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The Most Rev. David L. Ricken is the 12th bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay.

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The power of personal stories in healing racism, division

By Bishop David Ricken | September 23, 2020

The racial division that exists in our country has been very apparent over the past several months and shown how much further we have to go as a nation. In doing so, we must be careful not to let ideologies get in the way of true listening, healing and reconciliation. The personal stories of those who have been impacted by prejudice and racism and their experience of healing and reconciliation can inspire our efforts to heal racial division in our world today.

I have been so struck by the stories of two outstanding survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga and Immaculée Ilibagiza both have visited here several times and have become good friends of the diocese. I have learned so much from them. Their stories of survival and dealing with the aftermath of the genocide by working towards forgiveness are truly inspiring and can serve as a model for us today.

During the genocide, Fr. Ubald’s family, some 80 in number, were macheted to death in cold blood, including his mother. He worked and prayed to be able to forgive his mother’s murderer. Not only did he forgive this man but he paid for the education of his two children while their father served time in jail for his deeds. The man’s daughter recently graduated from medical college.

Immaculée also survived the genocide. She and seven other women hid in a bathroom of a local Christian minister’s home, but she lost many members of her family as well. Immaculée turned to the rosary to overcome the anger and resentment that she felt. It was her grounding in prayer that gave her the strength to forgive the man who killed her mother and one of her brothers.

Through this suffering, both Fr. Ubald and Immaculée have experienced evil unchecked. They have seen how quickly ideologies, fueled by hatred and misinformation, can develop into a rampage and mass murder. Genocidal and racial hatreds are deeply evil and divisive and affect people’s lives for many decades, if not generations.

But as their stories show, the antidote to this hatred and hostility is the person of Jesus, the healer of all wounds, and the model for how we are to offer forgiveness. Fr. Ubald and Immaculée have experienced the love of Christ and that love has allowed them to forgive the people who took so much from them.

Besides the power of Christ’s forgiveness, their stories teach us the importance of listening and dialogue. I mentioned in a column in June that what is required to heal racial division is “deep listening” to the other, to hear their story, to get to know them, to see them as fellow human beings striving to discover meaning in life, and sometimes struggling for the basic necessities of life. We must be willing to engage in real listening and dialogue with one another to work through misunderstanding and to help people to see one another as fellow human beings. Doing so allows us to see people as sons and daughters of God and reach out in love person to person.

One beautiful example of this type of listening is the “Open Wide Our Hearts” photo exhibit. This project features the stories of people right here in our diocese, in northeast Wisconsin, and presents them in such a compelling way. We have recently launched the exhibit online, and you can see it at A pilgrimage through these stories is truly mind-opening and promotes awareness of the trials some people in our midst have had to face. I am so grateful for the participants who have courageously shared their stories. As followers of Christ, we are called to listen to their words and to accompany anyone who has felt on the margins of our church and our community.

In their 2018 pastoral letter against racism, the United States bishops wrote, “To work at ending racism, we need to engage the world and encounter others — to see, maybe for the first time, those who are on the peripheries of our own limited view.” The Rwandan genocide shows what can happen when we are unwilling to do this. Thankfully, stories like Fr. Ubald’s and Immaculée’s show us that the power of Christ can overcome all division, even racism. Inspired by their stories, and guided by the Holy Spirit, may we take steps to reach out and see the face of Christ in all our brothers and sisters!

Follow Bishop Ricken on Twitter, @BpDavidRicken.

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