Carl Wilkens Interview by Jeff Boyd
by Barbara Gohl
Viewpoints Interview Series #7
Welcome to the Viewpoints Interview series on Peace, Justice and Righteousness. An interview series presented by Adventist Today (a partnership between AToday and Adventist Activism.)
As a humanitarian aid worker with ADRA, Carl Wilkens moved his young family to Rwanda in the spring of 1990. When the genocide was launched in April 1994, Carl was the only American to remain in the country. Venturing out each day into streets crackling with gunfire, he worked his way through roadblocks in order to bring food, water and medicine to groups of orphans trapped around the city. Carl’s experiences during the genocide are shared in the recently released book, I’m Not Leaving.i In 2008, Carl and his wife Teresa founded the educational nonprofit, ii World Outside My Shoes.
Jeff: The Rwandan genocide was an extreme situation, but societal violence is a reality for the church in a number of areas around the world. How can the church develop members to be peacemakers so we are part of the solution rather than the problem as some Adventists were in Rwanda?
Carl: It seems to me that we’ve got an incredibly structured and organized institution in place around the world. Think about us studying the same Sabbath School lesson every week around the world. Kinyarwanda is a language that’s just spoken in Rwanda, and yet they’ve got full time people working on translating Sabbath School quarterlies.
We’ve got a huge structure in place in terms of divisions, unions, conferences, and churches. Add to that schools, medical centers, and communication networks—television, radio stations, publishing houses and more. These could all be major obstacles for anybody planning to commit genocide along with many other kinds of mass atrocities.
In Rwanda there was a population of 7,000,000 people, and 300,000 were Seventh-day Adventists. That’s significant! In this little country roughly a hundred miles by hundred miles, we had FIVE conferences. In the North Pacific Union I think we’re around 80,000 members in this large area— Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Alaska—and then think of Rwanda’s 300,000, nearly four-times what the North Pacific Union has, concentrated in a tiny area. It just seemed like the most fabulous opportunity for that whole idea of blessed are the peacemakers to be a major obstacle for the planners of the genocide. People need to understand the genocide didn’t come from the grassroots. The genocide was a top-down catastrophe organized by extremist elements within the government, using the government’s infrastructure. So imagine the enormous problem it could have been for them to come up against the largest Protestant denomination in the country, the Seventh-day Adventist Church? But instead it was no problem; they only had to contend with individual members or small group of members here and there who refused to go along with the slaughter. And this should not be taken as a statement about the church in Rwanda as much as it is a commentary on the world church!
For years in Rwanda the idea of division between Hutu and Tutsi was not new, and while it wasn’t new, it also wasn’t unconquerable because many individuals conquered that division. It can’t be such a huge division when you speak the same language, and don’t have different religions dividing you, different customs or traditions. This divide was largely overcome by thousands of couples in the form of marriage. So you’re thinking Wow, these people could overcome this division and actually marry each other. Why couldn’t the church have been a strong voice years before the genocide putting forth this message that we are neither Jew nor gentile, Hutu nor Tutsi; we are all the sons and daughters of God? Or is us-and-them so much a part of our thinking that we completely miss these divides right in our midst?
I hope congregations around the world don’t see Rwanda’s genocide in Hutu and Tutsi terms but rather the extreme ends of “us-and-them” thinking. This is where we really need to park for a while when examining the Rwandan genocide—What does it say to us as a church about the way we relate to other denominations and other religions for that matter? What does it say about the role of us-and-them thinking in our daily lives? In simple terminology such as believers and unbelievers, are we perpetuating “us and them”? When we say, “We have the truth,” it sounds like whoever “they” are doesn’t. Whether intentional or not, when we live so comfortably in an “us-and-them” cocoon and this thinking to some degree becomes institutionalized, are we not easy targets for the people who develop and execute genocides?
While it could be easy to point the finger at the Adventist church in Rwanda and say, “Why weren’t they doing more before the genocide?” I think the better question would be, “What are we doing right now as individuals and a church to confront the many subtle and not so subtle forms of us-and-them thinking in our minds and congregations?” Christ’s last prayer in John 17 is crystal clear: “Father I want them to be one like you and I are one.” That is a prayer that’s got to start in my heart before it can move out into churches, denominations, and religions.
Jeff: There are so many levels where this can play out. There’s the us-them language within the religious sphere, at the ethnic level, at the political level, at the international level.
Carl: Yes, it’s huge when you start looking at it. Like I said, nobody consciously wants to promote division, and yet I think in developing an identity for our church, in establishing a niche in the market of churches, we often build walls. We are the people of the book, and we keep the Seventh-day Sabbath. Is this where we get our identity?
People don’t have to study genocide very long to realize that genocide always comes down to identity issues. And so when you think about not only the obvious mandate of the church—when Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, and he said, “You give it all for your Creator, and you love your neighbor as yourself,” those are two very positive, powerful direct admonitions for me, for the church. But go even deeper to Who am I? Who’s my neighbor? You start to unpack what it means to really see somebody as your brother with the same Creator, the same Father, Mother—this idea of children of God.
What about highlighting our shared passions instead of comparing ourselves with others, looking for shortcomings? It is so easy when someone asks, “What is it about Adventists that makes them different?” to start talking about our health message or the Sabbath. Imagine instead sharing what we are overflowing with, the fire that's at the core of our hearts and beings—totally selling out to God, and treating other people the way we’d like to be treated? Imagine readily seeing that fire or spark in “the other” because we are intentionally looking for it? Yes there are other very important beliefs and practices in our church, but way out in front of everything else is our undying commitment to our Creator, and our total commitment to our neighbor.
The weekend that we just had at Andrewsiii is something that I’d love to see happening all over the country and not just on university campuses. Rwanda, even though the genocide was 18 years ago, is still a very clear call to action. What happened in 1994 was like a movie trailer for the end of the world. For us a major part of that trailer is how religions failed to respond. None of the institutions were a major problem for the planners of the genocide. Individuals were a problem, but no institution appeared to give any notable resistance. There’s something desperately, desperately wrong with that picture. Something we can’t afford to ignore any longer.
Jeff: You have said that when faced with evil and tragedies, we should not ask, “Where is God?” but instead ask, “Where are those who claim the name of Christ?” Why is this reorientation of the question important?
Carl: As I travel around and speak with what are considered secular audiences, I’m constantly looking for a vocabulary to communicate the truths that I believe Jesus came to make plain to us. It’s often pretty meaningless to use phrases like “God was with me,” “God protected me,” “God provided for me.” When you stop and ask, “How did God provide for me? How did God protect me? How was God with me?” you start to see this truth that we’ve known all along: God’s primary way of intervening on this planet is through people.
Many times stories of God intervening without people directly involved are highlighted and held up as if that’s the real deal. But that’s most likely happened because people have failed to respond. It’s like when the disciples failed to be there for Christ in Gethsemane, finally God says, “Okay, I’m going to have to send in the angels.” So do you think questions like “Where’s God?” might largely be based on the belief that God’s major interventions and provisions are made without the help of people? And when we spell it out this way, we how wrong it is because we know God works through people! I find it so much more useful to spell out how God intervenes, for example the supernatural sacrifice of people laying their lives on the line for someone else. It then becomes clear why God works this way and what happens when we invite Him to inhabit our lives, when we honestly surrender the steering wheel to God.
Jeff: You believe in the peacemaking power of story and service. Tell me more about this?
Carl: I think when you start to catch this model, you start to see it all over the place. You see how stories inspire service, and how service empowers stories. It’s stories that are inspiring action, inspiring service, and it’s service that empowers story. In other words, our hands give our mouths permission to speak. People don’t care how much we know until they know we care. To apply those principles, I’ve found that stories and service capture what we saw illustrated daily in the life of Christ. The gospels are full of stories—“The kingdom of heaven is like this…. There was a farmer who did this…” And then you see all of the service in the life of Christ. It seems to me a very simple but powerful way to approach life, to approach complicated situations like genocide or less complicated but very annoying situations that we find in our daily lives at work or with a neighbor or even with a family member.
It’s not just telling stories; it’s listening to stories. It’s searching for stories. In fact, more often it’s about listening and searching for the back-story than about telling the story. We see the front story right in our face, but what’s the back-story behind that? When you unpack these two concepts, you realize there’s a huge part of listening involved for the story component to be effective. And to really listen, I need to lay aside my agenda. Not just learn a story so I can accomplish what I want to accomplish, but honestly be open and explorative to really hear and learn the story of somebody else. This sacrificing—our agenda, time, and resources—is often how we are drawn into opportunities to serve.
And when you unpack service, you realize it’s not always doing. Service is often just being, like being present. By simply staying in Rwanda during the genocide, I was counting on my presence playing a part in sparing the lives of the people in our home. Our neighbor women stood up for us the second night of the genocide when our home was going to be attacked. With the militia at our gate these women used stories to change the thinking, feeling and eventual actions of these killers. In their standing up for us and sharing stories, you realize that it wasn’t two separate acts—here’s the story and here’s the service. It was wrapped together in one powerful risk that saved the lives of our family. When it came down to them saying, “You can’t go in that house. Their kids play with our kids,” you realize there are all kinds of stories behind that—our kids playing with their kids, and their kids playing in our home. Those were acts of service too on a very different level than we often picture.
It really comes down to a way of living that puts the interests of others ahead of our own interests. This is something we all know but I hope people will find the tools of stories and service effective in putting it into practice. Again and again the powerful tools of stories and service have gotten people through one crisis followed by another. Yet when one is without the other, bad things happen. We may be entertained by a story or even moved by it, but if we don’t do anything, we’re worse off than before. And it’s a quick trip to “burn out” when service is performed from a sense of duty with no human passion involved—“Oh, this is what I have to do.” I would say there is a good chance that “the story” is what is missing in that equation. They’re doing it because they’re supposed to; it’s what’s expected of them, their responsibility. One without the other is just really handicapped.
Jeff: You have returned to Rwanda leading educational trips. How did these start, and what do you do?
Carl: In 2004 the PBS Frontline documentary Ghosts of Rwandaiv came out, and I had been interviewed as one of the many people in that documentary. Teachers started to randomly email and ask if I could speak at their class. And then among those teachers the next step was, “Well, we want to go to Rwanda.” In the last 3 years I’ve taken two groups of teachers and one group of college students, and I’ll have two groups again this July.
We’ve been visiting memorial sites, talking with survivors, visiting some government officials and businessmen and women who are rebuilding Rwanda; just looking at Rwanda today. We try to give the participants a picture of not only what Rwanda was like during the genocide, but also the incredible progress that Rwanda has made since. One thing we haven’t yet done that I’m hoping this summer we can get into, is to meet together with perpetrators—go into the prisons.
Last January I traveled with Buffalo State college students. They were all theater students, and so we met with a young Rwanda theater group called Mashirika. These students met with survivors, went to the memorials, and had a good look at Rwanda for two weeks. At the end they got together with the Rwandan actors, wrote and rehearsed a play, and then they performed it together the night before they flew out. The play was built on the experiences of the two-week trip. So that was a very different but powerful trip.
Jeff: That sounds incredibly creative.
Carl: Well, that’s the neat thing. This wasn’t arranged by a political science or international development professor. This was a theater professor who’s really passionate about theater addressing social justice issues. They’re planning on making that an annual event.
I just thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a journey for me every time I go back and I end up wrestling with memories from the past. For me personally, to be able to travel with these theater students and experience Rwanda through their eyes through their inclusive hearts was extremely valuable.
Jeff: If people are interested, can they join a trip?
Carl: Sure, they can come on the website, and let us know they’re interested. They’re definitely not limited to teachers.
Jeff: Tell me about your non-profit, World Outside My Shoes. What is its purpose, and how can people get involved?
Carl: We formed World Outside My Shoes to facilitate our work of traveling and sharing stories to support educators’ efforts to teach about genocide and human rights. These educators are already doing amazing work in classrooms around the world in terms of not only learning about genocide but also teaching about identity and dealing with us-and-them thinking. So World Outside My Shoes is there to facilitate the story telling. We’d like it to grow into an organization of many storytellers that will carry this message of the power of stories and service to build peace.
Having said that, when people ask, “What can we do?” I think they’re sometimes frustrated with my answer, which always must begin with our own thinking about the other in our lives. Obviously, non-profits would love to have people donate to worthy causes, but if we are not willing to address the us-and-them thinking in our own lives, then I feel like the lion’s share of my mission has failed. We are really wanting to challenge the us-and-them thinking at its deepest levels within the hearts of individuals. In addition to this challenge, we want to leave them with those two tools of stories and service so they can respond to the challenges. It’s exciting to go out and look for the stories and the back-stories for whoever we consider the other in our life. As we look for those stories, let’s embrace the opportunities to serve that are bound to come into focus.
The other isn’t always going to be a negative thing. Sometimes when we talk about “the other,” people think that it’s our enemy or somebody we don’t like. The other is often somebody who is simply very different from ourselves, and that may not be negative, just very different. So the other might be a refugee from the genocide in Darfur who’s living in a camp in Chad, and we want to learn their story. Then we want to find ways to partner, and we might join with a project like Darfur Dream Team, which is building schools for those refugees. But at the same time, we also want to look at who are the others in our own communities because that’s often much tougher. It’s easier to deal with the other when there’s an ocean between us, but when there’s just a partition in the office between us or when there’s just a little property line between us, then it can become very challenging to take the time to learn their story and their back-story, and then to become some sort of a partner, to become involved with some sort of service together.
On our website we do have a list of organizations that you can get involved with, all the way from advocating with our Senators and Representatives in Washington D.C. to helping pay school fees for orphans in Rwanda, to hosting a bone making event as part of the one million bones project. But I don’t want people to rush to those things without giving fair time to the thought of who’s the other in my life, and what are the opportunities I have right now to build bridges with them?
We’ve all grown up with scenarios about the end of time, with the world persecuting the true believers of Christ. And we do have the phrases, “Father against son and brother against brother,” but it seems like we forget that we’re called to build relationships that will challenge those scenarios. I feel like if we’re really known as people who love our neighbors as ourselves, that’s the most powerful way we can show people that we love our Creator with all our hearts. “As you’ve done it unto one of the least of these—to the other—you’ve done it for me."
ii Learn more about Carl Wilkens’ experience here: Saying No To Killers (NY Times), The Few Who Stayed (NPR), One Decade Later (NPR), Firsthand Reflections (NPR), Faith & Trust in Rwanda (PRX), For Rwandan Survivors, a Somber Anniversary (NPR), Adventist Peace Fellowship PDF.
iv https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/ghosts/video/ and https://freedocumentaries.org/film.php?id=190.