God Weeps

A carved wooden crucifix sits atop a green and white woven basket from RwandaLast night I dreamed of rows of machetes emerging from a farmer’s field, point first, like the tips of corn stalks. I saw many machetes during my recent trip to Rwanda – sharpened steel used to trim back vegetation and cut paths through the thick foliage of “the land of a thousand hills.”

Rwanda is also the land of a thousand views –the hills and mountains of the lush terrain provide endless scenic vistas of neatly-maintained crops. Rwanda’s equatorial location means that seasons are defined by rainfall. The rainy season is about to peak, and with it the annual April period of national mourning – the 22nd anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. God weeps from the skies.

Rwanda’s complex history – prerecorded, colonial, political and institutional – setting the stage for tragedy, may be another window on the land of a thousand views, or perhaps, viewpoints. To visit some of the genocide memorial sites, many of them Catholic churches where men, women and children seeking sanctuary were shot and hacked to death by the thousands, is to encounter, in the mounds of faded, bloodstained clothing and stacks of skulls and bones, a lesson we have not yet grasped. The murder of up to a million people over several months by their neighbors, fellow parishioners, family members and leaders, cries out to heaven – and to us, wherever we live.

How could they do this? How could we do this, within the last century or so – to indigenous Americans, Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Bosnians and so many others? As Good Friday approaches we line the route to Golgotha once again, watching the innocent led to slaughter.

How can we do this? By using real or contrived differences of race, socio-economic class, religion, lifestyle, language, or ethnicity to create communities of scapegoats, onto whom we pour the verbal venom of our fears, our hatreds, our ignorance, our insecurities. Once dehumanized and separated from “us,” the “final solution” can seem logical, necessary, patriotic.

At one parish genocide site, the Eucharist in the tabernacle was destroyed by gunfire before the terrified members of the Body of Christ, crowded into the liturgical space, were murdered. The heroes of genocide in Rwanda are those who hid their neighbors, sometimes at the cost of their own lives; those, like Sister Felicitas Niyitegeka, who chose to die with the targeted rather than be separated from their brothers and sisters in Christ and live. Accompaniment and solidarity were expressed in the laying down of lives.

Healing and restoration linger on the horizon in Rwanda. Many of those who survived, scarred and traumatized, have not been able to speak their stories – it can be dangerous to do so. Counseling resources are inadequate. The broken church is trying to be a vehicle for healing and wholeness. Many significant tensions are unresolved, as seen in the most recent refugee situation involving neighboring Burundi.

How do we move forward with justice, mercy and love, learning enough about ourselves as human beings to ensure that such crimes never happen again – anywhere? Such a perspective includes hard work, and open hearts, minds and ears; solidarity in action. The way forward is to experience and to share God’s love – the love, as the Easter Vigil testifies each spring, that never dies. Love that sees each life as precious. Love that finds new, respectful relationships, not weapons, emerging from ground soaked with the blood of our scapegoats.

Headshot of Susan Stevenot Sullivan, USCCB

Susan Stevenot Sullivan is director of education & outreach at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.


Go Deeper!

New Year: Go Forth in the Power of Epiphany

Susan Stevenot Sullivan, USCCB

Susan Stevenot Sullivan, USCCB

Epiphany! The Magi left their bubble, their comfort zone, to follow a new star. They “went forth,” together, pursuing a beckoning light that promised a new reality, new priorities, a new relationship –  one worthy of a challenging journey and the offering of their greatest treasures.

The New Year begins with the Christmas season and an incrementally increasing amount of daylight in both our hemisphere and our lives. We may stop during this season to consider the gift of God-With-Us, born into our comfortable but sometimes stagnant understanding of our place in the world, into our continuing search for meaning and relationship. Unwrapping this gift of Emmanuel is a risky, but rewarding, process.

What might be some of the beckoning lights promising new realities and relationships that can change the world – and our own lives? How can we seek more clearly the presence of God in those near and far? We start with those around us and go beyond to encounter the impatient people in line at the grocery store, the harried bus driver, the bewildered parent, the exhausted server at the restaurant, the person on the sidewalk hidden under a blanket, the commuter whose wheelchair is stuck on the curb, the family speaking in another language than ours. Stars for such encounters may also be found in the January calendar.

The World Day of Peace message from Pope Francis on January 1 asks us to seek and encounter those who are victims of human trafficking as, “Slaves no more, but brothers and sisters.”

OneFamilyBlogThis week is National Migration Week. Where did your ancestors come from? What did they find in their new country? How can we seek and encounter those on the move today who are part of our “one family under God”?

January 9 is the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. We are a Church without borders, valuing the life, gifts and thriving of every person. How do we seek and encounter those who have left so much behind and who look for a new start and new opportunities to offer their culture and skills?

January 19 is the national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. How do we seek and encounter the lessons and sacrifices of the civil rights movement, and non-violent resistance, in the issues of racism and injustice that continue to fracture our one family under God?

Prolife blog

January 21-22 is the National Prayer Vigil for Life. How do we seek and encounter those who are most vulnerable from the beginning of life until its final stages? How do we understand each life as precious?

January is Poverty Awareness Month. How do we seek and encounter people living in poverty, including the 2.8 million impoverished people who work full-time, year-round?

The star that called the Magi to “Go Forth” was visible to all, but not all responded to the beacon in the gloom of night. May we be Magi, seeking and encountering our vulnerable brothers and sisters, experiencing a new reality and relationships through the gift God-With-Us. Every. Day.

Susan Stevenot Sullivan is director of education & outreach at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.