"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
Saturday, May 05, 2007 "O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy the one who pays you back for what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, and dashes them against a rock!" - Psalm 137:8-9
My silence on this blog hasn't been the usual "too busy" ... but not knowing where to begin.
It's been more than six weeks since I returned from Rwanda, and I feel like I'm just about ready to start talking and writing about it. There is so much to say, and yet there are not words to say it. But over the next week or so, I will try.
The picture you see is the wall of the church in Nyamata. Nyamata is just down the road from Mayange, where lies the Millennium Village I went to Rwanda to visit. It is in Bugesera district -- which is notable because it had the highest percentage of its people killed during the genocide -- nearly 70 percent.
This is no accident. In the decade leading up to the genocide, Tutsis were "relocated" into Bugesera. In the years leading up to the genocide, places like this church were the sites of "practice genocides" -- where the Hutu Power movement would see how many Tutsi's they could kill in an hour. Outside the church are the graves of the clergy who tried to stop them.
When the genocide began to happen, the people flocked to the church for sanctuary, for safety. They did not find safety there. The crowds found them there.
When you walk into the church and look up you see hundreds of tiny holes in the roof made by shrapnel from the fragmentation grenades that were thrown into the packed church. You can still see the bloodstains on the wall from when the crowd entered the church, ripped small children from their mother's arms and smashed them against it.
The church is a genocide memorial now. From behind the benches that once served as pews you can now descend staircases into a room with a large display case filled with skulls and bones -- remains of the dead. Out the back door there are two large mass graves -- mausoleums you can walk down into and stand in narrow passageways with coffins piled up on either side of you from floor to ceiling.
I went to Nyamata in the afternoon of my first day in Rwanda. That morning, I had been to the genocide museum in Kigali ... which I imagine I'll write about another time. In some ways that visit had anesthesized me... dulled the starkness of the skulls and coffins. Or maybe it was just that it was all too overwheming. I walked through it in somewhat of a daze ... with the most powerful feeling being that I didn't belong here. That this place was made sacred by the blood of the people who died there and what connection did I have to that other than being from a country that stood by and let it happen.
The altar stood as it had that morning ... only with a display case on it with some artifacts from people who had died there. Not thinking I walked up behind it.
I have been ordained for 10 years now, but long before then, the sanctuary of a church has felt like home. It's difficult to put into words, but there is a feeling of "rightness" ... of "home" to standing behind the Holy Table wherever it might be. And so it was in Nyamata as I slowly walked behind the altar. I wasn't expecting it, but all of a sudden I went from feeling like an outsider who was too much of a tourist in a place that needed penitents instead of tourists... I went from that to being a priest, a priest where he belonged -- at the table.
It felt right. It felt like home.
And then I looked down. And I saw the fair linen, the same one, I imagine, that lay on that table the day the genocide reached Nyamata. Only it was not a fair linen. It's whiteness was stained with dirt and dried blood ... the blood of those who had literally died on this altar.
I suppose going to Nyamata is a lot like going to Auschwitz. But what if something about Auschwitz was the most sacred place in the world to you ... a place where you have always felt perfectly at home and at peace. A place where even in the worst, most out-of-control times in your life, everything somehow made sense.
That's what it was like to stand behind that altar in Nyamata.
For all its beauty and incredibly hope, being in Rwanda is like staring into the abyss. I wasn't ready for it. I thought I would be, but I wasn't.
I suppose there are several levels of experiencing horrendous evil. There's hearing about it second- or third-hand from a distance. There's going to the place where it happened and seeing what it has wrought. And there's it actually happening to you.
I thought I'd been to that second place before. I thought I'd been to it in the Western Region of Ghana when I saw starving children literally living on top of a gold mine. I thought I'd been to it in Southern Sudan when I saw the militarization of the heart that had happened with 20 years of brutal civil war. I thought I'd been to it at the AIDS orphanage outside Pretoria.
But I really hadn't. Because as horrible as all those other places were ... the genocide is different and far, far worse. The genocide isn't just people's lives being torn apart and ended by the unthinking, unfeeling forces of corporate greed and the conscienceless marketplace. The genocide isn't even people being brutally tortured and murdered by invaders from another land.
The genocide was people -- from the wisest elder to the tiniest baby and everyone in between -- being raped, brutalized, maimed, tortured and murdered ... by their friends and neighbors. By people who knew them. Sometimes even by people in their own family.
In all the other horrendous evil I'd voyeuristically encountered in my travels, in every case I could explain its existence by our human ablity to demonize that which we don't know and understand. "If we could only see each other face to face," I believed. "If we could only really know each other in a way that would balance out the propoganda we could keep things like this from happening."
Only in Rwanda, they did know each other. The people who came into that church and dashed the children's heads against the stone, who covered that altar in blood, were not strangers from a distant land but their co-workers and friends. People who knew them.
And standing there at that altar, that place of surpassing love that in that love I had always found peace amidst all the unanswerable questions, all I could see was the blood. And perhaps for the first time I said out loud three words I have been saying over and over and over again since that day.
I don't understand.
And that's why I've been unable to write about this. That plus an almost overwhelming feeling of guilt that I should be so torn up over something that didn't happen to me, that it is an incredible almost self-indulgent luxury to feel pain about this when I didn't have to suffer any of it (and in fact by my and my countries inaction was a silent partner in causing it). But that's another story for another time.
Mostly it's because I don't understand. I don't understand how people can do this to each other. I don't understand how this horrendous evil can exist in the world. It doesn't make sense. It shakes the foundations of my life to the core. I have always believed that down -sometimes deep, deep down -- in all humanity, in all creation you will find good.
Standing at that altar for the first time that belief was seriously challenged. And even as I write this now, my head shakes almost imperceptibly, but uncontrollably side to side. No. No. No. I don't understand.
Standing at that altar, I looked into the mouth of the beast. I have seen darkness before, but I have always been able to spot the light shining in its midst. And yet at that moment, my eyes strained and were unsure.
I spend my life these days traveling around the country, around the church talking about God's mission of global reconciliation, about the Millennium Development Goals -- yes, about the horrors of extreme poverty, but mostly about What One Person Can Do about it. It is a message not of death and destruction but of possibility and opportunity. I have always been able to cast it in terms of resurrection ... and not just as spin but really believing that.
But how can that be here? As inexplicable as Psalm 137 has always been to me -- and yes, I realize it was written in anger by a people in Israel who were longing for the day when they could do to their captors what had been done to them -- I never looked at it square in the face. Stood in a place where children were dashed against walls by people rejoicing to do it.
I have a great urge to tie this up with a message of hope. To talk about the wonderful things I saw in Rwanda. To write of the resiliency of the people and how they are coming together to rebuild a country. And those things are true.
But to end like that would be to seem that I don't still scream those three words at God and mutter them silently to myself every day: I don't understand.
And maybe that's where this needs to end. Maybe as much as I want to understand how this was possible there is no way to understand because there is simply no reason to it. What happened happened. Sometimes what was, was and what is, is.
Perhaps it is not for me to understand. Perhaps it is just for me to experience a piece of it, and to let it haunt me, to let it change me, to let it make me profoundly uncomfortable.
EGR resources and connects the church to embrace what one person, one congregation, one diocese and one church can do to make this mission of global reconciliation happen.
Want to find out more ... check our our website at www.e4gr.org.
"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."