When I first cast my eye down the Support A Catholic Speaker list at Brandon Vogt’s blog I was merely hoping to see if one of our book club authors had made the cut. Since we only read Catholic Women Authors and the list is filled with great speakers who don’t necessarily have books (and they are mostly men to boot) it didn’t seem likely. But then I was mildly surprised to find Dr. Alice Von Hildebrand, who I didn’t realize was on the Catholic speaker circuit. The club delighted in her By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride sometime in 2005.
However when I laid eyes upon the name Immaculée Ilibagiza I knocked myself upside the head muttering, “Of course!” I’ve lost count over the years of opportunities around the Denver diocese to listen to Immaculée speak. She is sought after all over the world as people are hungry for the inspiration her story of forgiveness provides.
Yes, yes, we read her books –3 of them in fact! Shortly after it was first published in 2007 we read Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. This first book covered the harrowing details of the 1994 massacre and the fate of all of the Ilibagiza family members. Of all her sweet and holy family members it was Immaculée alone who stayed cramped in a tiny bathroom of a neighbor for 91 days (her brother Aimable also survived since he was a student in Senegal), and she learned from a note that her parents and brothers had all been killed.
One of the most terrible and uncomfortable pieces of this story is how the poison arrow of hatred methodically took on a life of its own through the dehumanization of Tutsis in the mass media. Then the arrow hit its mark in a time of assassination and government chaos to initiate a satanic killing spree.
We were quick to approve of another of her titles when it was published in 2009. Led By Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide told of the remarkable recovery of Immaculee and many other survivors and their attempts to persuade other Rwandans to help heal their country through the power of forgiveness.
Quickly after that Our Lady of Kibeho: Mary Speaks to the World from the Heart of Africa was published and we read it either in 2010 or 2011. I think I will talk about this amazing and prophetic Marian apparition in a separate post.
Suffice it to say here that at the heart of Immaculée’s love of God is a beautiful devotion to His Mother. There is no question that the Rosary her father gave her and her prayer through its presence was her lifeline and the cause of her ability to forgive the murderers. She also persevered through quite a bit of resistance from those who wanted her to take revenge and nurture hate and those who wanted to promote her experiences without the message of faith and prayer.
My attempts to get a written or phone interview were, not surprisingly, unsuccessful, given her heavy schedule of speeches, retreats and conferences. However Immaculée has provided plenty of books and videos with which to round out this post. In fact, I will “interview” her now using her words from Left to Tell!
Q: After the genocide Immaculée stayed with other homeless victims in a shelter, and eventually she found a job at the UN. Her co-workers assisted her in returning home to visit her former neighborhood and talk to the survivors. Had she already forgiven her family’s killers by this time?
A: “As we drove away from my home, past the unmarked mounds of dirt that covered Mother and Damascene, I felt the bitter, dirty taste of hatred in my mouth …. I looked at the faces peering at us as we passed, and I knew with all my heart that those people had blood on their hands–their neighbors’ blood…my family’s blood. I wanted the soldiers to douse Mataba in gasoline and let me light the match that would reduce it to ashes.”
Q: Shortly following that visit she felt her “soul was at war with itself.” She had struggled to forgive, but she “knew the devil was tempting [her].” She confessed that “he was leading me away from the light of God, from the freedom of His forgiveness. My heart hungered for revenge.” What made her try to turn away from those temptations?
A: “I never felt lonelier than I did that night. God was my truest friend, and these feelings were a wall between us. I knew that my thoughts caused Him pain, and that knowledge tortured me.”
Q: How did Immaculée get through that struggle without giving in to hatred? Most people wouldn’t have blamed her!
A: “I rolled out of bed and got down on my knees. ‘Forgive my evil thoughts, God,’ I prayed. ‘Please…as you always have, take this pain from me and cleanse my heart. Fill me with the power of your forgiveness. Those who did these horrible things are still Your children, so let me help them, and help me to forgive them. Oh, God, help me to love them.’ A sudden rush of air filled my lungs. I heaved a heavy sigh of relief …. I was at peace again …. I let the [sadness] embrace me and found that it was clean, with no tinge of bitterness or hatred …. The people who’d hurt my family had hurt themselves even more, and they deserved pity.”
Q: Immaculée made a visit to the prison where one of the killers was held. There she found a family friend in charge. He had lost 4 of his children in the slaughter. He sadly produced the man who had killed her family and she was shocked to find the father of her childhood playmates! What happened next?
A: “He’d been a tall, handsome man who always wore expensive suits and had impeccable manners. Now, the battered man remained hunched and kneeling, too embarrassed to stand and face me …. I wept at the sight of his suffering. Felicien had let the devil enter his heart, and the evil had ruined his life like a cancer in his soul. [He] was sobbing. I could feel his shame. He looked up at me for only a moment, but our eyes met. I reached out, touched his hands lightly, and quietly said what I’d come to say. ‘I forgive you.'”
Q: She had suffered so much; it would have been so understandable if she had quietly gone back to work and rested her body and mind. What did Immaculée believe would be accomplished by publicizing her story outside of Rwanda?
A: “The love of a single heart can make a world of difference. I believe that we can heal Rwanda–and our world–by healing one heart at a time. I hope my story helps.”
How could Imaculée pray the Our Father? Find out here:
Thank you Immaculée, for speaking with us through your book!
Now the only thing better than reading this remarkable story would be hearing about it in person. 2 of our club ladies did just that many years ago. Dianne and Gina both agree that her talk was riveting and inspirational. The list of Immaculée’s appearances around the United States and Canada is hefty, so if you want to go you’re in luck! And if you can’t make it you can still listen by registering to attend her New York City Retreat online.