The garden bench just outside the Rwandan Genocide Museum and Memorial sits in a well-manicured lawn overlooking this striking central African city. But the large concrete pads still loom just beyond the attractive flower gardens. Buried underneath them are the remains of over 250,000 men, women, and children who were massacred during the one hundred days of terror back in 1994 when almost 1 million people were murdered. Our guide told us that next month the remains of another 30,000 people will be buried here alongside the others.
While sitting on the bench, waiting for others in our group to exit the memorial, I was talking with my South African friend and within a few minutes the topic of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee ‘blade runner’ Olympian came up. We reflected how quick society is to use the term ‘hero’ when describing people with exceptional physical ability and how disappointed we all are when they are caught lying about using illegal steroids, or arrested for one thing or another.
Then, there are real heroes.
Pastor Ernest Ruyenzi is one of my heroes. As a denominational leader in Rwanda, he is well respected throughout his country and has access and influence into the highest levels of their government. But, in spite of his notoriety, and his large frame, he is a soft-spoken, gentle man who has, quite literally, been to hell and back and never lost his faith.
During the Genocide in Rwanda, Ernest was sought out by the killing squads for hiding Tutsi parishoners and for refusing to expose their whereabouts. (Ernest truly is a modern-day Corrie Ten Boom) On three separate occasions, he was moments from being executed when seemingly supernatural events prevented his attackers from killing him.
They ended up inside the Hotel des Mille Colline, the infamous “Hotel Rwanda,” and eventually outside troops came and stopped the bloodshed. The aftermath was equally gruesome. How do you remove almost 1 million decomposing bodies in a small country and not be emotionally crippled for life? Even as life returned to a new normal in Rwanda, hatred, fear, bitterness, and understandable mistrust filled everyone’s heart.
AFMIN came to Rwanda just a few years after the genocide. For the first time, pastors from ‘opposing’ tribes came together in a way that other organizations seemed unable to facilitate. It was in one of those meetings I met Pastor Ernest and his dear wife, Martha.
After a week of teaching 350 Rwandan pastors, Ernest invited me to a meal at their house the evening before my flight home. I remember it well – the rain was pounding down on the poorly paved streets and the inside windows of our car were almost completely fogged up. I had thought it was a private meal, but was surprised when I came inside and found about 25 of the pastors I had met throughout the week during our training.
Through an interpreter, Pastor Ernest explained that he had felt compelled to reach out to these other leaders – all from different ‘warring’ tribes and groups, and have a night of reconciliation. One by one they shared unbelievable stories of horror and heartache, yet each ended with stories of redemption and grace. One Congolese pastor remarked, “after seeing what [a particular tribal militia] had done to my family, I never thought I would be in a home with people from those tribes.” Tears flowed and I was asked to make closing remarks and prayer.
That evening was over 10 years ago and it remains to this day one of the most remarkable moments in my life. Linda and I were blessed to have Ernest and Martha at our home a couple years ago to meet some of our friends. I was blessed yesterday to greet my dear friends in their country again. There is peace in Rwanda, but at times you can sense that it is both shallow and vulnerable. But when I look into my friend’s eyes and see the peace of God abiding in him, I am reminded of what true heroes look like.