CHALLENGING TIMES • Immaculee Ilibagiza, a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, reflects on faith and forgiveness during her witness talk July 21 in St. Mary of the Pines Church, Manahawkin, which is part of St. Mary Parish, Barnegat.  Jeff Bruno photos
 

CHALLENGING TIMES • Immaculee Ilibagiza, a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, reflects on faith and forgiveness during her witness talk July 21 in St. Mary of the Pines Church, Manahawkin, which is part of St. Mary Parish, Barnegat.  Jeff Bruno photos

 

Story by Dorothy K. LaMantia, Correspondent

St. Mary Parish, Barnegat, inaugurated the first weekend of its 75th anniversary celebration with an evening of lessons in faith, hope and forgiveness borne from the first-hand experience of Immaculee Ilibagiza, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

On July 21, more than 400 people filled St. Mary of the Pines Church, Manahawkin, which is part of the parish, to hear the author of seven books and recipient of the Mahatma Gandhi Award for Reconciliation and Peace recount her story of physical and spiritual survival as the government waged a war against all men, women and children of the Tutsi, a minority ethnic group to which her family belonged.

The majority Hutu tribe urged civilians to assist the government and military in exterminating the minority and usurping their property. From April to July 1994, more than 1 million civilians – including Ilibagiza’s parents and all but one sibling – were killed.

Her life story revealed her conflict with Jesus’ teaching to love and forgive one’s enemies, and how through prayer –a dialogue in which she struggled and challenged God – she arrived at the destination of forgiveness. Now, Ilibagiza said, her mission is to inspire others to a life committed to prayer and living Christ’s message.

Opening her address, Ilibagiza said, “My prayer is that from the message I share, the lessons I teach, that the grace of God will touch your hearts as it did mine. I learned God is real, and there is power in prayer. God is always with us; even when we lose hope or trust, we must hold onto him.”

For 91 days, Ilibagiza and eight other women were hidden, sitting on each other in a three-by-four-foot bathroom, with help from a Hutu neighbor. That time was one of starvation and terror, as the women overheard death squads seeking their location, but Ilibagiza admitted she became more terrified of the effect of her own anger.

“Saying the Rosary was like moving from hell to a place of peace for 20 minutes,” she said. “It forced me away from my anger. I said 27 Rosaries each day. I wasn’t trying to be good. I was hiding from the devil.”

Her greatest spiritual challenge was in reciting the Lord’s Prayer, she said.

“I couldn’t accept that ‘Our Father’ meant that God was also father to the Hutu,” Ilibagiza said. “But the neighbor who hid us was Hutu, so I realized they were not all bad people. I had to be sincere and admit that I was unable to forgive. I skipped the words, ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us.’”

In the silence of the locked bathroom, Ilibagiza said, she could hear God respond, “Don’t edit Jesus’ words.” Through many more challenging dialogues, she eventually learned to embrace forgiveness, even to the point of forgiving her brother’s killer face to face.

“My faith is my treasure. We don’t have to hate. Be kind, and anything can change,” she said.

At the close of Ilibagiza’s presentation, Msgr. Kenard Tuzeneu, parish pastor, led a final prayer, adding, “We did not come just to hear a speaker, but to experience the presence of God. We are invited to take her message with us, to live it and spread it.”

Immaculee’s message found fertile ground in the hearts of the audience, which gave her a standing ovation. Afterwards, many lined up to purchase Rosaries or her books, which the speaker autographed with a simple, “God bless you! Love, Immaculee.” Others huddled in groups to reflect on the power of her message.

Parishioner Felicia Massari said, “I loved the depth with which she expressed her prayer life in that bathroom, when she talked to God and talked about forgiveness. It’s something for me to ponder a while. She listened to that audible, inner voice. We must make time and space to take time and listen like that.”

For 20-year-old parishioner Kyle Kundrat, the biggest takeaway was the importance of hope. “For young people, so many things want to take away our faith. She taught me that we must trust in [God]. He’ll do more than we can imagine.”

Darvin MacDonald, a visitor from St. Mary of the Lakes Parish, Medford, said, “Immaculee challenges me with a spiritual goal, especially when things seem hopeless, to put my complete faith, hope and trust in our Lord with unwavering devotion to him and our Blessed Mother. Her message was never give up on prayer; it’s the most powerful tool to get through life.”