Modern Parables from Rwanda

April 22nd, 2013 by MMiller

Dr. Diana S. Perdue

April 21, 2013

Listen to Sermon

Biblical Testimony: Heb 11:1  Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (KJV)

Matthew 18:21-22  Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (ESV)

Col. 3:15  Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. (NIV)

Contemporary Testimony: From Life is a Verb: 37 Days to Wake Up, Be Mindful, & Live Intentionally, by Patti Digh

Instead of a book, what if we’re actually writing (or not writing) in the margins of our lives? What if our lives are books? Are we pressing into the margins our interpretations and questions? Are we circling offending verbs and drawing furious arrows to the margin where we scrawl “frustration,” “voiceless,” “unfair!” Or do we simply turn the pages, passively receiving what’s given, furiously disagreeing but remaining silent about it?

As British author Hester Thrale Piozzi put it in 1790, “I have a trick of writing in the margins of my books, it is not a good trick, but one longs to say something.”

One longs to say something.

We make sense of our lives through story. Writer Flannery O’Conner said, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said in any other way.  You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.”

Modern Parables from Rwanda

Let’s pray.

“God, may my words bring your message this morning and may we all hear what you have to say. Amen”

April is the month of remembrance of the genocide in Rwanda.  2013 marks 19 years since it happened.  I had the opportunity to see the film, “As We Forgive” while I was in Rwanda and asked Melanie about showing it here and maybe having a discussion afterwards.  Knowing this congregation like I do, I thought it was something you would be very interested in.  Melanie, our dear pastor, in either a stroke of divine inspiration or evil genius, said, “Well, I think you should preach on that Sunday as well.”

So, here I am.

Let my presence here this morning be an object lesson to all of you as to what happens when you suggest an event at this church.  You have been warned!

Now for the interactive portion of the service:

Raise your hand if you’ve watched an episode of “The Bible” on The History Channel.

For those of you who don’t know, The Bible is new again thanks to the combined effort of Roma Downey and her husband Mark Burnett.  Yes, you heard correctly, the woman who played the angel Monica on “Touched by an Angel” and the man who brought us “Survivor”, “The Celebrity Apprentice”, and “Shark Tank” are married(!) and they created a docudrama of the Bible!  This 5-part series has taken the country by storm.  The first episode garnered over 13 million viewers, that’s the highest-rated cable TV show in 2013 (of course, the finale of American Idol hasn’t aired yet so it might be short lived).  Regardless, it’s a huge hit. As further proof, I offer this fascinating tidbit: the hashtag #hotJesus is trending worldwide on Twitter.  It’s true, the Portuguese actor, Diogo Morgado, who plays Jesus IS hot (and I’m gay, so that tells you something!).  But there are lots of hot actors and actresses on TV nowadays so that doesn’t tell the whole story about why this series is so insanely popular.

In an ABC news article, Downey stated that she believes the miniseries has resonated so well because it’s a “fresh visual retelling of the greatest story that was ever written.”  It’s modern. New. Fresh.  I get that, don’t you?  I mean it’s hard to get hyped about the same old stories: Noah and the flood (check); David & Goliath (I know who won); Samson and Delilah (*starts singing* and when we kiss…. Fire!).  Oh… sorry!  But you know what I mean, right, it’s a tough sell.

Trust me, I know about tough sells and old stories.  Math is even older than Jesus so I am familiar with how hard it is to sell an audience on old stuff.  The advantage math has over the Bible is that it’s still being invented and written; whereas most people think the Bible is “finished”, the last page has been written.  The story’s over.

But I don’t think so.  Do you?

I think that new parables are being written every day as God continues to speak and regular, everyday people like us are compelled to listen.

Today I’m going to tell you two stories, modern-day parables if you will, that happened to me during my time in Rwanda.  These parables relay what I think are two big messages of the Bible:  faith and forgiveness.

The first parable is about faith.

Recall the definition from our Biblical reading, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”.  A quick Google search tells us faith is “confident belief that does not rely on proof”, not quite as poetic as Hebrews 11, but certainly clear; and, I think, especially hard for those of us from the United States.  We are nothing if not a nation that relies on proof, and one of the things I learned about myself while I lived in Rwanda is that I am 100% American.

I admit, before I left, I thought myself as atypical since my Dad is military, my Mom is German, and I have had a lot of multicultural experiences.  However, once I landed in Kigali, I very quickly realized that I am indeed a product of my culture and my country:

The Rector tells me my housing has been “organized”, but I need to see the place with my own eyes to be convinced.

  • My colleague tells me my students will “just know” that class has been cancelled due to rain, but I want to contact them myself to be sure.
  • The man behind the desk at the Visa & Permits office tells me all is taken care of with my resident visa, but I have to get a written statement to that effect.

In Rwanda, it really hit me how bad I am at living by faith alone.  I wanted proof of everything!

If you are a muzungu (foreigner) and you arrive in Rwanda, you are granted a 30-day visa with minimal effort, basically just show your passport and fill out a short form and voila, it’s done.  However, to stay longer requires a resident visa and THAT requires many things, faith being the greatest of these.

I had to go to the Visa & Permits office and wait to see a clerk.  Envision a hotter and slower version of the worst day you can imagine at the DMV and you’ve got a pretty good mental picture.  Once I got to the clerk, I had to pay a fee (in cash).  Side note here: I always felt like a drug dealer in Rwanda because everything required cash.  Since the highest denomination of bill is roughly equivalent to our $10, I was always walking around at any given time with a stack of bills about two inches thick.  In exchange for the fee, I got a paper, which I had to transfer to the other side of the building and show to another clerk (in a different department).  In addition to that paper, I had to show the clerk my paperwork, which included “certified” versions of my transcripts and police background check, and then … I just had to wait… and go on faith that all would be well.

The clerk said to me, “We will contact you when it’s ready.”  Incredulous, I asked, “How?”  Looking at me with eyes full of pity at my ignorance he said simply, “SMS”.  I thought to myself, “Here I am in a country where only about 4% of the entire population has electricity but I’m going to know the government has my visa ready for me to pick it up by them TEXTING me? Yeah, right!”

I saw the way records were kept – using carbon copy paper – and doubted.

I saw the careless way my precious certified documents were added to the pile of other waiting souls’ paperwork and doubted.

I heard the horror stories of other ex-pats who’d gone before me and doubted.

But you know what happened?

I got a text, and I got my visa, and all was well; just like they told me.

My students in Rwanda taught me more about faith than I taught them about mathematics or teaching.  In stark contrast to how I operated, they seemed capable of taking everything and everyone on faith, especially me.  They believed, without proof, that I could make a “field trip” happen even though one had never happened before.  They had faith that I could “organize” it so that our whole class could go visit one of the Teacher Training College’s that they’d heard about but had never seen.

And you know what happened?

We went on the field trip.  It was amazing.  They all told me they knew it would happen.  By faith.

The second parable is about forgiveness.

Rwanda is a beautiful country; every one of the 10,000 hills it’s known for are covered with lush greenery. The beauty is not without scars though – there are bullet holes in buildings, broken bottles mounted on the tops of the walls the surround housing compounds, and evidence everywhere of the effects of the genocide in 1994.  Since we’re going to be watching the film “As We Forgive” later today and having a discussion afterwards, I won’t go into much detail here about the genocide itself except to tell you some of the math.  Approximately one million people were killed in 100 days.  That works out to about 7 people being murdered every minute for over 14 weeks straight.

Killing 7 people in 60 seconds can be accomplished easily if you’ve got a gun or a bomb, but the weapons used in the Rwandan genocide were machetes and clubs.  In fact, I stood on what used to be the training ground for the Rwandan killing squads where they practiced killing as quickly as possible – the training goal was to kill 100 Tutsi’s in 10 minutes.  That ground is now the site of the Kigali Institute for Science & Technology, the University where I served as Director of E-Learning – talk about taking back the land and consecrating it to a new purpose!  In my opinion, the nation of Rwanda can teach the “master class” on forgiveness to the rest of us.

I will admit to being largely unaware of Rwanda before I received my Fulbright to go there.  As a result, I did a lot of preparation in an effort to not be the stereotypical ignorant American when I arrived in country.  What I learned before I left home helped me tremendously, but it is no comparison to what I learned once I got there and started talking with people.

Rwandans don’t refer to the genocide the way US media or government does; they simply call it “the war”.  Generally speaking, I didn’t bring up the war or quiz anyone directly about what they experienced.  However, it did come up.  As I got to know people and become friends, they would share things with me.  This story is one example.

I met Andrew when he arrived in his boat to take me across Lake Kivu to the other hotel.  The one I was NOT staying at.  The one that had a restaurant that served dinner.  He was so friendly and I enjoyed him so much that, the next day when I had some more free time, I called him about taking me on an afternoon tour of the lake.  He’d mentioned that he offered this service and it sounded great:  visiting Napoleon Island (so named because it is the shape of his hat) to witness the “millions of birds” Andrew said lived there and, if I was lucky, maybe seeing the famous swimming cattle (they swim from one island to another around the lake).  He arrived and the day couldn’t have been more perfect.

We spent the whole day touring the lake, and he told me many stories.  He’d gotten his boat from his father and continued the family business.  Andrew also told me about his brother Jackson … did you catch that?  Andrew and his brother Jackson?  I laughingly asked him if he had other brothers named Thomas and Jefferson but I don’t think he got the joke.  I found out that Jackson is famous.  He’s an Olympic swimmer who represented Rwanda in the 2008 Olympics in China as well as the 2012 Olympics in London. Jackson is Rwanda’s ONLY Olympic swimmer, and his training ground is Lake Kivu.

While on Napoleon Island, I discovered that the “birds” Andrew kept talking about were really fruit bats!  There are over 5 million of them that live on that island!  He was very proud to tell me that he was the only boat operator on the lake that knew about the birds.  Intrigued, I asked him how he found them.  I wasn’t prepared for the story.

As it turns out, he and Jackson had hidden on Napoleon Island during the war as they were trying to escape Rwanda and make it to Zaire (what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).  They paddled the 40 miles across Lake Kivu, only at night, with no engines and no lights, in a terrifying journey that took almost a week, in order to reach the safety of the border.  Every new dawn brought danger that they could be caught and killed.  It was during their day-time hiding on the island that they discovered the bats.

Later that afternoon as we sat on Amahoro Island – “amahoro” means “peace” in Kinyarwandan – Andrew shared that he and Jackson and one sister were the only ones of his family to live through the genocide.  They had to stay in the Congo for over a month before they could come back home and when they did, they learned about how many loved ones they lost.  “It was madness”, Andrew told me.

I just shook my head in disbelief and wondered aloud how he got through it then and how he continues to deal with it now, he simply smiled and said, “Look around, God is good and the world is beautiful.”

Honestly, after hearing just a few of the stories people in Rwanda told me, I realized I have never had to forgive anything that compares to what they have experienced.  I have not had my entire family murdered by my neighbors.  I’ve not had to hide in the woods for months, afraid that people I grew up with and went to church with, would kill me.  I’ve not had to go back home after surviving and come face to face with the people who had killed my family and friends.  I’ve not been asked to forgive those murderers and to let them back into my community, to live with them day in and day out, to truly forgive.  But almost every single person in the country of Rwanda has had to do just that.  Andrew has.  Jackson has.  Every one of my students has.

Hearing their stories, being so close to it, I can’t help but think I reacted much the same way the Disciples did.  Like Peter asking Jesus, “How many times must I forgive?  As much as 7 times?”  I asked Andrew, “How did you get through it?”

Look around, God is good, and the world is beautiful.


Wiki overview of “The Bible”:

ABC news article about #hotJesus:

CIA fact sheet on Rwanda:

My blog: