“I am the un-missionary…beginning each day on my knees, asking to be converted. Forgive me, Africa, according to thy multitude of mercies.”
– The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
“How long have you known the Lord?” a young parishioner asks me after my first Sunday service at my host family’s church. I just explained to church members why I’m in Rwanda. “East African Politics,” I said, because it’s easier than nonchalantly dropping the phrase “genocide studies” into conversation, especially in a church.
“My whole life.”
“Wow. That’s so nice. I want to know the Lord like that.”
I want to tell him I’m burdened by my faith. I want to tell him the Bible he reads helped craft the genocide ideology that killed his family. I want to tell him his church is named Victory Mission for a reason. But I smile instead, grateful for his congregation’s hospitality.
In the year 1900, Jesus, accompanied by German colonizers and then the Belgian government, arrived in Rwanda in the form of a white missionary. He held a Bible in one hand and a gun behind His back. Instead of His usual parables about the prodigal son and the woman’s search for her lost coin, He wove tales about power, telling the Tutsi people about their God-given right as superior humans. With this God-given right came the ability to rule over their brothers, the Hutus.
Tutsis, according to the widely held interpretation of the biblical story of Ham, were made in the image and likeness of God, except they had the misfortune of being clothed in skin the color of darkness. The Hutus, though, were humans of a lesser breed, possibly made as an afterthought on the last day of creation. Let the children come to me, He told them, but only the Tutsi ones.
Later, after World War II, inspired by theologies about social justice, Jesus and his Belgian disciples switched their allegiance to the Hutus. The Cains of Rwanda yearned for revenge against the Abels, and through the Church’s guidance, their will would soon be done.
It’s no wonder, then, that the genocide came to fruition in the very place where its message was first planted — the churches.
Our guide points to a small crucifix resting on the bloodstained altar. “This cross was used to kill people,” he says.
Next to the cross lie a machete, a few rosaries, and ID cards used to differentiate Tutsis from Hutus. On the wall to the left of the altar sits a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I wonder what horrors those stone eyes witnessed. How many died with a rosary in their hand and her name lingering on their lips? Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
They were the sacrificial lambs, killed in communion with one another, the body of Christ literally broken on the altar of the Lord.
Matted, soiled clothes of the dead sit in heaps scattered around the humble wooden pews of the small church, as if anticipating one last homily. Eventually, our guide gathers us near the back wall. He points out the blood on the wall and tells us that the Interahamwe dangled babies by their feet and bashed their heads into the wall. Then they raped the children’s mothers before finishing them off with machetes. The sound of schoolchildren’s laughter seeps through the grenade-studded, open doors and reverberates off the bricks marked with the remains of Rwandese children, children who are most likely relatives of the ones playing outside.
Then our guide leads us downstairs to a glass case filled with bones. In 2001, my parents took my sisters and me to Italy as part of a church choir tour; it was the ultimate Catholic pilgrimage, even concluding with an appearance by Pope John Paul II. Confused by the Catholic Church’s obsession with the remains of saints and popes, I nicknamed Italy, “The Home of the Dead Bodies,” an innocent observation for an 8-year-old fascinated with history and the intricacies of the Catholic Church.
But I was wrong. Rwanda is “The Home of the Dead Bodies.” Except these bodies are not relics to be fetishized. These bones are victims of genocide. I imagine the thousands of bones and clothes of Nyamata put on display at the Vatican, skulls gazing upward at the ceiling of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Would the world care then?
By the time we arrive in Ntarama on the same day, we are numb. It’s unfathomable that there is another church like Nyamata littered with shattered bodies that once tilled and breathed and rejoiced among these spectacular hills.
Even here, between the decaying bricks and coffins filled with the dead, it’s still impossible to imagine. I think that is what frightens me the most about this trip. I am here. And yet, I still struggle to imagine Rwanda in 1994. What about the people back home? How can they ever begin to imagine a time in history that only exists in their most feverish nightmares?
Our tour ends in the former nursery school. Once again, our tour guide points out the blood and brain mixture still sticking to the walls of the building. Once again, he demonstrates how small, innocent bodies were thrown against the bricks.
It is a different church. A different tour guide. Different souls. But the same calculated method of killing. Our tour guide picks up a stick; it must be at least seven feet long. He explains how the stick was shoved inside a woman’s body, reaching all the way to her head. And then they killed her. I find myself thankful she died.
A group of villagers watches us process back to the bus. I avoid eye contact with them, embarrassed that I have made a spectacle of their home and their dead. “Now you come,” their eyes seem to say. “Now you come with your cameras and your passports. Well now it’s too late.”
Soon after our visit to Nyamata and Ntarama, I attend church with my host family again. “He will save us. He will save us. He will save us,” the congregation chants. If there was a time for the Savior’s second coming, it was in April of 1994, but He never came. What makes them think He will save them now?
“How old were you in ’94?” Sister Macrine asks me as we walk towards Kibeho Parish. I’m in Kibeho as a part of an independent study project, researching the building’s dual role as a memorial and active church. I’m hyper-aware that this trip is a pseudo-pilgrimage, my twisted, yet academically driven way of confronting my faith crisis.
“Only a year old.”
“Ahhh, so young,” she says half laughing.
“Do you know why it is still a church instead of a memorial?” I ask, even though I know the answer. Kibeho Parish is not a memorial like Nyamata and Ntarama because the Vatican is embarrassed about the Church’s complicity during the genocide. Instead, the Rwandan government and the Catholic Church compromised, hiding a small memorial behind locked doors. An open memorial would mean confessing the Church’s sins. And though they may promote the sacrament of reconciliation, the Vatican doesn’t always practice what they preach.
“I don’t know,” she says.
I can tell my obsession with the Parish confuses her, even pains her. She can’t understand why I’m not here to pray at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Word, the church down the road, where in the 1980s the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to three Rwandan school girls, and at the Holy Mother’s request, the church was built in her honor. She can’t understand why I’m not like the rest of Kibeho’s pilgrims who come searching for divine intervention. If only she knew that I have come to Kibeho hoping for a miracle as well.
She tells me she doesn’t like going into the crypt. I assure her multiple times that I can go alone, but she comes anyway.
“Don’t cry,” she says before we step down into the cellar filled with shelves stacked neatly with bones.
White, lace-fringed curtains covering the shelves curl in the breeze, revealing skulls that once bore the faces of Kibeho residents. I pull open one of the curtains to find entire bodies encased in white powder, similar to the victims of Murambi, a former vocational school now a memorial. Small, patchy tufts of black hair cling to some of the bodies’ skulls, and even though the sight mimics Murambi, it still surprises me; for some reason, I’ve always associated hair with life.
Next, she takes me to the Parish to pray. A plaque on the looming, desecrated building states the church was established 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, except this time, the killers were so sure of themselves they wanted God as their witness.
I that I would feel angry inside the building that betrayed more than 25,000 Tutsis. I thought I would be able to feel the spirits of the dead, dancing around me, haunting the humans thoughtless enough to ignore their presence. But I feel nothing.
I’m jealous of my classmates who came to Rwanda with no belief in God. They have nothing to lose.
Best Travel Credit Cards
Top offers from our partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
80,000 bonus points
The Platinum Card®
75,000 bonus points
American Express® Gold Card
60,000 bonus points