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Redefining Normal: Pastor Leonard

By Brooke Hartman

One of the things that most intrigued me about Rwanda was all the forgiveness happening. Because I am a Christ-follower, I am absolutely required to forgive others. And because there are so many irritating things around requiring forgiveness, I have had lots of opportunities to perfect the skill. I really still only hang on to one, maybe two offenses of those who have wronged me over the course of my life, and only on Tuesdays. Also, being a counselor, I had a lot to say about forgiving in emotionally safe ways before I went to Rwanda. Yes, you can forgive, of course! But forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to continue to subject yourself to the behavior. Things like that.

But then I met Pastor Leonard, who, like many others in Rwanda, began to redefine my idea of forgiveness. Over an idyllic breakfast on the shore of Lake Kivu, with a refreshing breeze and the sun shining on the hills around us—the physical backdrop of the story he was about to tell—Pastor Leonard shared his experience of fear, anger, bitterness and eventually mercy.

The Bible school housing where Pastor Leonard lived during the first attack.

The Bible school housing where Pastor Leonard lived during the first attack.

When the Civil War started in 1990, Pastor explained, many of the Tutsi had been exiled or fled from the country. Many Tutsi remaining in the country were targeted for discrimination and accused of supporting the Tutsi “rebels” across the borders.

Pastor Leonard began his story: It was October 1990, and he was working as both the administrator of the Cyimbili coffee plantation and as the pastor of the Cyimbili area mission. Even though his family had lived in Cyimbili for almost 11 years, his friends and neighbors began making up stories about him. They spread rumors that he was feeding the rebels living in the hills.

As he spoke, Pastor Leonard pointed to the hills just above us, and we looked around trying to imagine. “They told each other that in the night I was taking food to the rebels and that I joined the rebels at the playground at night to train myself.” Although absurd, the rumors and mistrust continued to spread.

In 1991, the rumors culminated in an attack inside the Bible school staff housing he and his family shared. Pastor Leonard again turned toward the hills behind us and pointed out the row of Bible School housing.  Because of the attack, Pastor Leonard and his family fled to the missionary house —ALARM’s guesthouse, where we sat that very morning conducing the interview.

Photo 1: The Bible school housing where Pastor Leonard lived during the first attack. –Photo by Brooke Hartman

“For about 24 hours the missionary protected me in this house,” Pastor Leonard said, looking around the porch we sat on together. From the house, Pastor Leonard said he called for help from the nearby city of Gisenyi, and a government officer and district administrator sent soldiers to rescue him.

When he arrived, the administrator called people to the church to testify to their accusations against him. “When they looked at me,” Pastor explained, “They would say, ‘That’s what a rebel looks like.’” The administrator and soldiers were having none of it. “How would you know what rebels look like?” they asked. “You are falsely accusing this man!” Pastor Leonard was grateful for their defense, but still worried for his safety. The administrator advised the church to move Leonard from Cyimbili to Gisenyi, where it would be safer.

Pastor Leonard with Celestin, founder of ALARM.

Pastor Leonard with Celestin, founder of ALARM.

But in Gisenyi, things became even worse.

“When we tried to move,” he told us, “there were people who had sharpened a stick. They had a machete and said told me, ‘Today is your day.  We are going to cut your head and put your head on this stick’… But God saved me, and so the missionaries [took] me to Kigali.”

After six months in Kigali, the war seemed to be cooling down, so Pastor Leonard was sent back to Kibuye, a different village along lakeshore just next to Cyimbili.  But, Pastor Leonard said, the war was not cooling and safety was an illusion. It was there, on the shores of Lake Kivu in the Kibuye parish that Pastor Leonard’s wife and six children were attacked and murdered.

After the killing of his family, Pastor Leonard’s friends urged him to leave the church. In fact, some of the members of his church had actually participated in the murder.

In response to their pleading, Pastor Leonard told them, “I made a promise to God, not to a human being.  I know who called me is not a person. I know who called me is God. I serve God.

But even as he said these words, his heart was bitter.  “I was hard in my heart,” he explained.  “I was destroyed and I was betrayed because the people I thought would protect me, my brothers and sisters in Christ— they are the ones who betrayed me! They were part of killing my family and wanted to kill me.”

Suddenly all the things I’d been holding onto over the years seemed insignificant. The things in my own life that had embittered me felt so tiny and frivolous.   After all, my friends and coworkers and college peers never tried to kill me.

The hills around Cyimbili

The hills around Cyimbili

“So even though I was doing the work of God,” Pastor continued, “I had bitterness. It took me three years to deal with that.  Even though I was serving God, I was not well in my heart.”

After those three years of bitterness, Pastor Leonard attended a training in Kigali about reconciliation and unity. During the training, he felt God telling him to forgive those who had taken everything from him.

He explained, “Three of the pastors who were present at the training were top leaders who were supposed to have protected me.  So in the morning when I woke up, I began with them. I began forgiving them.”

Pastor Leonard explained how he then traveled back to the place the events occurred—right here, right on the ground we were sitting on—to forgive the other people who had betrayed him and killed his family. Even though no one was even asking for his forgiveness, Pastor Leonard traveled all over the area forgiving everyone who was involved.

This journey of forgiveness reached its peak when Pastor Leonard was called to testify against one of his perpetrators, a fellow pastor. As the sole witness, the entire case depended on Leonard’s testimony. With a single word, Pastor Leonard could have put the man away for life. But instead of bringing accusations, he came with forgiveness. With no one left to accuse the man, he was released from prison.

Jaw-drop. One by one, this man was not only forgiving people who didn’t protect him, but those who actively hurt him and murdered his family—to the point where the perpetrator was released from jail!

After the pastor was released from jail, he was sent back to the Gacaca Courts in his village. Gacaca courts are old village tribunals that were resurrected after the genocide for the purpose of both justice and healing within the community.

The breakfast table we shared with Pastor Leonard. It sits on the very same ground that once was embroiled in so much hate and violence.

The breakfast table we shared with Pastor Leonard. It sits on the very same ground that once was embroiled in so much hate and violence.

“During the Gacaca courts,” Pastor Leonard said, “Everybody knew what he had done and what he had planned to do to me. He used to live just behind the hill there.”

For a third time, we look up to the hills around us imagining the scenario.

The Gacaca court called Pastor Leonard to testify, and again he explained that he had forgiven him. The man was again released, but this time, Pastor Leonard bought him clothing and asked him to consider it a gift from God.

What?! Not only did Pastor Leonard forgive him and release the guy from two different courts, but fed and clothed him?! My insides were crumbling.

“Since then I became a free man,” He continued. “I forgave, and maybe God even came closer to me and gave me more strength. Today I serve God with physical and spiritual strength… I am the pastor of six local churches, so I am over many many pastors, and we do the work together very well.”

This is forgiveness, I thought. Not emotionally safe at all. Against all the “normal” forgiveness rules, right in the middle of his broken heart. Why? Because God told him to

Wow.