Forgiveness is a choice
Rwandan pastors to family's killers

Parfait and Michelle Karekezi speak together at a service in Rwanda. Courtesy

By BILL SHERMAN World Religion Writer
Published: 10/30/2010  2:18 AM
Last Modified: 10/30/2010  7:00 AM


Forgiveness didn't come easily for Parfait Karekezi, who lost most of his family in the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

But it did come, and now he spends nine months of each year ministering to the Hutu people of Rwanda, the majority tribe that 16 years ago killed his family and nearly a million other Tutsis in the African version of the Nazi "final solution."

Karekezi was born and raised in Butare, a city in southern Rwanda, and came to the United States for college, receiving a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics from Indiana University.

He was working as a manager of a home for the developmentally disabled in South Bend, Ind., in 1994 when the genocide began to make news in the United States.

With communications disrupted in Rwanda, he was in the dark for months about the fate of his family.

When he finally learned what happened to them, he was devastated. His two older sisters and their husbands, and his 2-year-old niece were dead. Two of his younger brothers were dead. The remains of one of them, Jean Claude, were not found. Only his mother, along with a brother, and a niece and nephew survived, by hiding out in and near her home as the killing went on all around them.

"I was broken-hearted," Karekezi said.

"I was angry and bitter. My heart was ashamed that such a thing could happen in my country."

He decided to "drive a truck until I die."

"It was my way of running away from my emotions and my hurt."

For the next nine years, he drove 18-wheelers all over the United States.

In 1996, in Connecticut, he stopped at a truck stop chapel on his route.

"The preacher asked me if I was saved. I had never heard those words," he said.

He began to stop each Wednesday at the same chapel. There he met Michelle, who worked at the chapel. They were married in 2000.

That same year, they moved to Tulsa and got involved at Victory Christian Center. He worked in real estate.

Through the ministry of the late Rev. Billy Joe Daugherty, he said, he realized that he still had bitterness in his heart.

"Everywhere I turned I realized I had so much hatred for the Hutu people. ... Pastor Billy Joe always said that harboring unforgiveness is like drinking poison and thinking it's going to hurt someone else.

"I learned that forgiveness is a choice not a feeling."

He made that choice.

"It took a little while, but I realized that the anger and the hurt toward these people was no longer there."

In 2005, Karekezi returned to his homeland for the first time for a short-term missions trip.

In 2008, he and his wife became full-time missionaries to Rwanda, spending nine months of the year there.

Most of their work is among the Hutus, who are 85 percent of the population. He has started five Bible schools in prisons. Ninety percent of the inmates are Hutus convicted of crimes related to the genocide.

They also preach regularly at churches around the tiny central-African nation, and conduct children's ministries.

In July, during an excavation for a hospital expansion in Butare, the remains of Karekezi's brother Jean Claude were uncovered. He had been a medical assistant at that hospital.

Karakezi spoke at his funeral in August.

"It was a blessing to my mom because this was the only one of her children where she didn't know where he was buried or what happened to him."

Rwanda is recovering well from the genocide, Karekezi said. All children are guaranteed an education, and corruption is at a minimum. Crime is low.

"Rwanda is safer than Tulsa," he said.

Tourism is up, with many Westerners traveling to see lowland gorillas in their natural habitat.


Rwanda genocide

The world watched from the outside in 1994 as 800,000 people were murdered in the Rwanda genocide, in which militias from the majority Hutu tribe tried to eliminate the minority Tutsi tribe. Then-President Bill Clinton and the United Nations have been criticized for not interfering with the systematic, government-organized killing of men, women and children, much of it by machete, that went on for 100 days.

Only an estimated 300,000 of Rwanda's more than a million Tutsis survived.

The genocide ended when a Tutsi rebel army based in Uganda drove the Hutu militias from Rwanda. Most of them ended up in refugee camps in what was then Zaire.

The story was told in the film, "Hotel Rwanda."

Bill Sherman 581-8398

By BILL SHERMAN World Religion Writer

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