Kelsie Harriman: Where Was God? The Horror at St. Famille

There is a Catholic church in Kigali, Rwanda called St. Famille. It is a large structure made of red bricks that stands on a hill overlooking the city of Kigali. Today, the church is well-known and widely used by locals; mass is held in St. Famille every weekday morning at 6:45am, as well as three times each Sunday.

St. Famille is also one of the many Rwandan churches that became a site of human slaughter in 1994. During Rwanda’s Genocide, people would often seek refuge in the country’s churches in that hopes that the House of God would protect from the hell that was unfolding outside.  Often, though, these churches were not a place of sanctuary, but of massacre. There are numerous documented accounts of priests who offered refuge to people in their parish, only later allow or to orchestrate the slaughter of the innocent people whom they had lured inside. Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, the vicar of St. Famille during the Genocide, was one such priest. He is said to have openly commanded the Interahamwe militia to kill the Tutsi in his church, and he has been accused of actively participating in the rape of women and girls within the halls of his parish.

After the Genocide, Munyeshyake was charged with genocide, complicity in genocide, torture, ill-treatment and inhuman and degrading acts and sentenced in absentia to life in prison by the Rwandan Military Court in 2006 (The Hague). However, his case was later referred to a criminal tribunal in France, which dropped all charges against Munyeshyaka in 2015. Munyeshyake is now a free man, and he actively serves as a priest of two parishes in France.

It was with the horror of this injustice that I entered St. Famille for the first time this weekend. Munyeshyake – and the countless other “religious leaders” who participated in the Genocide – claimed to worship the same God that I do. Who is this God, and where was He when His priests were raping and killing innocent people in His name? What happened to the God of the blameless Rwandan, the God that I worship, the God of redemption and love who is described in Isiah  63?

In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; and He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

I am sure, at least,  of where my God was not. He was not in heart of Munyeshyake, or of the perpetrators who lost themselves in slaughter of the innocent people in St. Famille in 1994. He was not in the wood and the stone and the nails that compose the “Holy House” that became a place of carnage. He was not in the extravagant robes and the drapes and the ornate decorations that today give St. Famille a sense of majesty.

IMG_4768When I was standing in St. Famille, I saw my God in only one place: the crucifix behind the center alter. I saw  my God only in the suffering Jesus who looks over the sanctuary at St. Famille and bore witness to every rape and murder that occurred in the church in 1994. In those days, my God was in the Jesus  who cried out as he died on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I am sorrowfully silent about where the Angel of His presence described Isaiah 63 was during the Rwandan Genocide. It certainly seems that he was not around in the summer of 1994 to redeem the one million people who were killed by their priests, their friends, and their neighbors.

Hence, I cannot speak to the reason for this Angel’s absence in 1994, but I can speak on behalf of a Jesus who hung on the cross two thousand years before. That Jesus suffered, bled, and died alongside every Rwandan who was killed in the Genocide.

When I stood in St. Famille and pondered the horrors that took place inside, I could not speak, I could not think, and I could not offer explanation. All I could do is point to the image of the dying Jesus behind the center alter, and tell myself that somehow, someway, while my brothers and sisters were suffering inside of St. Famille in 1994, my God was in Jesus, hanging on across, and suffering too.

A suffering Jesus is only half the story, however, and a tragedy such as the Rwandan Genocide makes me  yearn even more desperately for the day when the Angel of His Presence will return to finish the tale by making right all the the world’s evils. Until then, however, we must wait patiently in our suffering, but not without hope – for we have been promised a day when we will be carried by that Angel to a place where pain will touch us no longer.



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