“What she had unexpectedly met there in the village church was not God; it was beauty… The mass was beautiful because it appeared to her in a sudden, mysterious revelation as a world betrayed.”
–The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera-
After my first morning mass at the parish, I meet a 26-year-old woman named Sophie. Sophie is a volunteer from Warsaw, working with Polish nuns as a math teacher at a school for the blind of Kibeho. The Polish nuns invite me to breakfast and as they prepare the meal, Sophie gives me a tour of the school’s facilities. At university, she studied art so the blind children’s understanding of spatial learning fascinates her. “They don’t have a 2-D imagination,” she explains to me as she flips through a workbook of everyday objects outlined in Braille, “only a 3-D imagination.”
Later that week, I call my mom, overwhelmed by the churches of Rwanda and their effect on me. “All faith is blind,” she insists. I am suddenly reminded of Sophie’s blind students; at least they can use their hands, fumbling over the raised bump on a page or piecing together the anatomy of a toothbrush, to decipher their way through the enveloping darkness. Our hands do not have capacity to imagine an infinite-dimensional being like the divine. Faith is even blinder than the blind themselves. And that terrifies me.
At the breakfast that same morning, Sophie expresses her awe for the people of Rwanda. In Poland, she says, people always worry about what affect the Holocaust had on the second generation of survivors. “What happened to my grandparents is history, but for people here the memory of the genocide is so fresh.” I think of the Holocaust survivor I interviewed last year, Rivka, how the Nazis destroyed her Polish village of Lida, and how she vowed to never return. Kibeho parish was constructed in 1943. That same year, oceans away, the Nazis had already infiltrated remote Polish towns, and erected chambers and barracks that would soon house the Jews of Europe. Half a century later, Kibeho parish would serve the same function as the Nazis’ camps, except this time, the killers were so sure of themselves they wanted God as their witness. Sophie and the Polish nuns’ presence at the parish seem to make worlds collide, centuries of humans’ most destructive history meeting as one under the roof of a church that once doubled as the interahamwe’s death chamber. I wonder how they return to mass, fully aware of their country’s history, and conscious that they attend church in a former graveyard. They are far better people than I will ever be.
Every day I make the trek to the parish hoping that it will give me answers. The daily attendance is sparse, except for the birds, always the birds, which are obnoxiously faithful, more faithful than I am. Crows tap dance on the tin roof, creating the allusion of a perpetual Rwandan rainstorm, while small birds fly above head, as if mocking the humans below. While others kneel prostrate, beads in hand, praying the mysteries of the rosary to Our Lady of the Word at the Sanctuary down the road, I continue to return to the church of the dead, meditating on the mysteries of a building forgotten by the world, and in many ways, even its own people. Only the birds appear to remember the destruction that once filled this betrayed space. When the women in the congregation’s high-pitched voices waver in search of harmony, signaling the beginning of the mass, I am immediately transported back to Italy, where more than a decade ago, I listened to my dad’s church choir perform in some of the most magnificent basilicas and cathedrals in Europe. I mourn the loss of my former self, a self that believed in the unwavering validity of the Vatican’s teachings, a self that trusted Catholic missionaries to spread the Gospel instead of racial ideology, a self that regarded churches as the pinnacle of life. I would like to believe that Rwanda has not damaged those memories; I realize that if it were not for my trip to Italy at such a young age, I would not be here now. Still, as I stare at the sporadically patched brick where grenades allowed the militia an entry point in 1994, I know that I will never equate churches with safety again.
After mass one morning, five women enter the church. Straw bushels in hand, brightly patterned cloth draped over their aging waistlines, they sweep the concrete floors and the mismatched brick walls, tending to the hollow building the way the female disciples tended to the crucified carpenter’s empty tomb. I pretend to pray, but really, I am mesmerized by their presence. For almost a week, I have observed Kibeho residents come faithfully for the mass, but this is the first time I have witnessed anyone come faithfully for the building itself. I have spent far too much time here wondering why we allow mere man-made constructions to give our lives meaning, why we worship our Maker in stone structures instead of outside, surrounded by the earth that was created for us, why we build monuments to remember people, when no brick could ever encapsulate the beauty that life has to offer. I am jealous of the women’s dedication to a building that betrayed twenty-five thousands people.
On Sunday morning, I am surprised to find the pews crammed with at least three hundred people eager to be healed by the Gospel. From where I am standing, I can see the whole mass play out before me, but instead of a living, breathing body of Christ, for a moment, I see the place as it was in April of 1994, crowded with ten times the amount of people, all under the false impression that this stone and mortar had the power to save them from the devils incarnate. After Communion, the congregation raises their hands above their heads, curling their elbows and wrists like the corps de ballet in Swan Lake, as they subtly step to the beat of the drum radiating from the pews in front of the altar. Although I have been here for a week, the sight still astounds me. It is a moment reminiscent of a past they will never fully recover for their arms sway in a V-shape, like the horns of a cow, reflecting a lost religion that once revered cows as the ultimate life force. They move with abandonment that I long for, in praise of a god more reliable than the one I have encountered within these hills.
“If people don’t have faith, they cannot come this way, even you cannot come to Rwanda,” Sister Emelienne tells me during my last night in Kibeho. Her words surprise me. I think of all the anxieties my friends and I carried with us as we journeyed to Rwanda three months ago, how we knew relatively nothing about the country we were about to live in. And even here, where church buildings and corpses and the landscape are tangible, three-dimensional, it is still impossible to grasp; at times, we feel blinder than Sophie’s blind students, for we have come to learn about a time in history we will never fully understand and never have to experience. Maybe Sister Emelienne is right, I think. Maybe coming here took faith. It is a different kind of faith than the spiritual one I came searching for, but it is still faith. And it is the type of faith I will choose to live with from now on.