Summit on Social Consciousness: Lessons from Rwanda
(April 11-14, 2012)
This past weekend, Andrews University hosted Carl Wilkens at the Summit on Social Consciousness.[i] Wilkens, who worked for ADRA at the time and is now the co-founder of World Outside My Shoes, was the only U.S. citizen who remained in Rwanda during the 100-day genocide in 1994.[ii] I was able to attend only the Saturday programs, and based on their quality I am sorry to have missed the bulk of the Summit. Christon Arthur, Dean of the AU 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.
For Sabbath School Cassandre and Andreas Beccai interviewed both Carl and Teresa Wilkens. 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 also SDA leaders to evacuate, Carl questioned these calls and chose to respond as he saw best. This theme—we always have a choice—came up a number of times in the presentations and workshops (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 each person given their 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 ladies protected the family with the power of humanizing stories on the first night of violence when men tried to attack the Wilkens’ home. Other Rwandese and foreigners, such as the Union 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 leaders have been convicted of participating in the genocide.[iii] 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 the church (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 church as an institution 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, and Carl shared 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 covered begged for more time, more stories, more point and counter-point, but the limits of the schedule inevitably prevented a thorough reflection. In all, it was a spiritually provocative morning of worship.
Before Carl Wilkens rose to speak for church, 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 (Statement & Litany, PDF).
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 is 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.[iv]
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 therefore 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; however, because three were presented at a time and none were repeated, participants faced difficult choices. The 3:30pm workshops included:
- Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Healing from Trauma (David Sedlacek)
- Personal Ethics: Our Responsibility (Ann Gibson)
- Who is My Brother? Race & Ethnicity in the Church (Christon Arthur)
The 4:30pm sessions included:
- Why is There So Much Evil in God’s Good Creation? (Martin Hanna)
- The Causes of Ethnic Conflicts & the Role of the Church (Leonard Gashugi)
- Violence Against Women: End It Now! (Heather-Dawn Small)
In the future it would be helpful to expand this portion of the event so that attendees can attend more of the offerings. For example, a third time slot could be added or all six presentations could be offered during both (or all three) sessions.
In addition to the compelling stories, two points Carl made in the closing session stood out to me. First, when faced with evil and tragedies, we shouldn’t 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 name of the summit–Lessons from Rwanda. What are the actual lessons? We admitted that the church did not shine as a bright light on a hill during this atrocity, but from the various speakers I did not hear what we actually learned and what could practically be done better in the future (or now in places of on-going violence). What should the church have done differently? What is the church’s role during massive social upheaval (levels: GC, divisions, unions, conferences, congregations, 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 EndItNow! 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 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 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, and the following are a few at the top of my list:
- Karen Kotoske (Amistad, Intl). The power of prayer. The power of one. The power of collaboration. The power of friendship. [I have an interview with her due to be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Adventist Education.]
- Anthony Paul (NAPS). Hunger and poverty.
- Douglas Morgan (WAU). Adventists and politics.
- Paul Yates (Tiny Hands, Intl). Human Trafficking. The power of prayer. Congregational social action. [Paul isn’t SDA, but Union College is on board with his work.]
NOTE: Video cameras were rolling throughout the event, so I will update this post with links to the content if it becomes available online. Thank you, Lenworth Sealey, for keeping me informed about this.
[iii] “Rwandan Pastor and His Son Are Convicted of Genocide” (Marlise Simons, NYTimes, 20 Feb 2003).
[v] I presume this video is the same group: http://www.myspace.com/video/mile19/girls-of-mercy-ft-wishes/38124076.