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Missionary to speak about Rwandan genocide

Philomena Lawrence
Special to the Daily Sentinel
Posted 5/12/23

Seventh-day Adventist Pastor Jean Hakiza’s memories of his native Rwanda elicit enduring emotions both heartening and heart-wrenching.

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Missionary to speak about Rwandan genocide


UTICA — Seventh-day Adventist Pastor Jean Hakiza’s memories of his native Rwanda elicit enduring emotions both heartening and heart-wrenching. In 1994, during the massacre of his minority ethnic group in Africa — officially labeled The Genocide Against the Tutsis in Rwanda — Hakiza, at the time a translator at the church, and his pregnant wife spent two and a half harrowing months hiding in a tiny room in the church building.

At the same time, missionary Carl Wilkens, the director of Adventist Development and Relief Agency International and one of only two Americans who chose to stay in the war-torn country despite his church leaders’ and U.S. officials’ orders to evacuate, risked his life daily to assist, protect and eventually rescue several hundred Tutsis, including the Hakizas, from certain death at the hands of the rival Hutu militia and bands of machete-wielding citizens.

It is estimated that more than one million Tutsis, as well as a number of moderate members of the Hutu and Twa groups, fell victim to the genocide.

States a deeply grateful Hakiza, now the pastor of two churches in Michigan, “Carl Wilkens is a very precious hero to us. Carl was not afraid of being shot by stray bullets when he brought food and water to groups of young orphans trapped around the capital city of Kigali. During the final month of the 100-day massacre, Wilkens appealed to a colonel of the genocidal government to move the Hakizas and others to a place of safety under the protection of the United Nations peacekeeping forces. Days later, he petitioned the extremist prime minister of the same government to stop a massacre of more than 400 children housed at the Gisimba orphanage.  

Hakiza now travels several times a year from his Michigan home to Utica and ministers to the spiritual needs of Rwandans who arrived in the city as refugees. As many are not fluent in English, Hakiza speaks to them in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s national language. “It is very important for them to have someone who understands them and who they understand,” explains the 68-year-old pastor, who was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2003 and earned his Master of Divinity degree in his home state.

Hakiza’s upcoming visit to Utica fulfills a significant twofold purpose: At 7 p.m. on Friday, May 19, retired pastor Wilkens, now a world-renowned humanitarian and author, will be the featured speaker at the Seventh-day Adventist Church at 1134 Herkimer Road, Route 5, Utica, where he will share his experiences of those danger-fraught days. His presentation, “Finding the Good — Rwanda’s Pathways Back to Trust,” is open to the public; and Hakiza, who has kept in touch with Wilkens over the years, will be in attendance. Wilkens will also be speaking at the church’s 11 a.m. worship service on Saturday, May 20, and the Syracuse-based Messengers of Christ African Choir will perform sacred music.

Wilkens, author of “I’m Not Leaving,” a book compiled from descriptions of what he witnessed during the genocide and co-founder of World Outside My Shoes, a non-profit educational and professional development organization, travels worldwide to enable and inspire people of all ages to build trusting relationships. As he observes, “We believe the possibility for healing, for restoration, and for connection exists, even when it seems unattainable. We work to replace walls of bias with bridges of empathy.”

Each year, Wilkens returns to Rwanda with students and educators who see for themselves how the people there are working together to rebuild their country, foster trust and learn to exist in harmony. Wilkens’s exemplary work has been featured in articles by The New York Times and on the Public Broadcasting Service’s “Frontline” program, among others. He has also received numerous prestigious awards, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Medal of Valor for “bravery and heroism during the genocide” and St. John’s School of Theology’s Dignitas Humana Award for “demonstrating a life of compassion, service, and respect.”  

Regrettably, as Pastor Hakiza points out, Tutsis living in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are still subjected to persecution and death by the Hutu militia, who fled Rwanda when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP) overpowered them and ended the genocide. However, the pastor remains hopeful: “We don’t know how this will end, but we trust that God has over a thousand good plans for us.”

Randy Davis, the event’s organizer and a dedicated volunteer at The Center (formerly The Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees), encourages local residents to attend the informative event, which he hopes will provide a long-lasting impact. “The Rwandan genocide took place almost 30 years ago, but it is important not to forget the past or be indifferent to the atrocities being committed even today,” he states emphatically. “We must learn to break down stereotypes and prejudice, and live together in peace.


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