Pastor finds inspiration in unlikely place

February 7, 2012

By Tom Corrigan

Tale of forgiveness inspires message of peace, healing in wake of Rwandan genocide

With some photos from his several trips to Rwanda on the wall behind him, Pastor Larry Thomas said he has become very attached to that country and its people. By Tom Corrigan

The message is one of reconciliation and forgiveness, symbolized by a photo on the wall of Larry Thomas’ office in Issaquah’s Our Savior Lutheran Church.

The church’s lead pastor, Thomas has been involved with the Seattle-based Rwanda Partners for five years. He serves on the group’s board of directors and was chairman for three years.

That photo on his wall is of two men, Narcisse Ruhangintwari and Pascal Niyomugabo. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Ruhangintwari murdered the other man’s wife and unborn child along with other members of Niyomugabo’s family. After Ruhangintwari was released from prison, Niyomugabo went to visit him. The latter man wanted the other to know he already had been forgiven. According to Thomas, the men are now the best of friends.

Over the course of about 100 days in 1994, the Rwandan massacre saw the murder of roughly 800,000 members of the Tutsi tribe by members of the Hutu peoples.

Thomas has been to Rwanda on four occasions. He has met Ruhangintwari and Niyomugabo and seen their interaction. The two are part of a documentary, “Wounded Healers,” produced by Rwanda Partners. But Thomas said there is nothing like seeing the once worst of enemies together in person.

“It was just a great grace for me,” he said.

Thomas became interested in Rwanda after reading journalist Philip Gourevitch’s book about the Rwandan genocide. He shortly thereafter discovered Rwanda Partners and learned members of the organization made trips to Rwanda.

“‘Next time you go,’ I said, ‘I gotta go,’” Thomas recalled. “And I meant, ‘I gotta go.’ It was a life-changing experience for me.”

How to help

Learn more about Rwanda Partners, and shop or donate to the organization, at www.rwandapartners.org.

He added that he came to care deeply about Rwanda and its people. There is a great paradox, he said, between the unspeakable suffering that took place in that country and people’s capacity for forgiveness and what Thomas referred to several times as their joy.

While he talked about his experiences in Rwanda, Thomas said he did not want any story to be exclusively about him, but to highlight Rwanda Partners. The organization tackles the problems in Rwanda in three ways, group co-founder and Executive Director Greg Stone said.

The first step is job creation in a country with an unemployment rate of 80 percent to 90 percent. Education is a second prong, while trying to heal the spiritual and psychological fallout from the genocide is the third.

Toward its economic ends, Rwanda Partners has several ongoing projects in that country. They work mostly with women, Thomas noted. The group operates a chicken farm as well as a pineapple plantation. Their biggest fundraising mechanism is the production and sale of handmade bags and baskets.

Rwanda Partners has about 3,000 weavers producing the items, Stone said. The goods are sold online, via in-home basket parties and through Costco. The group also has a number of local fundraisers, such as an auction held at the Space Needle.

Regarding education, Rwanda Partners operates numerous schools, Stone said.

Like Thomas, Stone talked a lot about Ruhangintwari and Niyomugabo. The latter is, he said, one of Rwanda Partners’ 10 direct employees in that country. Stone also talked about how Niyomugabo was “stuck” in the horror of the genocide until he decided to forgive and move on. He even remarried.

“It’s a beautiful story,” Stone said.

“I just had never experienced anything like it,” Thomas said.

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or tcorrigan@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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