I’m not quite sure how to put into words what I am feeling. I’m grieving a loss I’ve never known. 5000 losses, actually.
I just got back from going to a church memorial, about an hour outside of Kigali. It’s in a smaller village, and 19 years ago the church was a thriving Catholic sanctuary. The doors were open as I got to the front of the church, and they seemed to beckon and welcome me in. I couldn’t shake the fact that those black barred doors that invited me in were the same doors in which greeted five thousand Rwandans to their grave.
As I entered the church, I saw rows of pews and benches that were flooded with the clothing of the people who died there. The mounds of shirts, pants and shoes stacked on to one another filled the entire church. I stood still and thought to myself, “Many people died right where I am standing.” There was not much room to walk around because there was so much clothing.
Tears streamed down my face and it was hard for me to see through my blurry vision. I glanced up and saw many holes in the roof. Small bursts of light gleamed through, creating pockets of sunshine along the dusty clothing covered benches. The cheerful light seemed so wrong in that place of sorrow. The holes in the ceiling were produced from grenades that were thrown through the windows. I looked behind me, and the glass from the windows were broken. As I looked down the stairs I saw shattered sculls that matched the shattered windows.
I sat on a stair and looked out at the altar. The room smelled like mold and dust and death. A statue of Mary with her hands folded together gazed down at the disintegrated bodies. A place that was once supposed to be a shelter of safety was suddenly turned into a killing field. It made me feel physically ill to think that a room expected to be used to worship the God of the universe was instead an area used to destroy His creation.
I made my way outside and entered a mass grave. I walked down the stairs into a long narrow hallway. It was dark, and tall and had brick walls with cobwebs covering each corner. There were rows of shelves, and on the shelves there were skulls, bones, and coffins. Hundreds of coffins. I came to a shelf with smaller coffins and it dawned on me – that row was for the babies. I couldn’t breathe then, and I had to get out of the grave because I was beginning to suffocate. I thought that surely the door of the grave would close in on me and I would be locked in there forever. It was eerie and awful and I felt terrible for feeling creeped out, but I couldn’t handle the fact that 5000 bodies were lying in their death beds beside me.
I appreciate how Rwanda doesn’t cover up their despair – instead leaving everything the way it happened, completely raw. I think we can learn from this. We tend to cover things up, sugar coat them, making them pretty and pristine. But perhaps this only hides our grief and our sorrow. Perhaps true healing comes from the raw brutality of the situation. Perhaps once we accept that rawness, we finally begin to heal. But then again, I truly do not know and I almost hope I never do.
That was only one church. Only five thousand people out of the one million who were killed. My question is: how do they forgive? How do you begin to forgive someone who killed your family? or raped your mother? or hacked your father into pieces?
I talked with a missionary the other day about this, and she told me she asked a Rwandan man if he has forgiven those who killed his family. His response was, “I am practicing forgiveness. Everyday I choose to practice forgiving those who killed my loved ones, and then someday I know forgiveness will come. If you practice something long enough, one day it will be perfected.”