By Julie Lyons
A fellow faculty member asked Celestin Musekura what he was doing to prepare for his upcoming mission trip, and the Dallas Theological Seminary adjunct professor told her that he was working out to strengthen his back—in case he got beat up.
Musekura was on his way to an African country where, if he were caught preaching the gospel, he could expect beatings, imprisonment, or worse. And it wouldn’t be the first time. Musekura, a native of Rwanda, has been beaten and tortured multiple times—a joltingly ironic occupational hazard for a man who specializes in bringing the Biblical message of forgiveness and reconciliation to African countries riven by bloody tribal and ethnic conflicts, through his organization ALARM, African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries.
Rwanda’s own holocaust birthed his calling. Musekura was attending seminary in Nairobi, Kenya, in April 1994 when he heard on CNN about war breaking out in his tiny home country in East-Central Africa. At first, Musekura thought it was merely a continuation of a longstanding conflict between rebel fighters of the Tutsi people, one of the main tribal groups in Rwanda, and Hutu tribesmen whose leaders dominated the country’s politics. It soon became clear that something much more horrific was unfolding—with devastating speed.
The world’s superpowers—including President Bill Clinton and the United States—stood by wringing their hands in indecision as Hutu militias systematically wiped out Tutsis and anyone who sheltered them from one end of the country to the other, egged on by thug politicians who took to the radio waves to call out Tutsis as “cockroaches” who were destroying the country and therefore must be stamped out.
In the space of 100 days, as a small United Nations force looked on mostly helplessly, the militias butchered anywhere from 500,000 to 1,000,000 people, using Dark Ages weaponry such as machetes and clubs and burying some of their victims alive. Since many Rwandan families had intermarried, fathers, brothers, and neighbors ended up slaughtering fathers, brothers, and neighbors. Amid the genocide, 70 percent of Rwanda’s pastors—some of whom hid Tutsis in their homes or harbored them in their sanctuaries—were killed.
Long after the genocide had ended, journalists returned haunting pictures of corpses splayed across church pews where they fell, machete gashes visible on the skeletal remains.
Though Musekura and his wife and children were safe in Kenya as the slaughter unfolded, there was no way to escape the aftermath. Waves of reprisals rolled over the country throughout the next four years, and hundreds of thousands of Hutus—who found themselves pushed out of the government as Tutsi rebels prevailed in civil war—were forced to escape to squalid refugee camps in neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
It was here that Musekura, a Hutu, went searching for his surviving family members in 1994, not long after the genocide. He would locate his mother and other relatives, as well as members of the church he used to pastor—meeting for worship in the camp. He would make several more visits to the refugee camps in Goma, in eastern Zaire.
Hell on earth
What he found was a corner of hell on earth—not so much because of the poverty, which was terrible, but because of the trauma and torment so visible among the survivors. He would encounter children who’d witnessed their fathers and mothers being chopped to pieces before their eyes. One 12-year-old child had become mute after experiencing this, and could only convey what happened by drawing pictures.
He would speak with Hutu pastors who hid Tutsis in their homes during the genocide, then gave them up when their own families were threatened with slaughter. In some cases, their family members were murdered anyway—right in front of them. In the pastors’ eyes, they would have been better off dying. These men of God were haunted by questions:
“Where was God when I saw my wife and children get killed?”
“Why wasn’t I able to save my family?”
“I gave up Tutsis who’d taken refuge with me. Can I ever be forgiven? Can I be a pastor again?”
“Is God just? Is He really all-powerful?”
Listening to their stories, Musekura made some chilling observations: The perpetrators of the massacres in Rwanda were often baptized believers who’d taken their place in a church pew every Sunday. They might have believed at one point and made a confession, but because of the absence of strong Biblical teaching, there was no shift in loyalty from their tribe to Jesus Christ. They blindly obeyed their political leaders when the call for slaughter came. They acted like the world instead of followers of Christ.
“The lack of Christian maturity made it possible for people to do the unthinkable,” Musekura says. “They were not able to say, ‘I will not kill her, I will not kill him, because we belong to the same family of Christ.’”
On the plane back to Kenya, God spoke to Musekura. “Did you see my servants who are hurting, who have abandoned their ministry? Go back and minister to them.”
Reunited with his wife Bernadette and their four children, Musekura didn’t experience the comfort he expected. He couldn’t sleep at night, so great was the pull of God’s call. That same year, in 1994, Musekura began ALARM, with a mission to train African leaders and teach reconciliation in broken communities. Musekura would leave his well-paying job with an international mission organization and plunge into the squalor and misery of the refugee camps, on a search-and-rescue mission for lost shepherds.
“They cried like children”
Musekura and some other ministers began working with pastors in the camps at Goma. First, he asked the men to cry. For their wives and children, hacked to death before them. For slain mothers and fathers and brothers. For their own failures in the face of crisis, for their denials of Christ.
“One of the problems with men is that you can’t cry,” Musekura says. “They were dying inside. Crying was part of their healing. They cried like children.”
Musekura restored the ministers first, so they could aid the women and children in their communities. “They said they couldn’t help them, because they were so torn up inside themselves,” Musekura says.
He wrote a book of 12 sermons, The Pastor’s Companion, which outlined topics the pastors could preach on to address the needs of their community: First, that all men and women are created in the image of God. Then forgiveness, sin, repentance.
Musekura also came up with booklets so children could tell what happened to them in the genocide, preparing a way for healing. The booklets allowed space to draw pictures of what had happened, yielding crude sketches of men with machetes.
In the refugee camps, Musekura and his associates asked the question, What does it mean to be a Christian? The answer was dangerous, it turned out, pointing to revolutionary concepts of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. These were not always well-received by Musekura’s Hutu brothers, who saw him as a traitor to their tribe.
The refugee camps had informal leaders and their own primitive system of justice. Though the United Nations was ostensibly in charge, Hutu leaders kept law and order in the camps. Musekura got in trouble both with Hutu refugee leaders and the Tutsis who now held political power in Rwanda. Each side had a vested interest in allowing the hatreds and reprisals to continue.
Hutu leaders seized Musekura three times and beat him—kicking, hitting, and clubbing him with a rifle butt. He and his family were constantly threatened. And in 1997, he was detained by police for several hours in a “torture room” in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda—all for preaching peace and seeking an end to the tribal conflicts that had nearly destroyed his country.
Through the suffering, Musekura says God strengthened him and his wife, and nurtured the ministry he continues to this day. It was a call to involve a church that had taken part in the genocide “in a radical ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation.” Through sound Biblical teaching, ALARM would disciple pastors who’d never been discipled and train church and community leaders “that church trumps the obligations of tribe, race, and region.”
In time, that ministry would be extended to other nations in East and Central Africa—Sudan, Kenya, Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia. Musekura made a home in Dallas in 1996 to attend Dallas Theological Seminary, where he earned a Ph.D. in theological studies. For many years he has divided his time between ALARM’s Dallas base and Africa, where a team of more than 50 full-time African staff members now travel the region, training pastors and civic leaders, both men and women; teaching seminars on forgiveness and reconciliation; and providing vocational training so Christians in poor communities can support themselves and their families.
“The problem in Africa is not poverty,” Musekura says. Nor is it a lack of food or lack of education. “What Africa lacks,” he says, “is leaders who care about the people they lead. What we have are leaders who divide and serve themselves.”
Africans have done a tremendous job evangelizing the continent, Musekura says, but what’s needed is not just individual conversions but Christian character development. Without strong, Biblical pastoral leadership, he says, the African church will be “superficial, syncretistic, without true transformation, without spiritual growth and maturity.”
In Rwanda, Musekura says, the churches made converts, not disciples. And the results speak for themselves.
His mother’s savior
In his native language Kinyarwanda, Musekura means “savior.” In this culture, each person has a different last name, representing the circumstances of their birth. Musekura’s name would be prophetic in many ways.
His mother, who followed traditional beliefs, worshiping the Supreme Being called Imana, was barren for nine years, causing her to be an outcast. Barrenness was believed to be a curse from her ancestors, and she, in turn, was considered a curse on her village. Children ridiculed her; she couldn’t even sit among the women at village functions. Though she offered prayers and blood sacrifices to the ancestors for years, begging for a child, Musekura’s father had already given her the ultimatum—telling her she’d have to leave his home—when she found out she was pregnant.
She gave birth to her “savior,” and praised the ancestors for answering her prayers. In gratitude, she dedicated her son to service as a traditional priest.
Musekura grew up offering sacrifices of drinks, animal blood, and flesh to the ancestors. By the age of 5, a female high priest began training him for his future role. “By the time I was 8 years old,” Musekura says in a biographical sketch he wrote, “I knew how to slaughter a chicken, a goat, and how to make sacrifices to the dead ancestors.”
But even as a child, Musekura entertained doubts about his inherited beliefs. Despite all these sacrifices, his brother died at the age of 1. And one day while he watched an old-lady medium do her duties, it struck him that the powers she tapped into had not managed to save her husband and two sons, who had all died young.
That day, Musekura told his mother he would not go back to the medium.
The Almighty God, it turned out, had other plans for Musekura’s life. When he was 15, a white American missionary named Edward J. Kile, with the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society, ventured into the region to tell people about Jesus Christ. Once Musekura got over the shock of seeing, touching, and pinching the first white man he’d ever seen, he found himself enthralled by the man’s Bible stories—about a Jesus who didn’t demand the blood of animals, who instead “gave his own blood and made it possible for me to talk to and be a friend of the Supreme Being.”
Musekura found that Jesus irresistible, and a year later he gave his life to Christ. “After that day,” Musekura says, “my life changed dramatically.”
Musekura’s family kicked him out, and for three years he didn’t see his home. Because he had given his allegiance to another God, his relatives believed he would bring calamity on his village and family. But Musekura had something inside him that was greater than his suffering: He recalls being happy, even while living under a bridge at times, wearing rags for clothes, and begging for food or sifting through garbage for meals.
Under Kile’s guidance, he attended a Baptist secondary school. In an astonishing act of God’s provision, his education was funded by a poor elderly widow in Cleveland, Ohio. She literally scavenged cardboard by the side of the road, selling it to recyclers for a few dollars each month so she could send money to help Musekura. The widow, Mary, died the same month Musekura finished Bible school.
By that time, Kile had begun involving Musekura in his mission projects. “One day I am going to die,” he told young Musekura. “I want you to understand what I am doing, and I want you to continue it.” Not many years later, Kile passed away from a heart attack.
After four years of theological training in Zaire, Musekura became a pastor at his home church in Rwanda. Though many people shunned him, others saw a miracle—that Musekura had defied the ancestors and lived.
Many people would come to know Christ in that village, including Musekura’s mother and father.
The test of forgiveness
In the early years after Musekura started ALARM, revenge killings continued to rake through Rwanda. On December 28, 1997, men in uniform descended on his home village and slaughtered some 70 people in their homes and in the church where they had gathered for prayer. Among the dead were Musekura’s father and stepbrother.
Musekura swelled with anger—toward the attackers as well as God.
“It was in those unguarded moments,” Musekura writes, “when God confronted me with the reality of the ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation to which He had called me. In His grace, God assured me that He was there when everything took place. He assured me that my relatives, some of whom I had led to Christ, had finished their journey well and that it was not my responsibility to question where He was but rather finish the journey well like my family members.”
The Lord put before him a challenge: He had been teaching others about repentance and forgiveness. Now would he forgive the men who’d killed his family members?
Musekura could either forgive and allow God to fulfill justice, or “fail to forgive and lead a life without freedom, joy, and peace.”
ALARM had already expanded its ministry to several other countries when Musekura faced the severest test of his ministry. He was training pastors when he discovered among the students three relatives of the men who’d murdered his family members. Musekura felt anger coursing through him again with tremendous force. Again he heard the voice of the Spirit of God, reminding him that he had made a decision to forgive the killers.
But the call of God went further. That day, Musekura repented before those three “brothers,” asking forgiveness because he had hated them.
“The Lord was gracious,” Musekura writes, “as these brethren asked me to forgive them on behalf of their family.” While the men wept, confessed, and forgave each other publicly, some of the other leaders became convicted of harboring unforgiveness and repented.
It was a new beginning for Musekura, a step in understanding how the theological concept of forgiveness becomes the practice of forgiveness.
Justice, Musekura learned, does not build or heal communities. Forgiveness does. Jesus Christ gave up His rights, submitting Himself to an unjust death on the cross. He offered salvation to us while we were still sinners. Because of what He did, we are to offer unconditional forgiveness to “those who cause injury, pain, and suffering in this life.”
The surprising thing, Musekura says, is that offering forgiveness changes us first—and then it multiplies with the power to transform communities.
Find out more about Celestin Musekura’s ministry at www.alarm-inc.org.
Julie Lyons is a journalist, author, and editor. She lives in Dallas with her husband and son.