Yesterday I put on my custom-made Rwandan dress and I went to church – yes, I said church. Faith is a huge component of restoring the rhythm of life here in the Village and until yesterday, I was not ready to face it up close and personal, in a formal setting. My faith has certainly been tested in the past, and although it was shaken to its foundation in July 2011, I never fully abandoned it, even during the darkest hours of my grief. I am not a religious person, but I am spiritual and there have been only a handful of days during my life when I have gone to sleep without praying and having some kind of faith.
When I left my life back in the States to move to Rwanda for the year, a dear friend (and Rabbi) whom I leaned on quite a bit during my “questioning God” phase of grief put forward a statement as I readied to say goodbye to him. He said that maybe my time away in Rwanda would somehow bring me closer to my faith, thus providing me with more answers than questions, and more comfort than pain. I remember raising my eyebrows at his notion and sort of shrugging it off while skeptically saying, “maybe?” Nearly one year later, I am starting to see his point and beginning to think that he was on to something when he spoke those words to me. He is a Rabbi after all, and I suppose I never should have doubted him in the first place :)
Something Rwanda and this Village (and the church service yesterday morning) advocates is forgiveness. It is spoken of at length, and there have been many times during this year that I have had to remove myself from discussions about forgiveness because I can’t help but think about my own struggle when it comes to how I think about and judge the girl who killed my brother. I listen to accounts from students in the Village who have chosen to forgive their parents’ and siblings’ murderers, the people who decimated entire generations of their families and caused them to be deemed orphans, people who caused them unimaginable terror and trauma. I shake my head in disbelief and amazement at their ability to forgive. Maybe it is something they need to do in order to focus on their future and not dwell on their past. Maybe they are more resilient than I am. Maybe they are more kind-hearted than I am. Maybe they have just had more time to come to terms with the hurt. Being surrounded by a forgiving culture has impacted me and made me reflect quite a bit about forgiveness, however I am not ready to forgive, and quite honestly I don’t think I will ever be in a place where I will feel the need or ability to exonerate the girl who took my brother’s life. I have never been one to easily, or ever forgive those who have wronged me, caused me pain, or shaken me to the core, and I am ok with that. I don’t dwell on many personal attacks that have been inflicted upon me and therefore I see no reason to forgive those people. I simply write them out of my life and move forward. The girl who killed my brother is different. She indirectly hurt me by hurting my brother. She injured me in such a way that I will forever be a different person. I will evermore be broken in some small way, and incomplete without my brother in my life. She caused irreparable and irreversible damage to this world, and there is no part of me that has any inkling of forgiveness for her.
Although the church service yesterday morning didn’t change my stance on forgiveness, it did fill me with a heightened sense of hope, love, and joy. The service lasted 3 hours, with the first 2 hours being filled mostly with songs of worship and praise. Nearly 100 of us were seated on the balcony of the dining hall, overlooking the Village and the surrounding hills and valleys as a gentle breeze blew through the open-air space. Each time the students sang, goose bumps appeared on my arms and I was filled with a strong sense of something thrilling and delightful. The songs were sung with so much passion and heart. The entire congregation was standing as people stomped their feet, clapped their hands, raised their arms in praise and swayed to the wonderful African rhythms. It was absolutely glorious! I couldn’t stop myself from smiling and clapping along as I watched the students come alive and release themselves through the power of song. These same students are the ones I see sitting at lunch after 6 hours of school, looking so preoccupied and absorbed by stress and strife and the weight of the world. In church these kids were liberated and uninhibited and danced, danced, danced to thank God for all that He (Rwandans strongly believe that God is a man) has given them.
The final hour was devoted to sermons, words of thanks by individual students, and a rousing song during the “offerings” period where students came forward with small monetary donations and placed the coins in the offering basket. The contribution that each student brought forward should make you pause – remember that these students are THE most vulnerable youth in Rwanda, a country with a staggering percentage of people living in poverty, and here they were giving an offering to the church. It was moving, to say the least.
One of the Village Directors always advocates for students to believe in a higher power. He doesn’t insist on them believing in God or going to church, or having a religion, but he encourages them to have faith. He reminds them that they are each in the Village for a very specific reason and it is not by chance that they were selected. They are THE chosen students, 500 in total, out of a country of millions of orphans. Each day I look around at these chosen students and can’t help but think that I too was chosen to spend a year of my life at Agahozo. Looking back over my time here in the Village, I can confidently say that I would not have progressed the way I have through my grief without Agahozo-Shalom, the work that I have committed myself to doing, and the people who surround me each day. I am leaving this experience in two weeks more confident in my skin, more sure of who I am, more passionate about life, more compassionate and understanding with people, and more patient, loving, and trusting. In a way, I have found a new inspiration for living. I think I have the kids of Agahozo to thank for that transformation, along with the friends I have made here, but I also think I have to have a little faith that somebody up above had something to do with it as well.