by Kevin Birnbaum
Imagine you’re at a party and you have to use the restroom. You find one in a remote corner of the house, and it’s pretty tiny, say 3 feet by 4 feet. You think huh, that’s kinda weird, but whatever. You finish up, wash your hands, and are ready to get back to the party. You go to open the door and … nothing happens. The door is stuck. Shoot.
You jiggle the doorknob a bit, push and pull on the door. Nothing. Gah! You try again. No luck. You bang on the door and yell, “Hey, could somebody help me out!” But it’s a pretty loud party, and you’re pretty far away. Nobody hears you. You start to stress: How long am I gonna be stuck in here?
As you wait, you alternate between fiddling with the doorknob and banging on the door. A minute goes by, then five, then twenty minutes. You’re starting to feel a little claustrophobic in there. You’ve got a bit of a sweat going. A half hour, seriously?!
Finally, after an hour, someone wanders by and hears you. After a couple minutes, they’re able to get the door open. At long last, you’re free. You breathe a sigh of relief and wipe your forehead. That was pretty awful.
But now imagine that instead of an hour, you’re stuck in that tiny bathroom for three months. And instead of just you, there are eight people packed in the bathroom. And outside the bathroom, instead of partygoers, there are packs of killers hacking people to death with machetes—hundreds of thousands of people—and they’re searching for you.
Can you even imagine?
Immaculée Ilibagiza survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide by hiding for 91 days in a 3-by-4-foot bathroom with seven other women. Meanwhile, the rest of her family was slaughtered, as was the majority of her Tutsi tribe. For three months, she lived in terror and thirsted for vengeance. At moments, she doubted the existence of God.
Yet she emerged from this horror with her Catholic faith not only intact, but stronger than ever. Before she went into hiding, her father had given her a rosary. In the cramped bathroom, she prayed twenty-seven rosaries and forty Divine Mercy chaplets each day. She felt like Jesus and Mary were literally holding her.
But for a long time she struggled with the prayer that Jesus had taught his disciples, the Our Father. How could she possibly utter that line about forgiving those who trespass against us? Did God understand what she’d been through?
Eventually, miraculously, she found the grace to put down the baggage of hatred she’d been carrying. She was able to find forgiveness—even for those who had murdered her father, her mother, and her two brothers.
In 2007, she published a book about her experience, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, which became a New York Times bestseller.
I had the privilege of speaking with Immaculée on the phone a few weeks ago, and I heard her speak yesterday in Seattle. After all she has been through, she is the most beautiful, peaceful, joyful person you could ever hope to meet. I will not be at all surprised if she is canonized one day.