Centerpointe Presbyterian Church pastor Mike Barris has returned from a trip to Rwanda, inspired by the tremendous success he saw there in national renewal and family reconciliations that followed the days of mass genocide in the mid-1990s. More than a million people died in the 100 days of rampage and killings in the country. If he didn't know the history, Barris said, he might not have realized the hatred that existed then between the mainly minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus that led to the wholesale slaughters.
Barris went to Rwanda on a fact-finding mission with a Christian ministry group called the Leadership Network to see first-hand the success the country's President Paul Kagame has had in ending the turmoil and rebuilding Rwanda into a first-class state. Where many neighboring African states and most Western countries had turned their heads as Rwandan rivals killed each other, Kagame was part of a UN-sponsored militia that went to Rwanda to stop the bloodshed. He stayed, was elected president and has gained in popularity because of the programs he and his team have initiated to bring peace and the start of democracy and prosperity to the troubled nation.
Particularly effective, Barris found, was a three-step process Kagame has adopted to empty the prisons of the tens of thousands seized in the aftermath of the 100 days of genocide by encouraging the villains to acknowledge their deeds, deal with what they did, regret it, find remorse and ask to be forgiven. Once they go through this process and are truly believed by their court counselors, they then can actually meet with their victim's family face-to-face where they apologize, talk about their pain in recognizing the horror of their actions and ask for the family's forgiveness. After hearing the bid for forgiveness it's then up to the victim's family to continue the process, talking directly to the perpetrator about the pain they have suffered, too, and then determining if they believe he is ready to start anew.
For Barris, it's an almost unbelievable process to work with those who have killed randomly in an effort at repentance, reconciliation and rehabilitation. He doubts that many of us could do the same if someone in our own family had been slaughtered by a marauding crusader. Yet he found thousands of Rwandans were putting the ugliness of the mid-1990s behind them and moving forward almost arm-in-arm with ethnic groups they had been taught to hate only a decade ago.
As an observer and with his colleagues, Barris wonders if Kagame's process of national healing could work here, say in the way we judge those responsible for the gang rape of a 15-year-old girl outside a Richmond High School gym a few weeks ago. Following Kagame's program, those guilty would still be punished but a process of reconciliation would also be undertaken with the perpetrators to see if any of them could acknowledged the evil of their actions. To do so might go a long way in helping the victim, the families, the high school, the Richmond community and even the perpetrator to move forward in a healing process. Right now, Barris points out, many are clamoring for justice, wanting the boys responsible to be tried, found guilty and punished. If one or more are truly repentant, Barris asks, should that also be a consideration in the legal outcome.
Barris learned that as part of rebuilding his country, Kagame also has declared every fourth Saturday a community service day. Rwandans are expected to spend three hours on those days doing something to make their community better--painting schools, picking up trash, sweeping the streets. The Tutsis and Hutus work together in this effort. In fact, no one is allowed to use those ethnic definitions publicly, with authorities making sure that all references to the population are that everyone is a Rwandan.
The success of the program has been widely acclaimed by the United Nations and many Western countries. But more importantly, Barris found, neighboring African states which he's also visited are seeing the effectiveness of the reconciliation program. They also like the way Rwanda has become a more democratic country with a government that, from Barris' perspective, is decent, ethical and representative of all its people. Barris found old and young proud of their country's accomplishments. They convey a national spirit he thinks would help Americans get along much better, too.
Barris shared his observations recently with the Centerpointe Presbyterian Church congregation along with a movie on the Rwandan reconciliation program. Since then, contributions have picked up for Rwandan projects that are helping in that effort. Barris believes this formula for peace could also much of the bickering and negativeness that's become rampant in America to make our own country a better place.