Emma Catranis / Gavel Media

Rwandan Jesuit Demonstrates the Power of Forgiveness

Forgiveness leads to freedom.

Rev. Marcel Uwineza, S.J., opened his talk at last Tuesday’s Agape Latte series with these simple words, telling students that if they remembered nothing else from the evening, it was important that they remember these words.

Though students did not yet realize the depth of Uwineza’s words, he had already captivated most with his warm tone and friendly countenance. A Rwandan native, he introduced himself as a Jesuit priest and graduate student in Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry.

Uwineza is a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide, a mass slaughter of the Tutsi ethnic group by the Hutus, the majority ethnic group in Rwanda. He outlined his family’s struggle to stay alive, as well as the turmoil felt when news broke that his father and three siblings had died in the genocide. Fortuitously for Uwineza, his mother, and two brothers, they met several kind-hearted Hutus willing to risk personal harm and death for Uwineza's family's safety.

Joseph Kaber was one of these Hutus who hid Uwineza, his mother, and his siblings in a beehive compound. Kaber brought food out to them at three in the morning to avoid arousing the suspicions of neighbors. Uwineza explained how even in one family, some participated in the killings, while others were vehemently opposed to it.

This same dichotomy appeared within the Catholic Church in Rwanda. Uwineza described a time when he and his family arrived at the doorstep of a parish, desperately looking for shelter.

The priest looked at his mother and spat, “I have no place for Tutsis here.” His mother asked what kind of man of the Church would turn away those seeking shelter, and in response, the priest ordered the watchman to lock the doors.

Shortly after this interaction, Uwineza and his family were on a bus to a cathedral when the bus was stopped. They were told that they could only continue if they had Hutu identity cards, which none of them possessed. A seemingly dangerous and volatile impasse, the Uwinezas and the other Tutsis on the bus were saved when the local priest came out and paid for the bus’ passage. The same priest then housed the Uwinezas in the cathedral until the end of the genocide.

Having never been treated for a vicious beating by Hutu citizens, Uwineza’s mother died shortly after the genocide ended. Uwineza also learned that two of his brothers and his sister had died after being separated during the slaughter. For a while, Uwineza was unable to bring himself to attend Church, but he finally began praying again and found that it helped him deal with the pain.

After a few years, he immersed himself in Jesuit teachings and quickly joined the order. Though he has now embraced the Catholic Church and its mission, Uwineza quickly pointed out that that was not always the case. He remarked that he hated the Church during and after the genocide, only reconciling with it through prayer. As a small boy, he did wish to become a priest, but he suspects he did not know the gravity of his vocation at the time of this wish.

Occupied by his new vocation as a Jesuit priest, Uwineza was in Rwanda when he learned that the man who had killed his two brothers and sister was living as a free man in the same town.

When the two met, the man begged for forgiveness, laying himself down before Uwineza. Forgiving him, Uwineza embraced the man and they even went out to the bar afterwards just to share a few drinks and talk. Cognizant of people who say he forgave a man undeserving of forgiveness, Uwineza reaffirmed that forgiving the man “freed him” and removed so much of the hate that had once consumed him.

Bringing his talk full circle, Uwineza exemplified exactly how forgiveness leads to freedom.

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