Voices vibrated through the church walls as the congregation lifted their voices to the heavens. Emily, Tess and I stood there and tried to match our voices to theirs, but it wasn’t possible. When our voices cracked a few times and our claps were off beat, we just stopped and soaked in the beautiful worship around us. Church in Rwanda looked a lot different than church in the States. People seemed more sincere and passionate in their worship, and that worship was stronger than the wind blowing through the open windows.
After two hours of worship and fellowship, we made our way outside. The Rwandan sun kissed our faces and the sound of children’s laughter filled our souls. Thirty minutes drifted by before John pulled up like he was driving a golden chariot to take us to the next church. Little did I know what was waiting for me in the small Catholic Church 40 minutes down the road.
We hopped in the car and jokingly gave John a hard time for skipping church. After we let him try to explain his way out of his absence, John began to give us background about our second church visit of the day. This church was not like the first. Our 9 a.m. church experience was filled with life, joy and laughter. The second church experience of the day would be filled with heartbreak, sadness and death. The church we were about to walk into was the last place that 10,000 people saw the hope and light of day. It was a church marred by the blood and tears of the Rwandan genocide 22 years ago.
Before we slowly made our way out of John’s car he said, “While you are in the church, I want you to feel the sadness and the heartbreak. Cry. But when you come out, I want you to feel the hope, forgiveness and community that Rwanda has built.” Again, I say that I had no idea what I was about to walk into.
As we walked up to the church doors, the temperature seemed to drop and the noises around me seemed to fade. It’s as though I was sucked into a vortex that I am still to this day trying to wrap my mind around. Before we walked through the doors of the church, the female guide gave us a brief history about the murderous event that took place outside and inside the church.
She began to speak, and my heart began to race. In 1994, the rebel army had exploded through the doors of the church with grenades and gunfire after slaughtering thousands of people in the courtyard where we stood. They mercilessly forced their way inside the church doors as men, women and children scrambled to find any crevice of safety. Unfortunately, there was none. The rebel army opened fire, killing anyone with breath. While we listened to the end of their story, ten thousand people lay outside and inside the church never to feel the cool breeze that blew across our faces
I stood there with my mouth open. I couldn’t fathom 10,000 people lying dead in the tiny space of the church and courtyard. After her last word, the guide stepped to the side and we entered the church. My eyes were wide open but felt as though they were glued shut. I was scared to mentally open them but I did. It took me a minute to process what was lying before me. Pews lined the floor like in any church, but these were different. Stacked on each pew were bloodstained clothes of the men, women and children who took their last breath in that church. I weaved in and out of each pew, looking at as many articles of clothing as my eyes could see. Then I stopped. My chest began to tighten and tears began to roll down my cheeks as I stared at a child’s sweater. I didn’t want it to be real, but it was. There is no way on God’s green earth that someone could take a child’s life, right? But, the truth was there lying on top of another bloodstained dress. I wanted to scream, but the scream of my heart was drowned out by the cries of the past. The pain in the walls weighed heavy upon my chest. They wanted me to listen.
When it was time to move on, I didn’t know if I was ready. I didn’t think there could possibly be more to see and feel until we made our way down into the tombs below the church. One step at a time, Tess and I slowly crept down into the dark abyss. Emily stayed behind because she had visited the tomb in November. Before me I saw rows of stacked coffins. I looked to my left and to my right to see a long, dark path with shelves. I wasn’t quite sure what was on the shelves until I took one step closer. I had to adjust my eyes to wrap my brain around the contents on the shelves. The shelves were about ten feet high and 20 feet long and 10 feet deep (or so it seemed). Lined neatly and side-by-side on each shelf were human skulls. Stacked on the shelves above the skulls were arm bones and leg bones. I thought to myself, “These bones are replicas, right?” The answer was an obvious “no”.
As I stood there, my mind tried to grasp a single thought. It’s as though my thoughts were trying to gasp for air. When they finally surfaced, tears gently fell from my eyes and softly rolled down my cheek. I wasn’t sure if, out of reverence, I should be looking at each skull. But no, that’s exactly what I needed to do. Looking at as many eye sockets as I could I whispered, “I see you. I won’t forget this moment. You are loved even in death. I’m sorry we weren’t here to help you.” What struck me the hardest was the fact I couldn’t look at their names. I couldn’t say, “James I see you. Jane I see you.” My sadness began to turn to anger. The men and women stacked on the shelves remained nameless, and it wasn’t fair.
One foot in front of the other, I finally stumbled up the stairs. The light hit my face and the gentle tears began to fall like heavy rain. I wanted to fall to my knees. Hate and divide slaughtered 10,000 people at this church and almost 2 million people over the course of 100 days, and the world stood idly with a blind eye. All I could say was, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
We walked quietly to the car. Once our seatbelts were clicked into place, John asked us what we experienced. I lost it. I kept saying, “Their names. I want to know their names.” We all discussed the genocide in further detail. John looked through the window of our tears and reminded us how far Rwanda has come. The memorials serve as a reminder of what hate can do to people. John said, “We have these memorials so that something like this genocide will never happen again.” His words stuck to my heart and mind like glue.
Hours passed but the images of the blood stained clothes and the nameless skulls did not. I sat at a table with Tess and Emily at our hotel’s restaurant, staring off into the darkness and letting the fresh, night air soothe my soul. I slowly sipped a Rwandan beer and began to piece together the thoughts I had surrounding the day’s events. I was amazed at how a country that experienced genocide 22 years prior could feel more united and peaceful than my own. I was astonished that one tribe could live in community with another tribe after deep divide caused great tragedy. Part of me didn’t understand why I was shocked that a country like Rwanda could be where it is today after death plagued their country for 100 days.
It wasn’t long after I arrived home, that tragedy began to erupt in the U.S. From Baton Rouge to Dallas to the presidential race, the news wouldn’t stop. It wasn’t until I returned from Rwanda that I began to really see the extreme divide in my own country. Instead of feeling a sense of community, I felt a sense of brokenness. Instead of breathing in peace and reconciliation, I choked on the atmosphere of hate and ignorance. But as I write this, I still hold on to hope that one day we can acknowledge every single tragedy that has happened in our country and genuinely begin to walk toward some sort of peace.
My prayer is that we can look at the victims of tragedies and their families and say, "I'm sorry. I see you. I feel your pain. I know your son's name, your daughter's name, your spouse's name. But most importantly, I know your name!" The only connection I had to the men and women deep in the dark tomb below the church in Rwanda was a human connection, and that was all I needed.