Rebecca sharing some reflections on the past week:
As Paul wrote in last week's blog, I have been involved intensely in the past few weeks in an effort to convene influential Protestant leaders to discuss transitional justice. It has taken a lot of energy to support a local partner in leading this effort, but it has also been intensely rewarding to be part of seeing people come together and really discuss and engage with the right questions. I have appreciated the opportunity to reflect myself on the biblical way to handle crimes, how we care pastorally for both victims and offenders, and yet also ask for justice for wrongdoing. The biblical tension between justice and mercy is very hard for us human beings to grapple with. Truly, it is as tall and as wide as the cross. And that is the only place where all the questions can be resolved. We need a lot of prayer here, especially as it becomes clear that even bishops and leaders of churches are not angels; if a Truth and Reconciliation Commission started work tomorrow, many of these same pastors would be called to defend themselves for past crimes.
And so, on Friday, a group of us went to pray. This time, we were not top church leaders, but rather a gathering of Christian leaders working on reconciliation through non-governmental organizations. We all have met at the GLI (in Uganda) and worked together, for years, discussed and shared practical experiences of grassroots peace building. But this is the first time in recent memory that this group of people gathered to simply pray together. The sixteen of us, from different corners of the country, converged on the tiny Catholic center of Buta, arriving in the early evening.
|Tombs of the martyrs at Buta|
We were met by Father Zacharie Bukuru, the Abbe Rector of the Benedictine Monastery established at Buta. Father Zacharie has been at Buta in ministry for more than thirty years. He was ordained there, he taught as a secondary school teacher in the Petit Seminaire (Catholic secondary school), and eventually became the Rector of the School in the late 80's. When the civil war broke out in Burundi in 1993, Father Zacharie realized that his older students were truly torn and ravaged by distrust and ethnic hatred for one another. Many wanted to leave school and return home where they could live in the safety of people of their own ethnicity. But Father Zacharie recognized that those impulses were a sign of woundedness and bondage. He worked very hard with those older students over a period of three years, praying together with them, discipling them, teaching them how to love and accept one another, even across ethnicity, as a sign of their identity in Christ. They remained one of the only ethnically integrated schools in the country during the civil war.
One early morning in April 1997, the seminary was attacked by a huge group of Hutu rebel soldiers. The faculty was cut off from the students and was miraculously saved from harm. But the rebels were able to easily enter the dormitory of the older students. They rounded up the young men, most of them around age 20, and ordered them to separate ethnically, Hutus here, Tutsis there. The students refused. Instead, they joined hands and they clung to one another. Enraged, the woman commander of the rebel unit opened fire on the students with a machine gun. Her soldiers followed her example, and the dormitory became a place of horror and death. Forty of 85 students were killed, and another forty were gravely wounded and needed years to recover. Only 3 escaped unscathed.
The forty young men who were killed that day lie at rest today in two lines of clean, white-tiled tombs, at the sanctuary of the Martyrs of Brotherhood. Next to it, inside the sanctuary, a huge fresco depicts Jesus standing over and blessing the young men, each painted individually and skillfully from their own photos from the records of the seminary. Each young man looks out at the praying visitors, some serious, some with a twinkle in their eyes, as if to say, yes, I was really flesh and blood, I was really capable of choosing to die for the truth of who I am in Christ. I was young, and yet I knew what was important.
|Inside the sanctuary, in front of the cloud of witnesses.|
Father Zachary led us to the tombs for silent reflection and then inside the sanctuary to contemplate the meaning of the deaths of those young men. And then he led us in singing “In the sweet by and by” in Kirundi. Singing longingly. Those were his boys. Those were his spiritual children, whom he had discipled and coached and prepared to face the death that he himself had not known was coming. He sang as if he truly missed them and was longing for the day when they might be reunited.
Shortly after the massacre of his students, Fr. Zacharie moved to France where he spent three years praying in a Benedictine monastery. At first, it seems that he never wanted to return home. But after some time he realized he was called to plant the first monastery in Burundi – exactly at the site of the horror he had experienced. Part of the redemptive power of Buta lies in the fact that it is now a permanent house of prayer. Nine monks and novices pray together six times a day, and invite guests to join them in prayer. They live the rest of their lives mostly in silence, listening for God’s voice, praying for those who cannot pray, lifting up the cries of the people and waiting for them to be transformed. As Fr. Zacharie explained, a society has doctors to heal the body, lawyers to protect justice, politicians to govern; a monk’s calling is to pray.
We followed Fr. Zacharie to the small, bright chapel at the monastery and prayed the vespers prayers together with them. The monks chant the psalms and other passages of scripture, much like they have been chanted in Europe for hundreds of years. Most of our group was Protestant, and even the Catholics among us were not accustomed to this kind of prayer, but we were all very moved. It became clear that these monks chant ALL the psalms at one time or another, even the ones about being destroyed by an enemy. Those psalms of grief and anger leapt off the page with a new freshness when they were sung in this context.
Later we gathered to share together signs we have seen of God at work among us, signs of reconciliation. One man remembered meeting in a Catholic house in 1995 and hearing a sermon about reconciliation, when it seemed like a ridiculous fantasy. Another observed, that here we were, with reasons to be divided but choosing to meet together. Others noted that along the shore of Lake Tanganyika, people were building beautiful houses in what had once been a rebel no man’s land. Fr. Zacharie offered that in the past 6 months he has seen pilgrims coming to pray at the sanctuary of the martyrs, not in little groups of 2 or 3 as before, but in busloads of hundreds of people, among them young people who are really touched by the example of other young men their age.
In the morning, I took the opportunity to wake up at 5 am and pray the vigil with the monks. Later on, some of us also participated in the 7 am lauds and mass. I was so thankful for the time of silent reflection, though the world was not at all silent. There was an absolute riot of birdsong outside the chapel and in the forest all morning. It was truly glorious. I found myself reflecting on the preparation of those 40 young martyrs. What would it look like to prepare my Sunday school children, my own two sons, to believe in their faith so whole-heartedly? So that when a test came, they would rather die than abandon their identity in Christ? It’s not that I want anyone I love to have to face that choice, but I have a deep suspicion that the kind of life they would choose to live would be far more joyful and purposeful.
Even since the shootings in Nairobi, I have been together with friends who have worried about our children in an international school. I think the school administration is thinking the same thing, because last week Oren reported that they had their first-ever anti-terrorism drill. What if terrorists attacked our little ones? How could I teach my children to trust God in any circumstance? I think we must not shelter them from pain and injustice – we need to be forthright about the evil in the world, but help them think through what is wrong and right. And I want to teach them songs and scriptures that they can store up in their hearts in case of a time of need, especially if I cannot be there to help them.
Our entire group then took some time to worship and pray together in a style more familiar to Protestants. We reflected on a wonderful letter in the New Testament, Philemon. It is a story about a victim and an offender, reconciled by Paul as a mediator. Onesimus the slave of wealthy Philemon stole from him and ran away from Colossae to Rome. But there he crossed paths with Paul, Philemon’s old friend, and there Onesimus found a new life in Christ. Onesimus had become truly free in his heart, and so Paul sent him back to Philemon to set things right, to be reconciled to his old master. “I know you’ll do the right thing,” says Paul to Philemon, “and I’ll be sure to cover any money Onesimus owes you – but don’t forget you owe me your very life!” It seems like a clear case where Philemon is a victim, reconciled with the offender, Onesimus…until we considered that Onesimus was also a life-long victim of slavery and injustice, and Philemon was an offender in that systemic crime. Paul himself had actually acted criminally against Christians in the past, so he knew what it was like to be restored by grace to the community he had harmed. It was a wonderful case study for exploring the complexities of victim-offender identity, so much a part of the story of violence in Burundi where yesterday’s victims become todays’ offenders.
Before we left, we took some time for listening prayer. We practiced silence together, asking God to show us what the role of the church might be to bring reconciliation into such a mess of hurt and injustice as this country has experienced. It was a unique experience for me to practice this with Burundian Christians, and it was a very rich experience to hear what the Holy Spirit was speaking to different ones of us. I feel like we have something to offer to top church leaders who are trying to find a single voice on restorative justice.
We worshiped once more with the priests and then walked down to visit the martyr’s tombs for the last time. It was incredibly meaningful for me to sing our GLI theme song there, and think about the passion of those young men who died, in hope of reconciliation.
We your people sing your praises, as together we are sent
To reveal the new creation in the shadows of lament.
Give us courage for the journey,
Shepherd Jesus, be our guide
Help us lead with hope and passion, ‘til all things are reconciled.
Our return journey was a bit more eventful than we had hoped. We discovered a flat tire just as we were pulling out of the monastery guesthouse, but at least we were with friends who could help us sort it out. In the process of changing the tire, though, two of the bolts broke off. We prayed hard that there wouldn’t be further problems. Our group of 7 stopped in a little town nearby to get the tire repaired – I would never have identified that hole in the wall as a tire repair place, but my Burundian colleagues figured out how to be sure we were traveling with a good spare. Anything can happen! As we drove back down the steep road towards the lake, I enjoyed a few gifts along the way.
- The coffee bushes frosted by blossoms like a coating of snow
- Children living on top of a mountain, who had managed to level out a soccer field for themselves. Yes, it bent around like an L, but there was a goal post on either end!
- The lively conversation in Kirundi of my colleagues and their ability to mix in enough French for me to follow some of it.
I was glad to rejoin my family by 7 pm that evening and we had a fairly quiet Sunday and a normal week until now. I’ll let Paul add more blog entry for his visit to the Hope School on Friday.
Rebecca, thank you for an amazing description of such a moving pilgrimage to a place of pain but also hope. We will be praying that this spirit will touch Burundi's leaders to seek God's peace for their children.
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