A survivor of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi people in Rwanda shared her testimony about prayer, forgiveness and hope Wednesday in Park Rapids.
Immaculée Ilibagiza, the author of "Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust" and six other books, gave a nearly two-hour presentation in the high school gymnasium that brought her large audience tears and laughter.
Taped-off rectangles on the gym floor, and a booth framed in plywood with an actual toilet inside, displayed signs challenging viewers to imagine themselves hiding for 91 days in a three-by-four-foot bathroom with seven other people.
That's exactly what Ilibagiza did to survive the Rwandan genocide, between April and July 1994.
During her three-month ordeal, Ilibagiza struggled in her belief in God and experienced a gradual spiritual awakening, supported by Bible reading, repeatedly praying the rosary and, at times, seeing a miraculous answer to her prayers.
In one instance, her inner and outer conflict came to a head when a mob of machete-wielding militiamen searched the four-bedroom home where Ilibagiza was hiding with other females, ages 7 to 55. Ilibagiza said she prayed to God for a sign - specifically, not to let the mob open the bathroom door.
During a thorough search of the house, the militiamen looked under beds, above ceilings, on the roof and even inside luggage, leaving no nook unexamined. Finally, the leader of the group approached the homeowner outside the bathroom door, behind which eight refugees trembled. Ilibagiza admitted to feeling tempted to yank the door open and get it over with.
But the militia leader told the homeowner that because he was a good Hutu, they trusted him not to hide any undesirables. The systematic search ended, and the mob withdrew.
Other examples included the time, after the genocide ended, when Ilibagiza found herself in a refugee camp with nothing but the clothes she had been wearing for three months. She prayed that God would send her a change of clothes.
She didn't know how it could happen. There were no stores open. The postal service was not delivering. The country was in ruins, with dead bodies still lying everywhere.
Then a soldier came along, carrying an envelope with Ilibagiza's name on it. Inside the envelope was a change of clothes and a note from a friend in Belgium, saying that since she had not heard confirmation of Ilibagiza's death, she could probably use some clothes. The friend had given it to the soldier as he departed from a Belgian airport, having no idea how he would find Ilibagza.
Throughout the experience Ilibagiza described, her greatest struggle was learning to forgive, love and care for others - a process that she credited to her prayers and meditations on the mysteries of Christ. She came to realize that she needed God to change her heart.
Meanwhile, she also learned to understand why God commands the faithful to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors.
"You pray for them," she said, "not to continue to prosper in their anger and their hatred; you pray for them to change, as I changed. You pray for them to find light, because it's possible. And then, when they find light, they can stop hurting people. They can stop their evil way."
She concluded, "When we pray for those who hate us, we are robbing them or the weapons they have to hate people, to hurt people. Then they change. When I felt that, I felt free."
Copies of Ilibagiza's books and other materials were available for sale and to be signed by the author after her presentation. Two books were given away to winners of a drawing. Ilibagiza also gave away two copies of a recording of herself reading the rosary.