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The Exodus in Rwanda

by Fr. Michael Della Penna
Exodus of Rwanda

While on a mission trip in Rwanda, I attended two special events on the feast of the Transfiguration. The first was a small, private meeting with twenty or so children with severe disabilities who were abandoned and now residing at the St. Francis of Assisi Center for the Handicapped in Cyangugu, along the border of the Congo.  The second was a large public meeting between a number of prisoners serving life sentences for crimes during the genocide and members of the victim’s family held at an open stadium in Rusuzi. Bishop Celestin Hakizimana , Fr Ubald Rugirangoga, a well known healing priest, some commanders of the army, and a variety of political officials were also present.

On reflecting upon both events in light of the feast of the transfiguration, a deeper spiritual significance seemed to emerge, specifically in terms of the conversation Moses and Elijah had with Jesus concerning His approaching exodus. When we hear the word “exodus”, we usually only think about the second book of the Bible that recounts the dramatic journey of the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt and through the desert to the freedom of the promise land.

The importance of this historic event, however, is not limited to the Hebrew peoples’ experience of liberation but rather offers each and every Christian a powerful paradigm for their faith journey. It is in fact a blueprint of the redeeming path of conversion we are all invited to walk, which leads us from bondage to freedom and therefore into an authentic encounter with the true and living God. It is nothing less than following the way of love that Jesus revealed to us by embracing the exodus of His cross and entering into the paschal mystery.

What struck me most about the exodus however, in terms of these two meetings, was how often we resist making this journey of exodus in our own lives. How difficult it is for us to trust God enough to leave what we know behind and travel on a new and unknown path through the barren desert! How often we allow our interior resistance to grace to cause us to wander and reject the cross! Could this be the reason why Jesus was transfigured when He was? Was it an encouraging gesture from Heaven immediately preceding the crucifixion in order to comfort Jesus, who, by personally embodying all the sufferings of the exodus was about to free us from our sins?

The Exodus of Rwanda

In the first meeting at the St. Francis center, I encountered a 14 year old boy named Jioso, who was severely deformed and who had been found living alone in a forest.  Like many children with his condition, Jioso had been abandoned by his parents; a sadly commonplace reality in many developing countries. Some families reject children like Jioso simply because of their physical appearance or because they are financially incapable of supporting them.

Jioso’s physical appearance can be challenging for some to look at, even causing some to reject him and deterring many from even visiting him.  Ironically, however, it is Jioso’s very appearance that can also serve as an invitation to encounter God. How?  Meeting Jioso can be an opportunity to enter into a journey of exodus, that is, a chance to forget ourselves and to reach out in love and seek the good of the other. This is the first and foremost movement of love, which by its very nature, “decenters” us and so triggers what Benedict XVI defines as: “an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God”  Jioso thus offers each of us an opportunity to lose ourselves, and thus to find ourselves, for as Gaudium et Spes explained: “Man …cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (Gaudium et Spes 24)

Jioso’s abandonment is all the more tragic when we consider thatit was not just  Jioso who was left to die, if you will.  It is only in choosing to walk this exodus of love, that we can find true life.  It is only by coming out of oneself that we can truly fulfill the deepest meaning of our being and existence. When we reject the cross, we are rejecting new life and thus choosing to die.  In choosing not to love and thus avoiding the cross and the exodus, we unknowingly forfeit fulfilling the meaning of our life; the grace and blessing of a new resurrected life.

Jioso is a gift from heaven who invites anyone who meets him into conversion, challenging them to love, that is, to begin a journey of exodus, out of themselves; the same journey St Francis himself made.  St. Francis, we are told, was disgusted at the mere sight of lepers, but experienced a profound conversion when one day he received the grace to overcome himself and thus embrace and even kiss one. Francis realized he had encountered Christ in the leper only after the leper left him. Francis turned around to find that the leper had disappeared.

According to another legend, Jesus even told St Francis “If you want to know my will, you will have to hate and detest everything which till this moment you have loved and longed to make your own. And once you begin to do this, everything that previously seemed sweet and pleasant to you will become bitter and unbearable; and the things you once shuddered over will bring you great sweetness and you will be at peace”

The Exodus of Rwanda

Part 2

The second meeting we attended was an historic reconciliation service, only the second of its kind since the genocide, and took place after years of intensely cultivating forgiveness, through prayer and counseling. Both the prisoners and the members of the victims’ families initially refused to meet.  Many of the prisoners admitted how they had lived in denial for many years and aggressively resisted against admitting even to themselves their heinous crimes. Their pride and obstinacy blinded them from admitting their guilt. The hurt and unforgiveness of the remaining family members also kept them from reconciling. It was thus miraculous because the participants of the reconciliation overcame a double resistance to the journey of exodus.  These convicted murderers were first invited to share their story and admit their crime publicly and then asked for forgiveness with a member of the victims family they were paired up with. 

To say that for both parties, prisoners and the victim’s family alike, this was a powerful moment of mercy would be an understatement. For all involved, it meant saying yes to the grace and call to love, an exodus out of the slavery of sin and thus a liberating movement of coming out of oneself. The freedom being offered the prisoners was not a liberty the world could ever grant but the interior freedom of the spirit which can only come through healing mercy of love. The freedom to forgive the prisoners also allowed the family members to set their hearts free from the prison of unforgiveness. Jesus continuously leads us beyond our selves, in order to free us from every enslavement, breaking down our sinful habits and our indifference, and offering the joy of communion with Him and with our brothers and sisters.

We concluded the trip with a visit to a new Franciscan parish which has a large impressive San Damiano cross hanging above the altar. We were told it was drawn by a gifted artist named Janvier who is in prison for crimes during the Genocide. Out of the darkness, light. It was just another example of God shining His Light in the darkness to comfort and encourage us.

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