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The Gospel really does shine brightest in the darkest places!

In just 100 days, more than 1,000,000 people were murdered. But the genocidaires did not kill a million people. They killed one, then another, then another … day after day, hour after hour, minute by minute. Every minute of the day, someone, somewhere was being murdered, screaming for mercy. Receiving none. And the killing went on and on and on …
10,000 each day.
400 each hour.
7 each minute.

April to July 1994 in Rwanda: The genocide resulted in the deaths of over a million people.

People seeking sanctuary in churches were trapped. Killers threw grenades into the buildings, then used machetes and clubs to kill the survivors. In one case, a church still full of people seeking refuge was bulldozed while the people were locked inside. Children were specifically targeted and gruesomely murdered in front of their parents. But death was not the only outcome. Tens of thousands were tortured, mutilated and raped. Many were intentionally infected with HIV/AIDS by those known to carry the virus. 300,000 children were orphaned. Thousands were widowed. The streets were littered with corpses where dogs and buzzards ate their rotting flesh.

Try to imagine living in a country where everyone was involved as a victim or as a survivor, injured, infected or as a killer … traumatized.

Neighbors, friends and relatives all suffering in these ways. Neighbors, friends and relatives were the very people who did these atrocious things to your family. Then you see these same neighbors, friends and relatives every day because they live in your community, work in the same fields and attend your church! How can you exist with them, let alone reconcile with them?

In Rwanda April 7 was recognized as Genocide Memorial Day, beginning an annual week of mourning to remember this part of their history. 2019 was the 25th anniversary.

Can the Gospel penetrate such darkness?!? YES!!

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.1 Peter 2:24

Ted Kober and I arrived back home from Rwanda in early April and are still processing all that we experienced there. It was simply … awesome! The stories of forgiveness and reconciliation were evident all week and it's my privilege to share a few of them with you. We posted many pictures and videos to our Facebook page.

The government of Rwanda has done an amazing job rebuilding the country, community and culture since the genocide. The capital city of Kigali has been completely rebuilt. Infrastructure was quite remarkable with new roads and internet and phone connectivity, even in remote areas. They have also invested heavily in providing reconciliation training for their people. In the 25 years since the genocide, the government, NGOs and churches have provided countless seminars, programs and even primary-school curricula to teach the virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation. We found much to admire about these programs, which have made the words "forgiveness" and "reconciliation" ubiquitous in their everyday language. But something is missing.

Our Rwanda story began a few months ago, when AoR was contacted by Rev. Shauen Trump, Area Director—Eastern and Southern Africa, LCMS Office of International Mission, who was seeking "trauma counseling training" for pastors of Lutheran Mission in Africa—Synod of Thousand Hills (LMA-STH), a new church body in Rwanda. Bishop Seburikoko of that church body has been active with many of the national reconciliation programs over the years, but recognized something was missing. His pastors, still struggling with the genocide themselves, were feeling ill-equipped to help their parishioners with the trauma of the genocide all these years later. While we don't describe AoR's training as “trauma counseling training,” it was determined that our focus on our identity in Christ, the proclamation of the Gospel and forgiveness was just what they needed. So we prepared an abbreviated version of two of our most popular seminars, “Go and Be Reconciled: What Does this Mean?” and “Coaching People through Conflict” to be translated into Kinyarwanda.

On our first day in Rwanda, we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial with Bishop Seburikoko. It was a somber time of reflection on what happened 25 years ago. While we had studied Rwanda and the genocide extensively before our trip, the memorial made this atrocity all the more real. The quote at the beginning of this article was on a plaque at this memorial. While strolling the grounds outside the memorial I had the chance to ask Bishop if this visit was still difficult for him. “Yes,” he said, “I was away in another country at the time of the genocide and my family members were killed. I never found them when I returned.”

Our second day allowed us to meet with several pastors and lay leaders of Lutheran Mission in Africa—Synod of Thousand Hills. Our purpose was to get personally acquainted but also to hear from them first-hand about the kinds of issues with which the people of Rwanda still struggle. The list of questions and concerns surprised us even though we had tried to prepare ourselves ahead of time. Their questions included:

  • How can a pastor help to heal others when he himself is wounded and hurting?
  • What should you do if one person is ready to forgive but another does not want forgiveness or is unwilling to reconcile?
  • If you were the only one of eight family members who survived, should you continue to grieve their loss? If you move on, some will judge you for forgetting your family. If you do not, you are also judged for not moving on. What should the Christian do?
  • If you knew someone who killed your family, how can you ignore who you are and who he is? (This relates to their ethnic background.) How can two people who were friends, but from different ethnic backgrounds, do such things to one another?
  • If you were born to a mother since the genocide, but you do not know your father because your mother was raped in the genocide, and you ask about your father but your mother cannot answer because to tell you would bring back too many memories, how do you reconcile who you are? How do you relate to your mother?
  • If you were a perpetrator and have been released from prison, what do you do if you and your wife had three children before the genocide, but now more than 20 years later, your wife has since had three other children? How do you treat your wife or her other children? What if the six children are divided — three and three against each other?
  • Young people (under age 25) may not commit suicide, but they take on dangerous life-threatening habits that risk their lives. Some from the next generation (ages 25 to 50) commit suicide in order to stop the pain of the past. What can a pastor do for those who attempt suicide or take on life-threatening habits?
  • A man who killed people during the genocide fled the country into exile soon afterward so he escaped authorities and prosecution. He has now returned to Rwanda and continues to hurt people. I know I should forgive him because the Bible says so. But can I forgive him and still report him to authorities? What is a Christian to do?
  • A pastor who is married, fathered a child through an adulterous affair. Are we to forgive him? Her? Who is obligated to care for this child? Are there consequences? As Christians, how do we navigate this?
  • A genocide perpetrator comes to me, a pastor, to confess his sin of multiple murders in the genocide. Do I forgive him? Do I report him to authorities? What should I do?

Can the Gospel penetrate such darkness?!? YES!!

For our sake He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.2 Corinthians 5:21

These are just a sampling of the questions we received. Some were asked prior to the training and others were asked during the training as the people wrestled with God's Word. Each time, we reminded them who they are in Christ: redeemed children of God. Then we modeled for them how to ask the question, “Does the Bible have anything to say about this?” We began applying scripture to these issues even before class began. As a result, several of the lay leaders in the group that second day asked if they could be included in the training that week. Unfortunately, due to space limitations, the Bishop had to decline their request. That, he said, “will be an opportunity for another visit.”

On Sunday, our third day in Rwanda, we drove two hours to worship at a church near the border with Tanzania. They were awaiting our arrival and lined the road, dancing and singing as we approached. As we got out of the car, they continued their exuberant welcome. The church building was a simple mud and brick structure with a steel roof and concrete floor, common for the area. There was no lighting inside, although electricity was available to power a microphone for the preacher. 250 people packed in for worship that day, and the service lasted almost three hours. All music was a cappella—and quite beautiful. While the service was in Kinyarwanda, they followed a Swahili liturgy so we were able to recognize common elements of the service such as the Creed, the Lord's Prayer and the Benediction. They had plenty of parking since we were the only ones to arrive in a vehicle. Everyone else walked to church. In some cases they had walked miles dressed in their Sunday best and carrying their bibles to attend the service. It was a joy to share this experience with these brothers and sisters in Christ!

Monday our team prepared for teaching. We had originally planned for the training to start on Monday, but learned upon our arrival the group wouldn't be assembled until Tuesday. We were flexible and adjusted our teaching content to fit the time allotted. We had two missionaries with us. Rev. Dr. Mark Rabe is the Theological Education Coordinator for the East Africa Region and teaches at Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was instrumental in our preparation and coordination with Bishop Seburikoko for this event. Also with us was Megan Mantey, a missionary who is an Instructor of Christian Education and Counseling at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Jinja, Uganda. She is an experienced trauma counselor and she was very helpful as we responded to these sensitive matters. We were grateful for the extra day of preparation as it gave us opportunity to fine-tune the translated materials before printing them for class.

The training “facility,” a tent in the yard of one of the church members, was a short ten-minute walk from our guesthouse. The morning and evening walk to and from the training was always enjoyable. The training space worked remarkably well for everyone. Sure, we had the occasional rain-delay, but most of the time the temperature was comfortable. We began each day with worship led by one of the pastors in our group. And each worship time, and several times throughout the day, the group would begin dancing and singing. We thoroughly enjoyed it each time!

At the beginning of our first day of teaching, three people gave personal, first-hand testimonies of their genocide experience. While we had completed extensive study ahead of our trip, then visited the Genocide Memorial and had already heard several people inquire as to how to respond to present-day challenges, we weren't fully prepared to hear these first-hand accounts. Viewing testimonies on YouTube or behind glass in a memorial affords you a certain distance. These people were standing before us, brothers and sisters in Christ sharing the unthinkable.

One man described how, as a twelve year old, he came home to find his family all dead. Upon hearing the militia returning, he hid himself among the corpses and covered himself with their blood to hide. He is now a full-time church worker.

Another man described his role of pulling children and families from their homes and presenting them to soldiers, who would kill them. He was sent to prison and has now been released.

A woman described how she and her younger sister were the only survivors in their entire extended family. They have no one to call family. This was her first time sharing her story publicly and it was noticeably difficult for her. When she married, it would be customary for her to include her parents in the ceremony. She wasn't able to do that, so the Bishop Seburikoko and his wife were her surrogate parents at her wedding. She had never thanked the bishop before, so she took this opportunity to do so. He was translating her testimony for us and it was evident he was taken aback by what she was saying. We don't know exactly what she said, as he was choked up and weeping. We trust it was a tender moment between them.

After hearing their stories, we needed to take a break before we could begin our teaching. We hadn't said a word yet, but we were spent.

We began our teaching with a question: “What would you like to learn in our time together?” We heard later that beginning this way was surprising to them. However we learned much about how we would be able to best serve them. They listed a number of areas where they hoped to learn more. We summarized them as:

  • Forgiveness
  • Consequences
  • Reconciliation
  • Trusting neighbors

Just as we had printed materials translated into Kinyarwanda, all of our teaching was similarly translated. The Bishop translated some of the teaching but other times Lillian translated for Ted while Fred translated for me. In addition to the translated AoR materials, our missionary friends also provided each participant with a copy of Luther's Small Catechism translated into Kinyarwanda. Interspersed with our lecture, we had them collect into small groups to look up passages in the Bible and apply what they read to the questions and case studies. Then we asked one person from each small-group to report back to the larger group. We soon learned to plan plenty of time for this part of the teaching as all groups were eager to share what they discussed.

Our time there wasn't just about teaching the group. People would often ask questions that indicated to us they had significant issues with which they still struggled. In those cases, we would seek them out and coach them during a break. Of course we'd have to do that through a translator! One man told the group that the instructors were like “doctors'” who came to give them medicine; “I feel healed!” Ted would tell you that he never fully understood the issue this man was expressing but that he was clearly hurting. Ted proclaimed God's forgiveness and offered to pray for him. Medicine, indeed.

The last day of teaching was reserved for an exercise where each person had the opportunity to coach a fellow student through a real-life struggle. We separated into two main groups; men and women. Then, within those groups, we asked them to self-select into trios. Each person had opportunity to be a coach, to be coached and to observe a coaching appointment. We couldn't understand what the groups were saying, so we asked our translators to lean in for a bit and describe what they heard. It was fascinating. The men were all discussing issues of land disputes, arguments with neighbors and business issues. The women? They were all discussing marriage and family issues. Some things just transcend culture.

After this exercise we asked them to reflect on what they learned. Here is what they told us:

  • Many accounts of personal healing and gratitude for proclaiming God's forgiveness to them.
  • Remembering whose we are in Christ.
  • Learned how to proclaim God's forgiveness using the Bible.
  • Learned how to apply the Ten Commandments.
  • Know how to forgive as God has forgiven us.
  • Learned that forgiveness does not necessarily remove earthly consequences.
  • The importance of listening and asking questions.

Remember how we started? We asked what they wanted to learn. We were pleased to see so much overlap in their answers. We closed the seminar with one final question: “How will you apply what you've learned when you go back home?” We were amazed at how God used this time to impact His people.

We wish to thank everyone who made this mission possible through their prayers and financial support. We are grateful to the LCMS Office of International Mission for recognizing this need and extending to us the invitation. The LCMS also provided over half of the required funding needed for this trip. Additionally, there are many congregations and individuals that supported this mission both financially and through prayer support. Thank you!

Bishop Seburikoko asked me to share this with everyone who made this possible: “We experienced love and the hand of God, touching our wounds, pains and past bad memories, into the new proclaimed forgiveness to us, and therefore new life and ministry in the finished work of our Lord Jesus Christ ... Your presence in Rwanda meant more than anybody could explain. Thank you so much.”

Both Ted and I were humbled to have had this opportunity and praise God for His many blessings while there. Because of your support, this young church body has a foundation of reconciliation in its leaders. Please continue to hold LMA—STH in your prayers. Satan would like nothing more than to thwart the progress of the Gospel in this place. These people are no doubt already experiencing his efforts. But fear not! Jesus has conquered Satan and all his unscrupulous ways …

Because the Gospel shines brightest in the darkest places!

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.2 Corinthians 5:17

All of the warm, loving, joyful people we met are people touched by the Gospel and praising God for His many extraordinary gifts. Most especially for the gift of His Son Jesus, through whom we have forgiveness of our sins and life eternally together. Amen!

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.Romans 15:5-6, 13

Former Saint John’s member Dwight Schettler is President of Ambassadors of Reconciliation, an international ministry founded to help Christians and their churches in carrying out their peacemaking responsibilities as Christ’s Ambassadors. You can find much more about their work at