We learn from the Gospel of John that harnessing hatred towards others is harmful to ourselves: “But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:11). Perhaps no one was challenged to let go of hatred more than Reverend Marcel Uwineza, who told his story at this month’s Agape Latte.
Uwineza is a Jesuit priest and PHD student at BC’s School of Ministry and Theology. He is also a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide. In 1994, in a span of 100 days, roughly 800,000 Rwandans were killed in one of the worst atrocities in modern history. Born into a Catholic family in Rwanda, Uwineza grew up hearing a great deal of prayers. He clearly recalled the day of his First Communion in 1987, in which he prayed to Jesus to make him a priest, inspired by the Belgian missionary priests he had met growing up. “You better be careful what you ask” Uwineza exclaimed, as he would be ordained as a priest 26 years later.
Before he could explain his story of entering the Priesthood, Uwineza described what it was like to grow up in Rwanda in the days before the Genocide. It was a country, he explained, deeply-divided and “ravaged by ethnicity.” The African nation is approximately the size of Maryland, and is densely packed with a population of about 12 million people. Its two main ethnic groups consist of the Hutu’s at 85%, and the Tutsi at 14%. These people have a “very complicated history,” Uwineza (a Tutsi) said, despite the fact that they all spoke the same language and had been living together even in the days before European colonialism. When German colonialists first arrived in Rwanda, they tended to favor the Tutsis in the region, appointing them to government positions. The Belgians later replaced the Germans in Rwanda but followed the same pattern of favoring the minority Tutsi group. Resources would be diverted in such a manner that Tutsis would receive an education over Hutus, and according to Uwineza, “the Church was not immune” in all of this as they also favored the Tutsis.
As the age of colonialism began to die out, a growing resentment towards the Tutsis among the Hutu majority grew, exploding into violence in the 1950s as Rwandans revolted against their government and sent many Tutsis into exile in neighboring countries. They would form militant groups (namely, the Rwandese Patriotic Front or RPF) that attempted to invade the country during the early 1990s. Rwanda was, as Uwineza explained, “a country in turmoil” during this time. The Rwandan government cracked down on the remaining Tutsis in the country, arresting and killing those they suspected of working with the RPF, including Uwineza’s father.
Uwineza, coming from a Tutsi family, grew up observing this hatred first hand. In school, his teachers made the Tutsi children in the class raise their hands, and then told the class, “those are our enemies.” For years, the Rwandan government planned to systematically slaughter the Tutsi population, distributing machetes and digging graves. After the president’s plane was mysteriously shot down on April 6, 1994, the Genocide began. “It was a time to kill” Uwineza recollected. His family desperately fled to their local church, hoping to find safety but the parish priest told them, “I have no place for Tutsi’s here, you go away.” Luckily, a nearby Hutu man named Joseph Kabera snuck Uwineza’s family in, sheltering them in his compound of beehives until his neighbors grew suspicious. In an attempt to find safety in a nearby district office, Uwineza’s mother was viciously beaten by a group of Hutu men. She would later die of her wounds. Although Uwineza found safety, three of his siblings who had fled to their Aunt were slaughtered. The bloodshed and monstrosity, Uwineza said, left him harboring a deep “hatred for the Hutus and the Church.”
It took years, but under the care of his Uncle, Uwineza found himself returning to the Church and eventually became ordained as a Jesuit priest, after developing a strong sense of passion for the order. The Hutu man who saved his life, Kabera, attended his ordination. Uwineza also met the man who murdered his brothers and sister while visiting their graves. “Marcel,” the man expressed to him: “I killed them. I was jailed… I am here. If you have some space in your heart, will you forgive me?” In that moment, Uwineza explained that he felt free, as he embraced the man. “Forgiveness leads to freedom” Uwineza told the crowd; he was now no longer chained by the hatred he harbored towards the perpetrators of the Genocide.
Uwineza closed by emphasizing the importance of avoiding the temptations to “brand everyone in the same box,” and to hold onto lingering resentments: “There is a positive future once we forgive and move on.” Forgiveness then, is more than a recommendation, but a requirement to living a truly fulfilling life.