I’ve always had an interest in history—really more in people’s stories, strictly on a hobbyist level. I was never passionate enough about studying it to do it formally, but I do find joy in knowing where other cultures, populations, and people have come from. To me, a person’s story reveals so much about who God made them to be and what He’s doing to weave their days into His magnificent plan for the world. History demonstrates a viewpoint in which we can see what has already happened, and hopefully glean wisdom in how to live in our present hours. Sometimes, though, in studying these stories in history, we uncover accounts of tragedy and heartache. Unfortunately, often our history books paint entire timelines based on wars and tragedy.
I remember when I first read the story of Anne Frank and learned intensely about the Jewish Holocaust and World War II and all the devastation that was left in its wake. It was horrific, heartbreaking, and I remember wondering how such a thing could have happened to so many people. Over six million Jews and five million non-Jewish victims were needlessly murdered over the course of four years. When we even attempt to digest those staggering numbers, it’s unfathomable. And yet, it was generations ago. I was not alive during this particular human persecution; I can only learn about it from books, movies, and reports. Still, all these years later, I beg the question, “How could something so horrifying happen and no one do anything to stop it?” How could an entire generation fall victim to a worldview that allows them to see the systematic killings and oppression as “other.” Obviously there are so many more complexities that go into this time in history, but still my mind wanders and wonders—would I have been a voice for the sufferers?
Fast forward to my studies in college and graduate school when I knew I wanted to live in an African context and be hands and feet in alleviating poverty and suffering. Whenever we had research projects or papers I would always choose an African country to focus my studies. For one of those projects I chose to study Rwanda. I had heard of Rwanda and the genocide and the suffering a whole generation faced, but I was entirely ignorant to the true reality of all that those words and stories entailed. Even after all my research, I was able to dismiss the war as “other” because I was too young to have known, even as my heart begged the question again, “How could anyone let this happen?”
Once we arrived here in Rwanda, I had no idea that my framework for understanding the genocide was far too lacking and left much to be desired if I was going to begin to understand the history of this country we now call home. For those of you that don’t know, Rwanda is a very small country in Eastern Africa that has faced many versions of tribal (really ethnic and racial; the word tribal doesn’t really translate this type of discrimination sufficiently in our Western context) unrest and warfare. A country that was first occupied by the Germans and then Belgium until independence in 1962, Rwanda has had many broken parts in her history. For a full picture of how the entire story culminates into the Genocide of 1994, go read the Wikipedia page, or better yet, check out a whole book on the subject. The colonization of African countries and the turmoil of tribes and governments are all worth being educated about.
In 1990, a civil war between the Hutu government and the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front broke out. After the Hutu president was killed in early April 1994, the massacres of Tutsi people and Hutu moderates began. Over the course of 100 days, an estimated 1 million people were murdered. This was not systematic, but brutal neighbor-to-neighbor killing. Overnight, an entire people group went from living life among their Hutu counterparts, to being hunted by their friends. Tutsis that were lucky enough to find favor with a Hutu hid for their lives in bathrooms and forests and hidden rooms for months until the killings subsided and the RPF gained control.
I do not describe it this way to be crass or provoke distress, but to help you to understand, in a way that I did not, how gruesome and shocking the story really is. And this was not many decades ago, but here in my lifetime. An entire people group, young and old, was targeted for the tribal name on their identity cards and discriminatory (and inaccurate) physical markers such as height or facial structure. Crimes against humanity such as these should be old history, something we read about happening long ago, when we didn’t have the resources to know what was going on. Again, I don’t pretend these situations are simple, but I do believe they beg our attention.
After recently reading the book Left to Tell, written by a miraculous survivor of the genocide, Immaculee Ilibagiza (*HIGHLY recommend*), I saw this part of Rwanda’s history come to life in a young woman’s story. Her story brought to light for me how inhumane and graphic this event in history was, and showed how astonishing that an entire [modern] world stood by as it happened. These are heavy realities to face, but where were we when an entire people group suffered at the hand of evil? An entire generation of Hutus was trained through systematic biases to value Tutsis as less than, to the point of slaughter. This war did not start in a day or even years, but over decades of racial and ethnic discrimination through school systems, government policies, and generational sin.
Where in our lives, in our world today, are atrocities happening that beg our attention but we have turned a blind eye? What systems in the United States are breeding discriminatory policies and circumstances that are keeping entire people groups from being valued as equal to all? (If you don’t see it, I promise it’s there, educate yourself). What global wars and tragedies are entire cultures or ethnicities or religions facing in our world that we as Christians and as those who live in abundance are being begged to participate in? How can we be agents for change? How can we be a voice to the voiceless? Where can we step in to bring justice, to be defenders of all of God’s children? Where do we need to lend a listening ear?
All of us, no matter our stage of life or income or political party or race or physical location are called to be a part of the redemption of the vulnerable. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in love and in justice. I firmly believe we can all be agents for change right where God has placed us. By God’s grace and guidance, this concept has been a common thread throughout the last few years of my life: whether it’s sharing love and teaching value to a bunch of high school teenage girls through YoungLife, attending our church in Birmingham that stands for racial reconciliation in our city, working in a children’s hospital with the most incredible group of kids and adults with Spina Bifida, or moving to Rwanda to continue the story that God has set in motion for Chase and me. Who is vulnerable in your world, who can we stand for? Research, read, talk and listen to people that are different than you. Learn where it is that we can be an influence, so that as we teach our children and their children history from a story or a textbook, we can stand confidently and say that such atrocities did not go unnoticed and evil did not reign unchecked.
Ultimately, our Savior has the victory and the most beautiful part of Immaculee’s story is her constant, unwavering faith in the Lord her Father to care for her and protect her. She preaches a story of forgiveness and justice, one of trust with action. Our God is so much greater than our weakness, failings, and the sin in this world. But what are we doing to be a part of His story; how are we allowing Him to weave our stories into his master plan for reconciliation and redemption? When we look back, what stories will have been written in our generation’s history chapters?
***One current global crisis that weighs heavy on my heart always is that of refugees from Syria and Iraq as the tensions still rise and war rages against militant groups like ISIS. How can we be a part of ensuring massacres of the vulnerable do not continue in our world? Check out the documentary on Netflix, The White Helmets to educate yourself. Follow Preemptive Love Coalition on Instagram to see what an awesome organization is doing on the ground (particularly in Iraq as forces invade Mosul) and check out World Relief’s “Act” tab on their website for tangible things you can do to stand with the vulnerable.