Rwandan genocide survivor to share her story of faith at Silver Spring parish
Feb. 20, 2019
Hiding in a cramped bathroom, Immaculée Ilibagiza heard the killers call her name as she clutched her rosary.
Hunted by gangs in her native Rwanda in 1994, the young college student huddled with seven women in the hidden room inside a local pastor's home, praying for protection from the armed men outside.
It was during the slaughter – including the murders of her family members – that she found the faith to forgive the people who laid waste to her family and her country.
Twenty-five years after the Rwandan genocide, the 47-year-old Catholic lay speaker will present her story of prayer and survival at St. Andrew Apostle Catholic Church in Silver Spring on Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.
"I was hating people from the other side in a state of anger," Ilibagiza recalled.
Her 91 days in a tiny bathroom during the atrocities that wiped out more than 800,000 people was chronicled in her best-selling book, Left To Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, and a documentary film, The Diary of Immaculée.
But decades later, she still draws audiences all over the world because of the hope it offers people in distress. "They're hurting," she said. "Once there is a genuine willingness to forgive, the grace comes with that. My life could have been so much different if I had stayed [angry]."
Then a 22-year-old student, Ilibagiza was visiting her family on Easter break in their village when an airplane carrying the president of Rwanda was shot down over the capital in 1994. The death of the Hutu president immediately led to brutal attacks on Tutsi tribe members across the country.
Ilibagiza's father, a devout Catholic and Tutsi, feared she would be raped and killed. So, he told her to run to a local minister's home for protection. When she arrived, the pastor led her and seven other women into a three-by-four-foot bathroom.
Over the next three months, the women clung to one another as the killers surrounded the house, looking for Ilibagiza and others. Several times the gang members ransacked the house, but never found the hidden bathroom.
It was during those long days that Ilibagiza began to pray a rosary, which her father had handed her before she left. "I was bathed in sweat, exhausted, clutching my rosary in both hands, and oblivious to my surroundings," she later wrote.
It was while she was praying that she felt compelled to plead for the forgiveness of the people who were hunting her. "I knew that I couldn't ask God to love me if I were unwilling to love his children," she wrote.
By the time the attacks ended and she was free to leave the room, she discovered that all but one of her family members had been executed.
Before she left Rwanda to live in the United States, she was led to a local prison where she came face-to-face with the man who killed her mother and a brother. Instead of condemning him, she forgave him.
After the publication of her book, Left To Tell, in 2006, she began speaking to audiences, including Protestant and Jewish congregations, about her own healing after the genocide.
Father Daniel Leary, the pastor of St. Andrew Apostle, said forgiveness remains the heart of her ministry. "Freedom is not just about coming out from behind bars," he said. "Freedom is freedom to forgive." After her address at the church, she will speak the next day to middle school students from St. Andrew, St. Jude in Rockville, and Holy Redeemer in Kensington.
That appearance is especially important, said Father Leary. "The schools wanted to put on a united front. Her message speaks into the current sadness that attacks so many young people to say: There is always hope in Christ."
The cost for the February 26th presentation is $10 in advance ($15 at the door). St. Andrew Apostle Parish is located at 11600 Kemp Mill Road in Silver Spring. For more information to register, visit: http://standrewapostle.org/immaculee-ilibagiza/
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