Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Left to Tell: A Faith Story

This past May the Commencement speaker at Assumption College was a Rwandan woman named Immaculee Ilibagiza, the author of Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (Hay House, 2006). I missed the Commencement exercises, and now—having just finished her book—am kicking myself for having done so. This book has been one of the most powerful and interesting works of spirituality that I have read during the past year that I have been working on this blog.

The first aspect of this book that struck me was the reminder it provided of an astonishing historical fact: a genocide that took a million lives took place during my adult lifetime. When we think about genocides, we think about the Nazis, and—as fascinated as we still seem to be with the Holocaust—it seems historically remote to those of my generation and younger. But the Rwandan genocide took place during the 1990’s, just after I had graduated from college. It’s much harder to wipe away the notion that such horrible events are products of the distant past when you can link them to periods in your own life.

Ilibagiza was from a Tutsi family, the ethnic nationality that was marked for extermination by the majority Hutus in Rwanda during the 1990’s. Her family, like all of the families in her neighborhood and across Rwanda, was attacked by machete-wielding Hutus, many of them former neighbors and friends, when the genocide began. Her father was shot in the street; her mother and brother chopped to death with machetes; another brother machine-gunned down in a mass killing.

Ilibagiza sought refuge in the home of a Hutu pastor who took pity on her and seven other Tutsi women. He sheltered them in his home for three months—all eight women spent those three months locked away in a bathroom that was three feet wide and four feet long. You read that correctly. They had to learn to stand, sit, and sleep on top of one another for three months in that tiny space. As the weeks and months went by, though, Ilibagiza explains, the space got larger and larger: the scraps of food that the pastor was able to save for them were barely enough to keep them alive, and they all grew increasingly emaciated.

I will leave the story of her liberation from confinement, and eventual reunion with her one surviving brother, for you to read. But those events don’t represent the climax of the book. That comes when she finally returns to her village—where she finds the ruined shell of her family home, and gives a proper burial to what remains of the corpses of her family members—and confronts the Hutu man who led the killing mob against her family. An angry and sympathetic warder drags him from his jail cell, and holds him up before her, so that Ilibagiza can do to him what she will.

It is an incredible and surprising moment, and one which affirms the power of the religious faith that sustains her through her long ordeal.

If you are looking for reasons to believe, you won’t find any stronger ones than you will in Left to Tell.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Loaves, Fishes, and Houses

Last Sunday I found myself in a Catholic church in my old hometown, attending services with my father and brother and his family. The gospel reading for that day was the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; the homily following the gospel was delivered in a long and rambling monotone that had many dozens of people in the pews around me, including my Dad, nodding off on a regular basis.

Because I talk to people for a living, I’m usually able to stay awake even through the most boring of lectures by mentally stepping back and imagining what advice I would give the speaker on improving his or her speaking skills. In the final minutes of his sermon, though, the priest got around to offering an insight into the gospel that I thought was really excellent, and that I wanted to share on this blog.

Before I make his point, let me reproduce here the gospel in question (Matthew 14: 13-21) in order to jog your memory of the story.

“On hearing about the death of John the Baptist, Jesus set out secretly by boat for a secluded place. But the people heard of it, and they followed him on foot from their towns. When Jesus went ashore, he saw the crowd gathered there and he had compassion on them. And he healed their sick.
Late in the afternoon, his disciples came to him and said, ‘We are in a lonely place and it is now late. You should send these people away, so they can go to the villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’
But Jesus replied, ‘They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat.’ They answered, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fishes.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Bring them here to me.’
Then he made everyone sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves and the two fishes, raised his eyes to heaven, pronounced the blessing, broke the loaves and handed them to the disciples to distribute to the people. And they all ate, and everyone had enough; then the disciples gathered up the leftovers, filling twelve baskets. About five thousand men had eaten there besides women and children.”

In the closing minutes of his homily, the priest drew attention to a small detail in this story: Jesus performed the miracle, but it was the disciples—reluctant though they may have been—who provided the loaves and fishes, the raw materials with which Jesus performed that miracle. Jesus did not produce that bountiful harvest from nothing; he took the meager donation that his apostles made and multiplied it many times over.

The priest then described the feeling that I’m sure many of us have when we are deciding whether we should donate a few dollars to a charity, or volunteer for an hour or two, or make some small gesture of kindness: what good could such a miniscule gesture make in the face of such great need? Could my five dollar donation to a cancer fund really make any difference? Does the hour I spend sorting food at a donation center make the tiniest dent in the problem of world hunger?

The story of the loaves and fishes, the priest suggested, teaches us that while we may not be capable of working miracles with our five dollar donation, God might be. We should do what we can to provide the raw materials; maybe they will end up as only the tiniest drop in the bucket . . . but maybe they will provide the raw material that God turns into something miraculous.

With all of that in mind, I want to finish by extending my love and congratulations to Anne and Katie Lang, who are spending the week working on houses for Habitat for Humanity in Portland, Maine. I’m sure they will have their moments, looking at the small part they will play in building a house, when they wonder whether it’s worth the trouble.

I hope, in those minutes, they will remember the story of the loaves and fishes, and take comfort from the possibility that they may yet be providing the raw materials for something miraculous.