Genocide survivor shares message of forgiveness with young adults

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Monday, June 24, 2019

Genocide survivor shares message of forgiveness with young adults

Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza was the featured speaker at the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Theology on Tap kick-off event June 20, 2019, at Salvage One in the West Loop, 1840 W. Hubbard St. The theme for this year’s kick-off event was “Confronting Hate: Choosing Love in a Divided World.” Ilibagiza, the New York Times bestselling author of "Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust," shared her personal story of how she survived the Rwandan genocide, how she forgave the man who killed her family and how radical love in the midst of hate can impact our polarized culture. Theology on Tap is a weekly summer speaker series where archdiocesan parishes bring together young adults to discuss their faith and theological topics in non-traditional Church settings such as bars and coffee shops. Theology on Tap originated in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1981 and over the years, it expanded to more than 40 dioceses across the country and worldwide. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Immaculée Ilibagiza speaks at the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Theology on Tap kick-off event on June 20, 2019 at Salvage One in the West Loop. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father Jamie Mueller, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Young Adult Engagement, leads participants in prayer at the start of the evening. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Participants visit prior to the event. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Participants visit prior to the event. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Immaculée Ilibagiza talks about her experience of praying the rosary everyday while in hiding. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Young adults smile while listening. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Young adults listen to Ilibagiza. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Ilibagiza shares how she was a 22-year-old college student when up to a million Rwandans were killed in a genocide over three months in 1994. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Young adults sit on the floor and listen to the presentation. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Ilibagiza prays at the end of her presentation. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Ilibagiza picks the winner of Cubs tickets with Father Jamie. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Immaculée Ilibagiza was a 22-year-old college student when up to a million Rwandans were killed in a genocide over three months in 1994, younger than most of the 400 or so people who came to hear her speak at the Theology on Tap Chicago kickoff event June 20.

While she didn’t shy away from the horror of her story, she said the horror was not the point. The point was the faith and the prayer that allowed her to forgive those who killed her family and wanted to kill her.

“It is not about how it was,” Ilibagiza said. “It is about how God saved me.”

It’s the story she told in her first book, “Left to Tell” (Hay House, 2006).

Ilibagiza was woken up that morning in April 1994 by one of her brothers, who told her that the president, a member of the ruling Hutu tribe, had been killed in a plane crash.

There were already some Hutus calling for violence against the Tutsi tribe, of which Ilibagiza family were members, and she remembers saying to her brother, “They’re going to kill us all.”

As the violence spread, fanned by radio broadcasts encouraging Hutus to kill Tutsis, friends and neighbors came to the Ilibagiza house to ask her father for advice. He prayed the rosary with them, then said that if the violence was being done by a small faction, it would be put down. If the government and army were behind it, he said, there would be nothing they could do but look forward to eternal life.

Then he gave Ilibagiza his rosary and sent her to the home of a neighbor, a Hutu and a Protestant pastor, to ask him for shelter.

“He was a good man,” Ilibagiza said. The neighbor hid her in a small bathroom. Within a day or two, she was sharing that small space with seven other women and girls, hidden away without even the man’s children knowing they were there. She stayed in the bathroom for 91 days, eating only the scraps that were leftover from the children of the house’s meals.

“I felt that my father told me, whenever I didn’t know what to do, I should pray the rosary,” she said.

So she did. All 15 decades, 27 times a day. And 40 Divine Mercy chaplets.

But, she said, she was angry and vengeful. She wanted to get out of the bathroom and fight back, to take vengeance on the people who killed her family. Besides her, only one of her three brothers survived, because he was in college out of the country when the genocide began.

“I felt I had good reason to be angry,” Ilibagiza told the young adults, and she wanted God to understand and allow that anger. What she found was that the anger was consuming her, she said, and eventually she wanted to let it go.

“I remember talking to God and saying, ‘Help me. I want to know how to smile again,’” she said. “When forgiveness happened, it felt like peace. It felt like freedom.”

In response to a question from the audience, Ilibagiza said forgiving does not necessarily mean forgetting.

“You have to be prudent and be safe,” she said. “I forgave, but I was still hiding. Of course I don’t forget what happened.”

Wanting to hear about how to forgive those who are in conflict with you brought Janet Gil, 37, to the Salvage One event space in the West Loop. Gil said she had never come to a Theology on Tap summer kickoff before, but she wanted to hear Ilibagiza.

Nick Petrus, 24, said he was invited by friends from St. Vincent de Paul Parish, although he is not Catholic. St. Vincent de Paul, which is located next to DePaul University’s campus in Lincoln Park, has a more active young adult group than his Greek Orthodox church, he said. The Loyola graduate, who works at Misericordia, said he has attended plenty of Catholic events.

He came, he said, because he wanted to learn how to work with people who are hostile to you without becoming hostile in return.

Matthew Leverick, who graduated this year from the University of Dayton, said the Rwandan genocide happened before he was born, but he wanted to learn more. He also wanted a chance to meet more Catholic young adults, he said, because his faith became more important to him when he was in college.

Augustinian seminarians Joe Roccosalva and Sam Joutras said the event seemed like a good setting for young Catholics to meet one another.

“It seems like there’s a great sense of community,” Brother Joe said. “People were just walking up and talking to us.”

Elana Cattledge, 20, of St. Sabina Parish, said she came especially to hear Ilibagiza talk about forgiveness.

“I read her book when I was much younger,” Cattledge said. “I wanted to hear her talk about praying to forgive people.”

Ilibagiza told the young adults that one of the most important lessons she learned while in hiding is that the only heart she could change was her own.

“No matter how much you want to change the world, we can only change ourselves,” she said. “Another thing I learned was the power of love. We are to love God and love one another. A million people died in Rwanda because we failed to love one another. It was a long time ago, but the pain is not over. When we fail to love one another, we cause pain that lasts for a long time.”

To learn when and where Theology on Tap sessions will be held this summer, visit


  • theology on tap
  • immaculée ilibagiza
  • rwanda

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