Sunday, September 11, 2011

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

My thoughts today on the 10th anniversary of September 11th, are of forgiveness and reconciliation. I'd like to share the most poignant example of this I've ever known.

Two years ago, my friend Amir and I had the privilege of traveling through Rwanda during the 15th anniversary of that country's genocide. In this conflict, the majority Hutu ethnic group took up arms against the minority Tutsis. Both of these labels had been falsely assigned by foreign powers nearly a century before, and propaganda to pit one group against the other had been ingrained in the population's head for several generations. In 1994, these ideas exploded as the Hutu extremist government ordered and carried out the mass murder of 20% of the population. Over 500,000 people were killed in 100 days.

In the interview clips below, Amir and I speak with one of the Hutu regional leaders who took orders directly from the government to carry out mass murder. He is now incarcerated as a Category 1 prisoner, a label reserved for high-ranking officials and master-minds of the genocide. Translating is our good friend William Karambizi, who was himself a Tutsi and lost many of his family members and friends in the conflict before fighting with the current government's army to stop the genocide. In this interview, the two former enemies sit side by side.

You may be surprised by what is said, and challenged to reconsider the human capacity to forgive. What does forgiveness really mean? What might happen if our country adopted a policy of forgiveness and reconciliation instead of a policy of revenge and, dare I say, terror? Is there really such a thing as the "other"? Many Rwandans thought so. Now, their eyes are being opened. When will our eyes be opened? As we Americans recall our own tragedy today, let us remember the insight of Dr. King that hate can not defeat hate, only love can.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Teaching in the South Bronx

After over a year without posting, I feel that only a brief synopsis makes sense.

After returning to the U.S. from Rwanda, I packed my bags and headed to New York City. I joined the "corps" at Teach for America, and have been teaching at South Bronx Classical Charter School ever since.

Teaching in my school's environment has been the most difficult thing I have ever done. My first year of teaching gave me a completely different look at social injustice. After spending so much of my time and effort on the other side of the world, it was time for me to open my eyes to my own country's issues. What better place to start than education?

At this point, my greatest realization is this: most poor elementary school children in New York City either receive a chaotic and unfocused education, or they are stifled by over-structured and rigorous academic programs that leave little room for creative development and play.

The challenge moving forward (at least in New York City) is to strike a balance and provide an environment in which children are challenged, but also given the space to enjoy being children.

I hope to write more as my second year progresses, but I am limited on what I can say by Teach for America. Regardless, I know I will come out of this experience with plenty of stories and life lessons that I will be considering for many years.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Truth Untold

For the month of April, most of my posts will be to a new website, which is entitled "A Truth Untold."  This will be the reflections and documentation of a project I am undertaking with my roommate Amir to capture the 15th commemoration of the Rwandan genocide.  As we travel throughout the country, we will be posting pictures, videos, and written reflections about our experiences and our discoveries through reading and traveling.  I hope you will join us on this journey!

Monday, April 06, 2009

Miracle Corners of the World--Arusha, Tanzania

This 13 minute film tells the story of the first community center started by Miracle Corners of the World.  The center is located in the heart of urban Arusha, Tanzania, and offers programs in English, Business Entrepreneurship, Information Technology, a preschool, and a youth group that uses performing arts for social education.  Living out their motto, "Local Change through Global Exchange," Miracle Corners continues to work with communities throughout Africa in an effort to empower youth and address issues of poverty.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Millennium Congregations and Millennium Villages

This eight-part film is one I made recently about the partnership between Millennium Congregations (MC) and the Millennium Villages Project (MVP).

A new American-based non-profit has emerged to promote an inter-faith response to extreme poverty, offering faith communities opportunities to support the incredible work of MVP and combat poverty in Mayange, one of Rwanda's poorest sectors.  Interviews with staff in Rwanda and MC's founder, Jay Lawlor, help tell the story of this partnership in the context of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  Within each MDG are proven interventions in agriculture, education, business development, infrastructure, and health.

This initiative offers the chance for unity among religions as we join in a common life of caring for the suffering and destitute.  And we may just learn something about ourselves along the way.

Ntarama Genocide Memorial

Yesterday, I woke up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday and caught up with the news through Google Reader and e-mail. Our water has not been working for several days now, but our friend and "housekeeper" Tete gathered some from the collection point in the middle of Nyamata. Amir and I spent most of the morning at our computers chatting about everything from politics to religion, with our front door and window wide open, letting in the warm Rwandan air. Our landlord's daughter Ange ran into town and bought some chapatti, which we filled with beans and rice in the spirit of a burrito. As we ate our makeshift burritos, we talked about homosexuality and religion, approaching the topics from different perspectives, but open in our views and gracious in our criticisms.

Later that afternoon, we left our cosy house for the wide-open spaces of the main road that runs through rural Rwanda. We ended up walking several miles down all the way down to Ntarama. As we came up on the town, we accepted rides from two bicycle taxis or "boda bodas" as they are called in Kenya. I had forgotten the joy of coasting along at a leisurely pace that allows you to take in the full scenery, while also enjoying a refreshing breeze that cools skin that has been assaulted by the equatorial sun all day. It sure beats cramming up next to smelly strangers in steamy matatu death traps or viewing terrain from inside a moto helmet that may or may not be giving you a fungal head disease. I actually love the thrill of motos, but enjoyed the slower pace of the bicycle on this particular day.

Our destination was the genocide memorial at Ntarama, a church where 5,000 people met their end from grenades, hammers, clubs, and machetes. Going to this site, I did not know this information and had no idea what to expect, especially after seeing two very different memorials as Gisosi and Nyamata. This one was strikingly similar to the church at Nyamata, although smaller in scale and nestled in a beautiful enclosure of hills and banana trees. 

When I entered the building from the back, the deafening silence of the place washed over me and I felt as if I were being swallowed by the dark sanctuary.  Rows of skulls and bones line a giant shelf that stretches to the ceiling, many indicating the cause of death: a machete gash in the skull, a bullet hole, puncture marks from nail-covered clubs. 

Looking forward to the altar reveals a chilling view partially obstructed by thousands of clothes hanging from the rafters and covering the walls, the actual clothes of the victims.  Parts of the pews are missing where people pried them up in an attempt to defend themselves.  There are huge grenade holes in several walls.  Dust swims slowly in thin streams of light beaming through shrapnel holes in the tin roof.

At the front of the church, our guide showed us weapons that had actually been used in the ghastly event. She physically picked them up one by one to show us. 

Nothing is behind glass, nothing is restored or repainted. The place seems to be exactly as it was at the time of the attack, save for the bodies which have been removed and whose bones have been organized on the shelves, whose clothes now fill the holy space with a sobering reminder of humanity's capability for evil.

A small classroom and a kitchen behind the church give a similar feeling. The classroom has nothing in it but pew-like benches which served as the desks, and the dried blood and brain matter of the small children who were picked up by the feet and slammed into the brick wall.

The kitchen floor is littered with parts of bones and a few large tufts of hair, likely burned from the victim’s heads by fire that was thrown into the building to kill its inhabitants. This structure is badly burned and is in the same disarray to which it was reduced 15 years ago.

Leaving this haunting, yet sacred place, Amir and I signed the guestbook. On the comments section, I wrote “Love is Truth is Power.” Amir wrote “Mankind is capable of extreme love and extreme hate. Let us choose love.”

A Day in the Life of Reynolds Whalen

This 17 minute film follows my typical day living and working in Nyamata, Rwanda.  I made this for my home church of St. John's in Norman, Oklahoma because they are having a fundraiser for the outreach committee, which offered me huge support in my time here.

Enjoy the sites and sounds of a beautiful place with beautiful people!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Penniless, We Own the World

This Bible verse really resonated with me recently and I wanted to share it:

"We are imposters who speak the truth, the unknown men whom all men know: dying we still live on; disciplined by suffering, we are not done to death: in sorrows we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves, we bring wealth to many; penniless, we own the world." (2 Cor. 6:8-10)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Nairobi Street Demonstrations: Chaos or Political Progress?

One headline in Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper for tomorrow (recently posted to their website) reads "Chaos as Varsity Students Stage Street Protests." My experience in Nairobi today was very different.

Last week, two prominent political activists were shot dead while waiting at a stoplight near the University of Nairobi. Several students pushed the car into the school's compound to keep the police from taking the bodies, and a student was shot and killed in the resulting skirmish.

In response, a group of students organized a demonstration for today to protest the violent act and demand the resignation of Kenya's police chief, Major General Mohammed Hussein Ali. Prime Minister Raila Odinga publicly recognized the protest and called for the police force not to intervene, saying that the proper authorities had been notified and that intervention would be a disruption of the political process.

Today, the large group of students walked through the central section of Nairobi and protested in several locations, including on the street in front of the president's offices and outside media headquarters. Indeed, they carried this out with no hassle from the police or the government.

However, as I rode past the business district in a matatu a few hours later, some outsiders had joined the demonstration and were looting local restaurants and businesses. This continued as I walked through town to meet George Ndiritu, the director of Haba na Haba. Several roads were closed for some time and there was fear of escalation, but the police got everything under control quickly and without violence or injury.

After talking with many Kenyans, including George, I believe today's events represent a positive step for tolerance in Kenyan politics. The fact that the government and police did not intervene until absolutely necessary is substantial in a country devastated by election violence that killed thousands of people just over a year ago. According to a staff member at my former study abroad program, this kind of peaceful protest was simply unimaginable until today. While there were certainly chaotic elements to the demonstration, I think the Daily Nation's headline is simply pandering to society's general sensationalism, and ultimately missed the bigger picture.

Ironically, I spent most of the day with Haba na Haba in Mathare, the "most dangerous" part of Nairobi, watching them perform an original play called Co-Existence that criticizes corruption, examines election violence, and calls for a more tolerant political culture in Kenya. Their work was beautiful and I couldn't help thinking that the events of today provide the perfect jumping-off point for an interesting and thought-provoking trip to the States on Thursday.