In a large open area of a Rwandan prison, Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana spoke to a crowd of killers responsible for the 1994 genocide. “Close your eyes,” he instructed them. “Go back in your mind to 1994. What did you see?” he asked. “What did you smell? What did you hear?”
Many in the crowd began to weep. He told the men to see their victims’ faces. The sobs grew louder. “Now,” said Bishop John, “that which made you cry, that you must confess.”
It’s amazing enough that Bishop John, himself a Tutsi, would speak to the Hutu perpetrators of the genocide. It’s even more amazing when you consider that John’s own niece, Madu, was brutally raped and killed during the genocide. But Bishop John had a reason to reach out to these men in compassion-for he, too, had found forgiveness of his sins through Jesus Christ.
That compassion to love his would-be enemies is just one of the many reasons why we recently awarded Bishop John Rucyahana the William Wilberforce Award.
We present the award every year to a person who makes a difference in the face of formidable societal problems and injustices, no matter the opposition. Former recipients include people like Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission; Benigno Aquino, the Philippine hero; Baroness Carolyn Cox; and Senator Sam Brownback. These are men and women who, as executive director of the Center for Justice and Reconciliation Dan Van Ness says, “challenge our comfortable assumptions.”
Bishop John’s faith does indeed challenge me. He found Christ while growing up as an exile from his native Rwanda. He puts it better than I’ve ever heard before: “I did not accept Jesus. Jesus graciously met me and accepted me.” This is a man who understands how we come empty-handed to Christ.
At a time when John wanted to pursue a degree, God led him and his wife, Beatrice, to start a school for 170 refugee children in Uganda. Today, some of those grown children serve in key posts in Rwanda.
Studying in the States during the 1994 genocide, Bishop John wanted desperately to go back to the ministry he had left behind in Uganda. But instead, he responded to God’s call to face the darkness by going back to his homeland-returning to Rwanda, finding bones bleached white by the sun littering the streets, open graves fouling the air. Still, Bishop John worked with others to establish Prison Fellowship Rwanda.
He helped start the Umuvumu Tree Project, which has brought together tens of thousands of perpetrators and victims of the genocide, offering offenders the opportunity to confess their crimes and victims the chance to forgive. Many have done so.
I wish I had time to share all the ways that Bishop John’s faith challenges our own. In addition to his work in Rwanda, he played a key role in founding the Anglican Mission in America. He encourages American Christians to be unashamed missionaries to their own society, reconciling their neighbors to Christ. Imagine, African missionaries to us-yes, we need them.
But most of all, Bishop John is a shining example of what it means to love our enemies-and to overcome evil with good.