Faculty Study Tours

Villanova Educators Bring Home Lessons From Rwanda

Author: Michael Hill

Villanova University business professor Debra Arvanites was teaching one of her first classes of the fall semester, searching for a way to explain a particular concept to her students. Her mind went to something she had seen a few weeks before, thousands of miles from this verdant campus near Philadelphia.

"In Rwanda, the Saving and Internal Lending Community program is one I could point to as an example when discussing what an organization is," says Arvanites, who told her students about the microfinance program she had seen in Rwanda. It's one of many such programs designed by Catholic Relief Services and our partners to help women gain economic independence.

"These women who come together form an organization, develop their own rules, just as my students would be doing in my class," Arvanites says. "They go through the same process."

 Arvanites was one of six Villanova staff who went to the central African country on a trip that grew out of the four-year-old partnership between Villanova and CRS. The group spent nine days in Rwanda in July and August 2008, not only visiting many programs carried out by CRS and our partners, but also meeting with government officials, church leaders and many Rwandans struggling to come to terms with their country's troubled past as they try to build a better future.

"It was really the opportunity of a lifetime for me," says Timothy Horner, a historian of the early Christian church and its relationship with the Jewish community. Horner has also studied the Holocaust.

Rwanda, a beautiful, tiny country—the size of Maryland but densely populated with over nine  million people—is most notorious for the 1994 genocide in which an estimated 800,000 died. Most were members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group, though plenty of the majority Hutus who opposed the genocide also died.

Now, the Rwandan government is trying to punish the perpetrators of the genocide while erasing the ethnic divisions that led to it. The government is also pushing economic development and CRS and our partners are part of that process.

Trip to Rwanda

Partnership of Peacebuilding

"One of the key themes of the partnership between CRS and Villanova this year is peacebuilding," says Maureen McCullough, director of the CRS northeast regional office in Philadelphia, who also went on the trip. "This was an opportunity for these faculty members to see peacebuilding in action and to deepen their understanding of CRS models of peacebuilding."

McCullough explains that the trip was also designed to enhance the CRS-Villanova partnership, a collaboration designed to strengthen both institutions' commitment to Catholic social teaching and other commonly held mission goals.

"An experience like this broadens our understanding of who we are as a Catholic university," Horner says. "CRS provides us with an opportunity to see ideas that are theories on campus actually play themselves out on the ground."

The trip took members to a variety of sites that memorialize the deaths, including the Catholic church in Nyamata where bullet holes poke through the tin roof of the sanctuary in which thousands died. Its basement is now a catacomb for the bones of the genocide victims.

"CRS opened doors for us," says Suzanne Toton, who teaches in the religious studies department and coordinates Villanova's partnership with CRS. "Never in a million years would we have had access to things we saw if not for the relationships CRS has built."

Powerful Lessons of Forgiveness

A major motivation for heading to Rwanda was the One Book Villanova program, which urges everyone on campus to read the same book and participate in discussions. The book for the 2007-08 academic year was Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza. Subtitled Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, it chronicles Ilibagiza's horrifying experience during the killings and her subsequent discovery of the power of forgiveness. As part of the program, Ilibagiza gave a lecture on campus in January 2008.

"I was so impressed with her ability to forgive, to move on—not to forget, but to get to the place where she is at peace with herself," says trip participant Tom Mogan, director of student development, who was co-chair of the One Book program.

"After being there, I am even more impressed with her story, how she was able to find the strength to forgive the killers of her family," he says.

Rwanda is not like Germany and Eastern Europe after the Holocaust of World War II, where few victims survived and most who did, then left.

"Fourteen years later, the specter of genocide is still alive, the country is still in trauma, still grieving," says Horner. "It is trying to move forward, but there is no model to follow. The perpetrators are still amongst them."

Frances Keen, assistant dean and director of the undergraduate program at Villanova's school of nursing, says this is hard to imagine until you see it.

"If that had happened to me—if I knew that the man down the street had killed my parents—I would just move away," she says. "But they don't have that opportunity. This is the land they have, where their house is, their livelihood. So they are forced by their economic situation in many ways to find a way to deal with this."

The Villanova delegation visited both a Gacaca court—dealing with more minor crimes perpetrated during the genocide and using the community as the jury—and a CRS-sponsored workshop where Rwandans learn how to teach principles of reconciliation.

"In that room there were the widows of men who had been killed in the genocide and of those who committed genocide," Toton says of the workshop. "There were survivors and released prisoners. There were diocesan leaders. There were all these people who had come together—first of all—to work with one another on forgiving and rebuilding relationships and restoring community, and then to train others.

"Here were these people in the same room—which in my mind was just unimaginable, to bring them all together—now praying and singing and committing themselves, for the sake of their children, to building a different future," she says. "For me, this is the Church, this vision of justice and mercy and compassion and dignity that was very palpable in that room."

Trip to Rwanda

Work of Justice and Mercy

The delegation did not turn away from the controversy about the Rwandan Catholic Church's role during the genocide. Some clergy acted heroically, many died, but others have been accused of complicity in the killings.

"I asked a rector: How do you preach about God post-genocide? How do you restore faith in a God who was apparently silent? How do you restore trust in a Church that cooperated with the genocide?" says Toton. "I think the only way to do that is by the Church proving itself, telling the truth, not only individually but institutionally, proving that it is indeed committed to restoring life and dignity.

"CRS is helping the Church do this work," she says, "the work of justice, mercy and dignity."

Horner points to what he calls "a grass-roots movement in the Church."

"The country will heal from the bottom up, from the ground up, not from the top down," he says.

Diligent Programming

The group also visited a CRS agricultural program and another helping people dealing with HIV and AIDS, as well their children. Many in the group were impressed with their visit to a microfinance program run entirely by the Rwandan women who pool their money and decide how to lend it out.

"These women were just so diligent in making sure the money was appropriately accounted for," say LaRasz Moody, the academic support director in Villanova's law school. "It was really empowering to see that: these 24 women helping each other.

"Many were survivors of the genocide or had husbands killed because they were Tutsis. Others had husbands who were jailed as perpetrators," she says. "But they were all working together, supporting their children, able to rise above that to work for the common good and help each other."

All agree that what they saw in Rwanda would affect their lives at Villanova, whether it was Arvanites explaining a concept in a business class, Mogan talking to student groups about the importance of leadership, Horner adding another dimension to his teaching of the Holocaust or Keen telling nursing students about how complex health questions are in developing countries.

Horner says he came away particularly impressed with CRS.

"As a historian, I went in borderline cynical on how you go about helping people. The ads look good on TV, but I was very skeptical. So I was surprised I felt so impressed by CRS on all levels—the genuineness, the sincerity, as well as the practical side," he says. "They are really trying to build up programs in the country to be self-sufficient. They know the best thing that could happen is for CRS to work itself out of a job."

Toton took away her own lesson, which she plans to pass on to the Villanova community.

"I came out with a sense that forgiveness is possible, that reconciliation is possible, that hope is possible, that transformation is possible," she says. "I saw things happening in the most dire circumstance that I never would have believed could have been possible."

Michael Hill is CRS' communications officer for sub-Saharan Africa. He is based at the agency's headquarters in Baltimore.