice.”

Isaiah 2:4: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

Isaiah 58:9-10: “‘If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”

Here’s Life Inner City Chicago has prayer requests on their website.

How can urban ministries combat gang violence and help youth living in unsafe neighborhoods? What Scripture do you turn to for hope and strength?

It’s ‘Back to Church Sunday’

It’s ‘Back to Church Sunday’

This Sunday, Sept. 18, is National Back to Church Sunday. The concept was launched two years ago in response to a 2008 LifeWay Research study that found 63 percent of Americans would be open to a friend or neighbor inviting them to church, and 67 percent to a family member.

But despite people’s openness to being invited, only 2 percent of Christians invite a non-churchgoer in a given year, according to LifeWay Research. Back to Church Sunday wants to change that.

African Americans are the most open to being invited to church, compared to other ethnic groups—another LifeWay Research finding.

Back to Church Sunday was started to encourage Christians to invite people to church and to make newcomers feel welcome. This year, the event falls on this Sunday, Sept. 18, although some churches choose to hold it on other Sundays.

Of course, evangelism is much more than a church invitation; it’s taking the time to patiently listen and caring enough to stick by someone even when they don’t want to go to church. In my own experiences, I’ve watched friends leave church or Christianity altogether because of the judgmental way some Christians had treated them.

And so, as we extend these invitations, we must keep in mind that our friends, family and neighbors may be wary of going back to church and we must respect their experiences. There are times when it is better to listen than to preach. We must invite graciously, without judging or pressuring, while remaining open to talking about their doubts, concerns and struggles.

What about you? What advice and lessons have you learned? How do you invite people to church and share your faith with them?

Rwanda Revisited: Where Was God?

Rwanda Revisited: Where Was God?

MEMORIES OF DEATH: Genocide memorial site guardian Danielle Nyirabazungu lingers near the skulls of people killed at the Ntamara Church in Nyamata during the genocide. Photo: Newscom.

The most beautiful place in the world is a valley in Gikongoro, Rwanda. Everywhere you look, you see hills full of palm trees and winding red paths. The light of a setting sun graces the hills with a golden hue. You cannot imagine a place more perfect, more pristine.

And yet that word, pristine, would be the wrong one. These hills are not unspoiled beauty, because they were once tainted by blood. This valley is home to the Murambi Technical School where 45,000 Tutsi people were massacred during the 1994 genocide.

When I studied abroad in Rwanda this July, I went to the Murambi Genocide Memorial and saw the remains of countless bodies—person after person, yet only a fraction of the people who were killed at this place. I saw heaps of the victims’ dirty clothing laid on benches inside the Nyamata Catholic Church where thousands were slaughtered, and I saw rows of their skulls and bones stacked underground in remembrance of their terrible murder.

I walked on the same ground the killers and their victims did 17 years earlier, and I imagined what it must have been like for the Tutsi people to be forced into hiding, fervently praying for their family’s survival. The idea that professed Christians systematically killed the Tutsi people solely because of their ethnicity, sometimes singing worship songs or pausing to pray in the middle of their sickening task, is more than I can believe. I keep thinking, How could anyone believe God would approve of ethnic hatred and genocide?

The genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda was government-sanctioned, and to many, it appeared church-sanctioned, too. In the decades leading up to the genocide, the church supported the extremist Hutu government and failed to denounce the ethnic persecution of the Tutsi. And in 1994, churches were the main site of massacres. According to a 2002 government report, about 11.6 percent of victims were killed in churches, often with the help of priests who themselves lured victims there with false promises of sanctuary.

Stories of the genocide make me wonder, where was God when a place of such breathtaking beauty seemed to turn into a living hell where evil walked, where so-called Christians chopped down their brothers and sisters in Christ without the slightest qualm? Where was God when people justified this violence with ethnic ideologies? Couldn’t God shake them out of their cold, complacent hatred?

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACE IN THE WORLD: The sun sets over the Murambi Genocide Memorial on July 9, 2011. Photo by Catherine Newhouse.

The thing about gruesome violence like this is that it never makes sense. It’s so extreme and disturbing that the immensity of it all seems enough to overload a person’s brain, but instead life goes on—the beauty remains, and so does the echo of the voices of children who play in a village down the path.

It doesn’t seem right. It seems like this place should be forever somber, weighed down by the tragedy that happened. How are we supposed to make sense of such senselessness? Who would want to destroy the beauty of this place, spilling the blood of murder in the valley between these red hills?

Who would torture and kill someone just because they are Tutsi? Who could believe their ethnicity not only made them superior to others, but gave them the divine right to kill?

And how are we supposed to trust God after He let this genocide run unchecked for 100 days? In the Nyamata Catholic Church Genocide Memorial, you can see the rosaries that belonged to the Rwandans who died there. I wonder how many Christians reached for these rosaries and desperately cried out to God in the moments before their murder. Why didn’t God save them? The usual theological explanations for why terrible things happen just don’t seem to cut it for this.

In the aftermath of genocide, many Rwandans wondered where God was during the darkest chapter of their history. Could it be that he was silent, dead, absent, or sleeping?

Some believe God suffered along with his people in Rwanda — another victim of the evil choices that humans made. In Genocide: My Stolen Rwanda, survivor Reverien Rurangwa shared how he made this sudden discovery:

This Christ, disfigured, bruised, hacked away, pierced, cut, looks like me. … He looks like a young Tutsi from the Mugina hillside, dismembered on April 20 1994 by men who should have been his brothers. He looks like the victim of the Tutsi genocide. He looks like all victims of all genocides, of all massacres, of all crimes, of all wrongs. Is he the victim?

Perhaps God was present during the genocide, feeling the full-blown pain of the victims, mourning the loss of his beloved children, aching with Rwandans when killers violated the sanctuary of his church and his Earth.

In the end, I still don’t have all the answers, but that’s part of why I went to Rwanda this summer: I’m searching. I still don’t understand how people can have faith after living through genocide, why God can’t intervene to stop the worst violence, and how professed Christians can kill someone based solely on ethnicity. But I know that if we’re going to prevent future genocides, we have to be ready to stand up for the inherent worth of God’s children, seeing Jesus in the faces of the poor, tortured and killed (Matt. 25:34-40), and rejecting ideologies that try to warp religion into ethnic dehumanization.

And perhaps, hidden somewhere in Rwanda, there is something more: a piece of wisdom I cannot see yet, a clue to trusting God even amidst the most horrifying of horrors, a hope for the redemption of even the most twisted killers, a belief in a Christianity that will stand against genocide.