Lunch with Immaculée
Rodhullandemu, Rwanda genocide memorial, St John's Gardens, CC BY-SA 4.0
If I could have lunch with anyone, it would be Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Rwanda author, motivational speaker and survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I admire her only for her amazing courage in the face of certain death, but for her endless compassion and capacity to forgive.
I first saw Immaculée on Dr. Wayne Dyer’s Public Television special, Inspiration: Your Ultimate Calling. As I watched Dr. Dyers introduction, a beautiful, modestly dressed African woman took the stage and began to tell her story of survival of the Rwandan massacre. In lilting broken English she recalled an experience so horrifying that most people would have broken down in the telling. But Immaculée stood tall and held herself with dignity and grace. At times, there were tears in her eyes and it was clear to see the pain in her face, yet her entire being seemed to glow with a gentle spirit of compassion and forgiveness. Although my own experiences could never compare to hers, I feel a kinship in the suffering and the surviving. And I feel a bonding in the spirit of peace we both discovered.
Ilibagiza’s book about the ordeal, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, is a story of the hate that drove human beings to unimaginable acts. But it is also a story about great love and courage. At twenty two, Immaculée had just returned home to Rwanda on Easter break from college when the killing began. A Hutu pastor sheltered her, along with seven other Tutsi women, for 91 days a tiny bathroom around 3 feet wide and 4 feet long. Hutu soldiers came very close to discovering the women several times. Their rescuer was aware that, if they had been found, they would have tried to force him to kill them, and then he would have been killed too. Immaculée describes the terror she experienced and how she finally found an inner peace and strength that got her through to the end. At the end of three months, 800,000 people were dead in Rwanda. Ilibagiza's entire family, with the exception of her oldest brother, was among the dead.
What is the most significant thing that separates human beings from other animals? I think that the answer to this question is the ability to transcend beyond our instincts and beyond the knife slash of pain and hate that drive us to exact revenge. A couple of days ago, I saw the television footage of the recent capture of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and I remembered the Rwandan massacre, and I thought of Immaculée’s gentle spirit in comparison. I was sickened and saddened when I saw the violence surrounding the capture of this man. He was responsible for atrocities beyond my own sheltered imaginings but that is no excuse to become like him. It is reported that his body is being kept in a grocery store freezer and that thousands of people are lining up to view his bloodied body. I wonder if there is any one of them who feels sad and confused about all of the violence, or have they all been living in the midst of hate for so long, just like the Hutus of Rwanda, that they are caught in its clutches?
Immaculée, like the legendary Phoenix, rose from the ashes of destruction to fulfill a sacred purpose. She knew that feeding hatred only makes it grow, so she made the choice to forgive those who murdered her family. This amazingly wise young woman knew that only in forgiveness would she find peace. Instead of nurturing hate and revenge, she took the ugliness of her own experiences and, with the power of love, transformed them into a beautiful gift that she shares with the world.
Elizabeth Lesser, author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, wrote, “Immaculée is living proof that human beings can not only withstand evil, but can also find courage in crisis, and faith in the most hopeless of situations.”
In 2007, Immaculée Ilibagiza received the Mahatma Gandhi Reconciliation and Peace Award. I’m sure that somewhere and somehow, Gandhi witnessed her courage as she lived and breathed his principles of love and compassion for all of humankind. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Just imagine what could happen if more and more people chose to illuminate with the light of courage and compassion rather than submitting to the darkness of hate and despair?
I would be honored beyond words to meet Immaculée Ilibagiza, and I would be privileged to have her in my home as my guest even for a few minutes. Just to spend a little time with her, sharing our experiences about the things that enrich the human experience would be an experience of a lifetime to me.