When I found out that I was being placed in Rwanda, several concerned family members questioned me: would I be able to go to Mass in Rwanda? Is Rwanda a Christian country? etc. etc.
I have found that living in Rwanda has both challenged and strengthened my faith. On one hand, the nuns that I live are, in a word, saints. They are incredibly inspiring women who selflessly work long hours and really live the message of the Gospel. The seven sisters work in the health center and in the school nearby, and they have given me so much support and encouragement. I am not exaggerating at all when I say that I don’t know what I would do without them. I love the structure that comes with living with them: mass in the mornings, communal prayer and meals together. I am continually inspired and challenged by them.
Rwanda is 65% Catholic, and my community in particular is very Catholic. Women and men of all ages wear rosaries everywhere they go. There are 3 priests at my parish (Church of the Holy Spirit/Kiriziya ya Roho Mutagatifu), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary next year, and hundreds of people pack the church for mass. I’m not exaggerating. We’re packed in like sardines in the large church, and there are probably two hundred more people outside who can’t see anything.
Sometimes they randomly change the Sunday mass times, anywhere from 6 am (!) to 10 am. If a parish kept doing that in the US, I’m pretty sure no one would come to mass. The masses are rarely shorter than two hours and if it’s a special feast day it can be up to five or so hours. But in my community, people walk in the dark to mass if it’s at 6 am, sit on the hard wooden benches, and they don’t complain. In fact, I’ve rarely experienced such pure joy in my life. Everyone is singing and sweating and you’re sitting almost on top of the person next to you. People don’t rush towards the exits right after communion in order to get to brunch on time or give you weird looks if you sit in the same row as them. Even though I’m still learning Kinyarwanda, it’s beautiful to be able to understand the mass. It’s universal. This is what it’s supposed to be like.
Amazing, amazing women.
But also, there have been things that make me uncomfortable, sad, and ashamed of the Church in Rwanda.
We went to go visit the priests’ residence a couple weeks ago for one of the priest’s birthdays. I was stunned to find that they have a satellite dish for TV, a stationary exercise bike, and that one of their rooms apparently caught on fire recently because of their heated shower (!). At the party, they served boxed wine (about $15 or $20, in a country where many people make a dollar a day), Jameson whiskey (I can’t fathom how much that costs here), and had a huge spread of food. It was the first time I’ve seen Rwandans leave food on their plates. This is in a village where we have 83 families in our malnutrition program because their children are severely underweight. This is in a village where many families struggle to pay for school for their children. This is in a community where many people live in small houses with dirt walls and dirt floors. I’m not against having a good time and it’s great to be able to celebrate, but it just left me with a really uncomfortable feeling. It reminded me of a similar feeling I had in the U.S. when the former archbishop of Omaha gave a really moving homily about the beatitudes, and then mass finished and I saw that he drove a Mercedes.
Just a few days before I left for Rwanda, Immaculee Ilabagiza, the Rwandan woman who wrote the book “Left to Tell”, about the genocide here, spoke at a parish in Omaha. She was an incredible speaker, and her story, of hiding for days in a bathroom during the genocide with several other people, and her resulting struggle to forgive the killers of her loved ones, was both inspiring and heartbreaking. As a Catholic, she spoke of the appearance of Our Lady of Kibeho, an apparition of Mary in Rwanda before the genocide occurred. She handed out prayer cards and sold rosaries at the event. It wasn’t until I visited the Genocide Memorial Museum in Kigali a couple months later that I realize that although she didn’t sugarcoat the genocide in her book or at her speaking event, she left out some incredibly important information, whether intentionally or not.
A genocide memorial near my site
Belgian colonizers brought Catholicism to Rwanda. It was a Catholic bishop, Leon Classe, who first created the Hutu/Tutsi classification system (a designation that was primarily socio-economic and somewhat vague pre-colonization). The colonizers forced Rwandans to carry racial identity cards to designate them as Hutu or Tutsi, and formulated theories as to which group was superior. These racist theories became written into laws and began a system of formal discrimination. Decades later, Archbishop Perraudin, a high-ranking church official and representative to Rome, was involved in spreading the racist ideology of Hutu Power. As I continued to walk through the tragic memorial, I was shocked and saddened. I couldn’t help but feel morally culpable when the exhibits would mention things like priests killing members of their own congregations, or clergy giving away information about the whereabouts of Tutsis.
This is not to say that there were no acts of heroism among religious, or that they were all perpetrators rather than victims of the genocide; either would be much too simplistic. Catholics, lay people and clergy, were both perpetrators and victims. One of the sisters I live with told me that she and several other sisters hid for eight days in a health center. And in April 1990, several Catholic priests from Nyundo diocese protested the racist policies and the Church hierarchy’s support for many of these policies in a letter to the bishops of Rwanda; most were killed in the genocide four years later.
Even though I wasn’t alive when the Belgians were issuing identity cards or when bishops were making proclamations about Hutu Power, I cannot help but feel a sense of guilt for identifying with the same religion that in part made these atrocities possible. It is the same feeling that I have when I’ve learned about human rights violations committed in the name of the U.S. It is my home; it is my country, and I love it and miss it dearly. But I also know that my beloved country was built on genocide of its own: of Native Americans. It was built on the slavery of human beings, people made in God’s own image. Some of our Founding Fathers, who are so respected and built a constitution still in use today and which has been copied around the world, who proclaimed that all men were created equal, also owned slaves and denied the right to vote to minorities, women, and property-less whites. A country that professes faith in democracy and freedom has long supported bloody dictatorships and guerrillas abroad, imprisoned its own citizens during World War II, and allowed legal segregation and Jim Crow laws. The United States of America is a country of high ideals: liberty, equality, justice, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately, those ideals are still being actualized.
So it is in this situation of incredible contradiction: of good and evil, of selfishness and sacrifice, of good institutions and goals and profoundly flawed humans, that I find my faith life and myself. We live in an imperfect world, full of deceit and greed and death. But there’s also so much hope, and I can’t help but to have faith in a better world, where we truly love one another. I doubt that all of these questions will ever really be answered. I cannot go back and change history, no matter how much I’d like to do so. All I can do is to try to be faithful to the ideals of both my Church and my country.
“If you want peace, work for justice.” –Pope Paul VI