Monday, June 20, 2011


by Heidi Janss
Yesterday was Sunday and we felt like we've come full circle, spending our morning at church.  Last Sunday, we were hesitant, holding back and watching, not knowing what to expect.  This Sunday, we entered the church much more at home and easily took our place, joining in the singing.  We were at the English service which, while similar in format to the Kinyarwandan service, was much smaller, kind of like the 7:30 service at Faith.  One of the hymns we sang was "Lift Your Name on High."  How wonderful to sing a song we knew!  Keep in mind, when you sing a hymn at a Rwandese church, you sing it over and over again.  We lifted God's name on high about 20 times.  It would be a stretch at Faith to repeat the hymn three times.  Maybe we should try it once.

After the English service, we stayed for the music part of the Kinyarwandan service.  They spend about 45 minutes singing and praying to prepare for the sermon.  I don't know if we've told you this, but the name of the church is Eglise Vivante de Jesus Christ (The Living Church of Jesus Christ), and the congregation lives up to its name.  They sing loudly, they pray out loud individually but all at once, they dance with joy, and even lift their chairs up over their heads to show the glory of God.

In the afternoon, we visited two church memorials that commemorate the genocide.  These types of memorials dot the countryside.  In past genocides, the persecuted sought refuge in the Catholic churches.  As long as they could reach the church, they were safe.  In 1994, this could not be further from the truth.  As the people packed into the church, they were easy targets for the bullets, grenades, machetes and clubs.

The first church we visited was Ntarama, a Catholic church where 5,000 Tutsis were killed.  The memorial consisted of four buildings:  two houses, the chapel and the Sunday School room.  We walked into the chapel and saw skulls and bones stacked on shelves, clothing piled around the room, and personal belongings, even the water jugs we carried last Thursday.  In the front of the chapel, there were coffins that contained bones just discovered this year.  The Rwandese fully expect to continue to find bodies and will honor them by placing them in coffins in the memorial before burying them.  We also saw a pile of weapons used by the Interhawme: the machete, the club, the spear, the hatchet.  It sickened us to hear that as the French trained the Hutu militia they gave them hatchets as gifts.  They also ordered thousands of machetes from the Chinese.  We left the chapel and went to the priest's house/room where we saw the remains of burnt mattresses and walls covered in soot.  In this room, many were burnt alive. Those that were able to survive the fire were shot.  The last building was the hardest.  Thousands of children were murdered in the Sunday School room.  We knew that the genocidares killed the babies by throwing them against the wall.  Seeing the blood stains that remain on the brick...we have no words.  Mostly women and small children were killed at Ntarama; the men and boys were in the surrounding hills trying to defend their people.  The remaining part of the memorial was a sheltered bench to think and pray, a garden, and a wall of names.  Out of the 5,000 killed, there are only about 130 names on the wall.  For some families, there is no one left to tell who died.

The second church was called Nyamata where 10,000 Tutsis died.  This church was much bigger than Ntarama.  There were holes in the floor from the grenades and in the ceiling from the bullets.  Each and every pew was covered by clothing piled more than a foot high.  To see the alter and baptismal font still standing in the midst of nothing but death, how do you begin to understand?  We then went down into a room built after the genocide as part of this memorial.  The room consists of only a large glass case.  This case took up most of the room and contained more skulls, bones and personal items like rosaries, pipes and the dreaded ID card.  At the bottom of the case was a coffin containing a Tutsi woman.  This woman lies there so we can remember all of the women and how they died.  This is not easy to hear, but we have tell their story.  The Interhawme raped the women and then used a ten foot stick with a pointed end to further violate them.  The women were killed when the stick was driven through the length of their bodies.  We have no words.  The final section of the memorial was a mass grave.  We were allowed to go down into the grave.  Walking down the stone stairs into the dark reminded me of going into my grandparents' cellar.  At the bottom were two short "hallways" lined with shelves of skulls, bones and coffins.  I don't know what everyone was feeling, but I think we all had a sense of duty to spend time among these bones in order to honor the dead.

The ride back to Moucecore was silent.

Every night, we spend time debriefing.  Jen leads us through discussions on our day, what we saw, what we felt, how we reacted, what we think.  How do you talk about what we saw yesterday?  Here are some of our thoughts:

  • What went wrong?
  • Where was God?
  • Those faceless skulls do have faces, the faces of our driver Leon, our friends at Ubuzima and the Street Kids Camp, the children of the villages, our 17 year old friend Eugene who lives behind us.
  • What is Serge thinking when he subconsciously flinches as we ask questions about the genocide?
  • How can the tour guides at the memorial talk so matter-of-factly about how "next we are going into the room where they killed the babies."
  • Those babies could easily have been Happiness, Priscilla, Herve, Shadrack, and Hubert.
  • We look at a miraculous view when we sit on our balcony.  If the Rwandese looked at at the same landscape, what would they see?
  • How different the marshes looked on our drive home now that we know thousands of people hid in them for 100 days.
  • How can the two girls in the choir sing together after one's father killed the other one's family?
  • We probably shook hands and sang with genocidares on Sunday morning.
  • Why did God choose us to see this tragedy?


  1. I too have no words to respond to your powerful recollection of the day. May all of you find God's peace in whatever ways are unique to each of you.
    I thought it important to let you know that Hubert Jessy Nsabiyeze was babtized at church yesterday.....
    God's Peace and Understanding,
    Janice Riemer

  2. Absolutely overwhelming to read what you are seeing on your trip. You are all so brave to spend time amongst the dead to honor them. You make us all so proud. Pastor Heidi, I think this was your sermon for yesterday. I both look forward to your first sermon back at Faith and fear it... I'll bring lots of tissues that day. Love you all, Tina Rudins

  3. I left for Texas two days before all of you left for Rwanda. Although I have been very busy with my "nursing" duties here, I have thought of y'all and prayed daily. But I forgot about the blog until I got some forwarded email this morning. I read the WHOLE THING at once. It is truly amazing to read your accounts, but it was sure hard to read this one, so I can't imagine how difficult it was to be there, especially when we have the little Burundians growing up in our midst at Faith. Thank you for these blogs that make us really think. And I will end on a cheerier note: Our Burundian friends Beatrice, Evelyn, Pascasie, Parvine, Sherry (!), and Teen Beatrice all danced before the opening of the DuPage United Delegate Assembly last Thursday night in West Chicago. An Imam serving as a co-chair with a Quaker Latina introduced a rabbi to speak to the meeting in a Catholic Church. This is the kind of work that reduces tension and misunderstanding in a community. You have witnessed the horrible results of pitting one group against another. May we all learn from your experience and do what we can to promote good will. Peace, Debbie Fulks

  4. By witnessing the remnants of the atrocities with your respectful and loving presence, and speaking the truth about what actually happened to those men, women, and children you honor each one of them. I am in awe of all of you and of your dedication to this experience.

  5. So I’m at work right now and I just wanted to say how beautiful your message was and that it truly moved me! It is so amazing to see that through all of the pain and the hurt, there are still people who can see the compassion and love! And that is amazing!!! You are all so beautiful inside and out and I can’t wait to see all of your faces! Love you all!


  6. I am in awe of you for taking this on. How is it that evil can possess a human being like you and me to do such unthinkable things? I don't know that we could ever find an answer that would satisfy us. More boldly, you asked, Heidi, "How can the two girls in the choir sing together after one's father killed the other one's family?" The only answer that can satisfy me is: resurrection.
    We continue to pray for you, think about you, and hope for your safe return!

  7. Wow! I am in awe of all that you are doing and seeing while in Rwanda. This post brought tears to my eyes as my brain tries to understand the senselessness. I continue to pray for all of you on this journey. I know that God is doing great things through each and every one of you!
    -Kathy Meyers