Immaculée Ilibagiza, survivor of the Rwanda genocide in 1994 addressed participants at the Diocese of Worcester's women's conference held last Saturday. The theme of the sold-out conference was, “The Triumph of Forgiveness – Sharing Stories of Compassion” and featured Ilbagiza as well as a woman whose husband and child were killed in a car wreck.
Forgiving freed keynote speaker Paula D’Arcy, who told of finding God’s love through the drunken driver she thought took love from her.
In 1975 she was happily married with a daughter almost two and a second on the way, she said. Then the accident killed her husband and toddler, sparing her life and that of her unborn child.
“I would ask God, ‘Why do you hate me?’” she said. “Nothing mattered… Not my education…success…” She had spent her life making small issues a matter of life and death, and now she faced life and death, she said. Now she felt God telling her to want him most, and she said a small “yes.”
In a conversation with Protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale she told him she lost life’s purpose when her family died.
“That was the purpose you wanted, but life has a different purpose and your challenge is to find it,” he responded. “What you’re looking for, you already have.”
She quoted a friend, Father Richard Rohr, who said, “No change begins with ‘no’” and “Pain that is not transformed will be transmitted.”
She took to heart the words of these counselors.
She prayed for the drunken driver, feeling nothing. She decided not to speak or think negatively about him, and eventually felt neutral. Then she met him.
“Something shifted,” she said. “I felt as if I had been suddenly overtaken by love … I was looking at something I was.”
She had to confront her sense of rightness, and surrender to God, and life as it was handed to her, because God was in that life, she said.
In court the driver lied, and, when asked about her suffering, replied, “Everybody’s got problems.” But as long as she looked at him, she felt God’s love revealed.
“What we open to today is what we’re opening to in life,” she said.
Ms. Ilibagiza, a Tutsi, said it is a joy to share lessons of the genocide Hutus inflicted on her tribe, so good can come from bad.
The Blessed Mother had appeared in Rwanda, saying something horrible would happen if people did not return to God, and they could prevent it by praying the rosary, but they didn’t listen, she said.
Ms. Ilibagiza said people were praying for the Rwandan president to die, rather than believing God could change him. When he died, the genocide began.
She hid with others in a bathroom as neighbors with weapons searched the house.
“They will kill you,” a voice in her head said.
“Ask God to help you,” said another voice. “He can do anything.”
Ms. Ilibagiza said she almost lost her faith, and begged God for a sign: Don’t let the killers find the bathroom door. They searched the house thoroughly, giving up just before entering the bathroom.
She read the Bible, prayed the rosary, pondered eternity and asked God to show her how to forgive the killers, she said. She realized that, like Jesus’ executioners, those killing in her country didn’t know what they were doing.
Emerging from hiding, she learned that her family members had been among one million people killed in three months, she said.
“I’m so sure there’s heaven,” she says now. God is there. If he doesn’t give you what you want, he gives you something better.
She wrote her story, “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.” She said if she can forgive, anyone can, and urged: If forced to choose between being kind and being right, be kind.
Following her story she distributed gifts – her books, CD, a rosary – as women in the audience raised their hands to be chosen.
Alemattu Bility, from Guinea and Liberia, was given an “Our Lady of Kibeho” CD.
“I came from civil war too,” in Liberia, but didn’t lose all family members, the Rhode Island resident said. She said she cried when she heard Ms. Ilibagiza was coming here.
“It just felt good to be in her presence,” she said, expressing gratitude that she inspires others to forgive, something she doesn’t know if she’s yet achieved.
Printed with permission from The Catholic Free Press, newspaper for the Diocese of Worcester, Mass.