by Jeff Boyd
This past weekend a Summit on Social Consciousness convened at Andrews University to identify the lessons that can be learn from the tragic 1994 genocide in Rwanda, a nation in which the largest Protestant denomination is (and was) the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The consciences of Adventists around the globe have struggled with the fundamental issue of why the preaching of the Three Angel's Messages did not prevent this horrible, inhumane occurance. But it is rare that Adventists are willing to talk about it in public. Jeff Boyd from the Adventist Activism blog provides this first-hand report.
Christon Arthur, Dean of the A.U. School of Graduate Studies and Research, described the event as “the first annual.” I hope his off-hand comment will prove true because a number of important themes raised at the event deserve further attention, such as personal and institutional responses to violence, Christian involvement in the political sphere, and forgiveness and reconciliation.
On Sabbath morning Cassandre and Andreas Beccai interviewed Carl and Teresa Wilkens. Carl was director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in Rwanda when the genocide occurred and the only American to stay in Rwanda. I was interested in three parts of their explanation for why Carl stayed in Rwanda when most other foreigners left. First, Teresa described their relationship with two Tutsis who worked for the Wilkens family. These individuals were deeply important to the Wilkens, and the family knew both would be murdered if Carl did not stay. Second, Carl mentioned the tendency to question authority. When ordered by the U.S. embassy and ADRA leaders to evacuate, Carl questioned these calls and chose to respond as he saw best. This theme, that we always have a choice, came up a number of times in the presentations and discussions, especially Ann Gibson’s breakout session. Third, Carl explained that just because it was right for him to stay does not mean that the people who left were not right in leaving. In such a time of chaos and uncertainty, no one decision is necessarily right for everyone given the various roles, responsibilities and extenuating circumstances. I appreciated this openness.
The role of community was another theme that came out during the interview. Teresa did not evacuate alone, and Carl did not remain active and alive during the genocide as a one-man savior. Neighbor women protected the family with the power of humanizing stories on the first night of violence when men tried to attack the Wilkens’ home. Other Rwandans and foreigners, such as the Union Conference treasurer and an orphanage manager, were instrumental in Carl’s survival and effectiveness during the ordeal.
One of the most troubling issues that surfaced in the conversation was the failure of the church to adequately respond to the violence. In fact, two Adventist Church administrators have been convicted of participating in the genocide. With some 300,000 Adventists in a population of seven million, was there not something more the church could have done? This is admittedly a very difficult question to address, but Carl pressed us to look at what our church spends its time and money on and to ask, “What really matters?” Carl did note that many Adventists were faithful on a personal level, with many dying for their faithfulness, but he called us to ponder how the denomination as an organization could have acted more effectively on behalf of peace and love.
During the open question time, an audience member asked if Carl had used a weapon for protection. Carl said that he actually turned down the offer of a gun. He believed that if a person has a gun, they are not quite as willing or able to look for other responses, to negotiate, to build allies, to look for options. He was also quick to add that he was not trying to make a bigger statement about guns or police, but that for him and his situation, this was what he believed was best.
Each of the topics begged for more time, more stories, more points and counter-points, but the limits of the schedule inevitably prevented a more thorough discussion. In all, it was a spiritually provocative morning of worship.
Before Carl Wilkens rose to preach, we were invited into a minute of silence to remember those who had died in the genocide. All was quiet except two babies who offered a duet of sounds reminding us of innocence and hope for a better future. After the moment of silence, campus and church leaders gathered on stage to read a statement on the Rwandan genocide and to lead the congregation in a litany.
Without going into the details of the sermon, one point that stood out to me was the need to remember that Rwanda should not be defined by the three-month span of the genocide. Rwandan history and society are much broader and richer than this burst of horrible violence. To that end, Carl tried to bring out aspects of joy and community in the stories he told of his experiences during the genocide. You can find these stories in his new book, I’m Not Leaving.
In his call to action, Carl made the point that “stories move our hearts, but stories without service leave us worse than when we started.” Audience members were encouraged to support Life Lifting Hands, a non-profit that works in Rwanda distributing cows, caring for orphans, and promoting education.
After lunch six breakout sessions were offered (1) Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Healing from Trauma led by David Sedlacek; (2) Personal Ethics and Our Responsibility led by Ann Gibson; (3) Who is My Brother? Race & Ethnicity in the Church led by Christon Arthur; (4) Why is There So Much Evil in God’s Good Creation? led Martin Hanna; (5) The Causes of Ethnic Conflicts and the Role of the Church led by Leonard Gashugi; and (6) Violence Against Women–End It Now! by Heather-Dawn Small.
A concert by Girls of Mercy started the evening, then Carl spoke, and finally his wife played a moving piano piece while the audience viewed pictures from the Panzi Foundation website (Congo). In addition to the compelling stories, two points Carl made in the closing session stood out for me. First, when faced with evil and tragedies, we should not say, “Where is God?” but “Where are those who call on the name of God?” Second, we should embrace the power of story and service to build peace.
In summary, I greatly appreciated the thought-provoking stories from Rwanda. The one part of the day that was a bit thin in my estimation relates to the theme of the summit, Lessons from Rwanda. What are the actual lessons? We admit that the church did not shine as a bright light on a hill during this atrocity, but I did not hear what we actually learned and what could practically be done better in the future or in current places of on-going violence. What should the church have done differently? What is the church’s role during massive social upheaval, the denominational organization, local congregations, and members? How should the church prepare its institutional structures and members to respond to local and international social evil? In addition to making important statements, are there additional actions that each level of the church can take to be a nonviolent force for peace in society? How can the church proclaim in word and deed the full gospel of Jesus, whose kingdom is characterized by peace and justice? How can we positively be engaged with humanitarian issues that are politically charged?
We may discuss the proper response of world governments to genocide, ethnic cleansing and a whole host of social injustices, but the most pressing question to me is, What is the role of the church? In my view, campaigns like Violence Against Women: End It Now! speak to this because it aims to shape church member attitudes and practices in practical ways, and what we do in times of chaos is determined by who we are formed to be in times of relative peace. By taking a stand for peace today or by serving someone in need today, we show love in the moment and prepare for when the stakes are higher. Whatever other role the church may or should play in society, this seems to me to be an important and what should be an uncontroversial first step.
I hope Andrews University will indeed have another Summit on Social Consciousness next year. There are many potential themes and presenters for such an event.
NOTE: Video cameras were rolling throughout the event. Evidently DVDs will be made available at some point.