Tears stung my eyes tonight as I listened to the cathartic testimony of Ms. Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Rwandan genocide survivor. Ms. Ilibagiza held the Acton University audience spellbound with the harrowing account of her desperate struggle to elude discovery, along with seven other women, for 91 days in the cramped bathroom of a Good Samaritan Hutu pastor. Meanwhile, outside the relative safety of this claustrophobic latrine, machete-wielding death squads butchered a million or more of Ms. Ilibagiza’s Tutsi tribe and family, including her parents and two of her brothers. She described in a poignant and unforgettable way how her fear and terror slowly boiled over into rage, only to grudgingly, and ever so slowly, yield to love and forgiveness through frequent and fervent recitations of the Rosary.
The critical moment in the dark night of Ms. Ilibagiza’s soul occurred when all seemed lost as a search party full of bloodlust ransacked the preacher’s home looking for any “cockroaches” and “snakes” to exterminate. In an episode that can only be accounted for by divine intervention, the mob inexplicably abandoned their efforts on the threshold of the bathroom. Ms. Ilibagiza remarked that her faith in God was restored and her life changed in that epiphanic moment. She determined to spread the message of the Good News in an apostolate of gratitude and forgiveness, which she conveyed through her bestselling memoir, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. She later returned to Rwanda where she visited her family’s murderer in prison and forgave him.
What more can I say about this remarkable woman from Rwanda? It’s not every day you meet a saint! I personally found great solace and comfort in the fortitude and charity of this holy woman. A little more than a year ago, my four-year-old niece, Emma Catherine Grace Thompson, was sexually abused and brutally beaten to death. In the aftermath of this traumatic event, I was left confused and distraught with so many unanswered questions about how or why God could let such a heinous thing happen to one of his precious innocents. I can perfectly relate to the broad range of conflicting emotions that Ms. Ilibagiza described in her lecture tonight. I felt them all sweep forcefully over me, and it has taken all my energies over the past year (not to mention the seemingly boundless love of my wonderful wife) to suppress my instinctual desire for revenge.
Ms. Ilibagiza's powerful Christian witness planted the seed of forgiveness in my heart in a soil that I worried was too desiccated and hardened to accept it. I felt real encouragement and inspiration from her talk; maybe I, too, can learn to forgive and to love as she has by finding, as she did, the meaning of my own suffering in the redemptive value of Christ’s death on the cross. Thank you, Ms. Ilibagiza, you have restored some of the faith and innocence I thought I had irredeemably lost in myself, the world, and God. That is no small feat. God bless you!