.- ImmaculÃ©e 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, âThe Triumph of Forgiveness â Sharing Stories of Compassionâ and featured Ilbagiza as well as a woman whose husband and child were killed in a car wreck.
Forgiving freed keynote speaker Paula DâArcy, who told of finding Godâs 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.
âI would ask God, âWhy do you hate me?ââ she said. âNothing matteredâ¦ Not my educationâ¦successâ¦â 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 âyes.â
In a conversation with Protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale she told him she lost lifeâs purpose when her family died.
âThat was the purpose you wanted, but life has a different purpose and your challenge is to find it,â he responded. âWhat youâre looking for, you already have.â
She quoted a friend, Father Richard Rohr, who said, âNo change begins with ânoââ and âPain that is not transformed will be transmitted.â
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.
âSomething shifted,â she said. âI felt as if I had been suddenly overtaken by love â¦ I was looking at something I was.â
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, âEverybodyâs got problems.â But as long as she looked at him, she felt Godâs love revealed.
âWhat we open to today is what weâre opening to in life,â 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 didnât 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.
âThey will kill you,â a voice in her head said.
âAsk God to help you,â said another voice. âHe can do anything.â
Ms. Ilibagiza said she almost lost her faith, and begged God for a sign: Donât 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 Jesusâ executioners, those killing in her country didnât 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.
âIâm so sure thereâs heaven,â she says now. God is there. If he doesnât give you what you want, he gives you something better.
She wrote her story, âLeft to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.â 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 â her books, CD, a rosary â as women in the audience raised their hands to be chosen.
Alemattu Bility, from Guinea and Liberia, was given an âOur Lady of Kibehoâ CD.
âI came from civil war too,â in Liberia, but didnât lose all family members, the Rhode Island resident said. She said she cried when she heard Ms. Ilibagiza was coming here.
âIt just felt good to be in her presence,â she said, expressing gratitude that she inspires others to forgive, something she doesnât know if sheâs yet achieved.
Printed with permission from The Catholic Free Press, newspaper for the Diocese of Worcester, Mass.