Share this story

Called to witness in Rwanda

Called to witness in Rwanda, Jen sees heroism, strong hearts, selflessness

I never experienced true darkness until I went to Rwanda. There I seemed to sit on top of the world looking at the thousand hills from which the country receives its nickname. In the still and the quiet the moon cut through some clouds, but even that did not cut the absolute darkness. Only the lights of the Marian Shrine at Kibeho and a few cooking fires in the distance disturbed the blackness. With all that I had seen in the past few days, the darkness was both a comfort and disquieting.

Allow me to back up and explain how I came to spend a dark night at a retreat center in a small African nation. Last spring, I applied to the Called to Witness program of Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Every few years, CRS takes a few youth ministry professionals to a country in which CRS operates to learn, experience and be challenged spiritually. Upon return, we are asked to share our stories and experiences, and create youth ministry events and resources. More than a fair trade in my opinion. 

Rwanda is a place of contradictions for me. We arrived after dark to the cacophony of a town heading out to enjoy a Saturday night. The next morning, a bit more rested and able to take an impression of the country, left me associating light, life and music with this people. The sun streamed in at full force by 6 a.m., and for the next several hours the only sounds were church choirs. Multiple Catholic parishes within hearing distance of the retreat center provided incredible music thanks to four or five Masses each, staggered throughout the morning.

When we ventured into the city, we saw familiar sights. Construction of new office buildings, groundskeepers in parks, shops and restaurants and all the other activities that make you understand some things about day-to-day life are universal. Suddenly that familiarity is lost. A large floral arrangement is handed to us to carry. On it a ribbon, which states, “Genocide, Never Again. CRS.” As the scent of roses permeates the van, the reality that this beautiful, bustling country was immersed in a horrific genocide just 20 years ago intrudes.

Then there are the people. The three boys only a few years old, whose names I never learned, who taught me generosity and selflessness. These boys, who exist in a village that teeters just on the healthy side of malnutrition, quietly, slowly and with great care fed each other, making certain the youngest, who had not yet mastered the spoon, received his share. There is the business student, studying in order to bring his dreams of creating his own business to fruition. His ultimate goal, so humbly stated, is to make the community stronger, to put his business and financial gains to use for the common good. The teens on the youth Peace and Reconciliation Council who brought their community together when post-genocide fallout was too much for the adults. These youths saw the fact that their community could not survive fractured – full of hate and fear. They found ways to slowly bring the parish and community back together until finally their elders realized there was a way to move forward.

There are names and faces that I will carry in my heart, honored at the privilege of meeting them. Jean Vie is an agronomist with CRS Rwanda. He was able to convey the heart and soul of a discussion, not just the literal translation. He knew every inch of the land and what one could grow in that inch that would most help the community. He listened to everyone and could make even the most staid and sober elder smile. Then there was Pascasie. For months, I saw her name on paperwork and knew she would be important; after all, she was the one carting us all over her country. I did not anticipate how much she would truly give us. Not only did she open the country to us, she opened her heart. She made it possible for us to learn to love the people, places and stories as she did. With her, I remember the small things. The breakfast conversation about strong hearts that could be understood properly only when you learn she held her newborn in hiding for two weeks during the genocide before being able to flee to the jungle. I will remember her embracing victims and perpetrators with equal warmth and compassion. 

That night at Kibeho, as I stood overlooking the dark of night, unpolluted by streetlights, I sat silently and reflected. St. Augustine cautioned us all those years ago, “People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.” In Rwanda, I saw all that I or any human being could be. I was faced with the heartless cruelty that could lead to the slaughter of a million people in just three months. I was astounded by the acts of bravery to protect neighbors and strangers. There was abject poverty, malnutrition and disease. There was a growing economy, educational opportunities and people committed to serving all of God’s children. In that darkness, I came to wonder what sort of person I could grow to be. I came to wonder how I could follow in the footsteps of kind little boys, heroic women and peaceful youths.

The Called to Witness program of Catholic Relief Services offers global experiences for youth ministers to help them learn about the work of the Church around the world. For more information on Catholic Relief Services, visit www.CatholicRelief.org.