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The Power of Forgiveness

A letter from Nancy Collins, serving as Regional Liaison for East Central Africa, based in Zambia

June 2017

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Dear Family and Friends,

Greetings to you in this time between the ascension of Jesus Christ and Pentecost.

In April, I participated in a “Gathering” of all mission coworkers working in sub Saharan Africa that was held in Rwanda. The theme of the 2017 Gathering was “Reconciliation” and it was powerful! The Gathering Planning Team (which included me) invited leaders of the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda (EPR) to participate in the program. Rev. Dr. Elisee Musemakweli, now Vice Chancellor of the Protestant University of Rwanda (formerly PIASS); Rev. Dr. Pascal Bataringaya, EPR president; and Rev. Jerome Bizimana, Presbytery Executive of Remera Presbytery, were asked to share stories of EPR’s post-genocide work.

Dr. Pascal Bataringaya speaking at the Gathering about the impact of the Rwandan genocide

According to Dr. Pascal, “more Rwandese citizens were killed in churches and parishes than anywhere else. The genocide revealed the saint and sinner in everyone involved, including Christians in general and clergy specifically . . . . The Christian Church lost any credibility it had before the genocide because of its complicity in that atrocity.”

For many Gathering participants, the experiences shared by Rev. Jerome Bizimana and three members of the “Light Group”—two survivors and one perpetrator—were the strongest part of the program.

Genocide survivor Anastasie told her story: “I was alone and had lost everything . . . . It was God who chose to send Rev. Jerome to Zambia to be trained (in peacebuilding and conflict resolution). After the training, Pastor Jerome made a workshop, and in this process we arrived to accept our condition. Then when we heard the news that the perpetrators who confessed would come back in the community, we became traumatized again . . . . When the former perpetrators came back, it was the time that Pastor Jerome was active and made trainings, and survivors realized that they should forgive since we were forgiven by God. Otherwise we will make a barrier between us and God.”

Celestin sharing his experience as a genocide perpetrator

Celestin, a perpetrator, told quite a different story: “I took part in the genocide. Those are things that I accept because it happened openly. It was not hidden. “As long as I am still living, I continue to ask God to forgive me and I also ask forgiveness from all Rwandans. When I was in jail together with others who participated, we didn’t expect to go back to the community. We didn’t think we would get out from the jail. We thought, ‘if we don’t die in jail we will go to the forest and live like animals.’ God is wonderful. God is good. When we were in jail, we received so many evangelists and preachers from different denominations. Those who came talked about God, and when you hear God you feel a kind of peace, an inside peace inside your heart. It happened that in God’s way through the Rwandan government, we were told ‘if you say the truth and confess, you will be forgiven and go back to the community.’ It was good news, and we quickly confessed our sins, and we were transferred from jail to a training for sensitization for peace and reintegration into the community.

Rev. Jerome Bizimana with Asterie and Anastasie, genocide survivors

“Inside our hearts we had fear. We were really afraid of how we would relate with other people, particularly the victims. One thing that is the most important is the word of God. When we got out of jail and returned to the community, Pastor Jerome was a spirit of reconciliation through the Gospel. The journey to bring the victims and perpetrators together was a long journey; it was not easy . . . . The blood of Jesus was very important. Because of that blood, we could meet and become friends.”

It was a blessing for me that mission coworkers and Presbyterian Mission Agency staff came and witnessed the strength, wisdom and integrity of the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda and the impressive work it is doing in reconciliation. Those who feel called to support reconciliation work in Rwanda can send contributions designated “reconciliation work” to ECO E864102.

The experiences shared by EPR leaders are already bearing fruit. Even before the Gathering finished, coworkers working in South Sudan asked to meet with PC(USA) personnel and EPR leaders to brainstorm additional experience-sharing possibilities between international partners in South Sudan, EPR and the Protestant University of Rwanda.

Dr. Dustin Ellington encouraging JMU faculty and students to live lives of grace

After returning to Zambia, mission coworker Dr. Dustin Ellington preached a powerful sermon on grace to faculty and theological students at Justo Mwale University using Titus 2:11-15. As Dustin explained, these verses reveal that “grace appeared and that it teaches us, it trains us, for a way of life.”

To illustrate grace that teaches a way of life, Dustin shared the experiences of Anastasie and Celestin, the Light Group survivor and perpetrator, and how through grace they were reconciled to each other. Dustin made a heartfelt plea, saying “Do we really believe that grace has appeared if at the same time we keep having enemies in our own church? Can we believe in grace and keep pitting ourselves against a fellow student, or against a fellow pastor or elder? Can we say we believe in grace and yet cook up a story just to hurt a fellow student or fellow minister? Grace teaches us a whole way of life, including the power of forgiveness.”

Susannah Bryant preaching in Kabulonga about the body of Christ

About a week later, Young Adult Volunteer Susannah Bryant preached for members of the Kabulonga Prayer House of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Chilenje congregation where Susannah worships. Her scriptures were I Peter 2:5 and 1 Corinthians 12:12. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
Susannah asked “What do you do when the hand offends the foot? When members of the body offend each other?” And she also shared the power of grace that allows Rwanda genocide survivors to be reconciled with Rwanda genocide perpetrators.

The word of God lives. The word of God put into practice is so powerful. It can transform us as individuals and it can transform our institutions and our societies. Praise God. Please join with me in praying for continued fruits from the lessons learned and the examples witnessed during the Gathering.

I am grateful to all those who are engaged and interested in the work that I am doing here in East Central Africa, and to those who have made a financial investment in that work. Donations given to World Mission help cover the costs of my housing, my work travel, my health insurance and a variety of other components that go into serving as a mission co-worker. If you have not yet taken the opportunity to give, please consider doing so. Investing in my work means that the Presbyterian Church (USA) continues to invest itself in longstanding and important relationships with churches in Rwanda, Kenya, Zambia and Malawi.

In Christ,

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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