God Spottings

Théo and his sister Clarisse, by their new home
Théo and his sister Clarisse, by their new home

In Rwanda, I was once again surprised at how little faith I have sometimes—how easily I assume God has abandoned the victims of war, disease and violence.

As I listened to Théo’s story and saw what he and his sisters have had to endure, I was first shocked, then angry, and then sad. Where was God for them and for all the others victims of violence?

My distress only intensified when I found out that some 85% of Rwanda was supposedly Christian before the genocide. Yet church members turned against their fellow church members and neighbors. Even some clergy participated in the killing. In the most egregious circumstances, pastors locked their own parishioners in their church before bulldozing it, setting it on fire, or turning them over to genocidaires.


Reports like this can really get to me, and start me on downward cycle of disillusionment, doubt and despair. Not only has Christianity failed in such circumstances, but God appears to be either apathetic or powerless, or worse. I don’t believe this, but when I see so many suffering, I don’t know what to think.

So, I wasn’t surprised to learn that some survivors of genocide feel that God turned his back on them in their dark hour. I wasn’t shocked to hear some victims of violence admit to losing their faith in God and humanity. And I could not criticize anyone suffering from such horrors for wanting to die. As one thirteen-year-old Congolese boy cried out after he was horribly burned when his house caught fire in the night, “God let me die. Let me die.” In such circumstances, who wouldn’t want the nightmare to be over? Or, if you saw your family butchered in front of you, or your mother or sister being raped and mutilated, or you were left to scrounge for food and shelter as an orphan or widow, how would you feel?

Yet, as awful and unconscionable as these atrocities are, as appropriate our revulsion and angry reactions, and as reasonable our questions and doubts, there is more to the story. There is more to God.

I needed Théo to help me see what I was missing.

The insight came to me when he showed us his new house. I was struck by how thankful he was. Never mind that the house is still uninhabitable. He can’t afford the sheet metal to repair the holes in the roof, and doesn’t have the money to replace the over-filled latrine behind the house. Never mind that there is no kitchen, and the walls of one of the three small rooms are about to collapse. From his perspective, even if he had to go without food for a couple of days from time to time, he felt so grateful just having a home that he could call his own and offer to his sisters.

As he stood in front of his house, beaming with pride and joy, he was not thinking about all that he has had to endure in the past. I saw that what mattered to him was the gift of the moment, and his hope for the future.

I, the outsider, materially affluent, highly educated, privileged in countless ways, was angry at God on his behalf. Yet, he, who had hardly any possessions, periodically lacked food, and had to try to cope with responsibilities and needs that made him physically sick at times from stress, was thankful to God for his blessings.  And on this day, in particular, he was very grateful to God for showing his love and generosity to his sisters and him through the gift of his new home and new “parents.”

As I saw his face and listened to him talk, I suddenly realized something I had been totally missing. God had not abandoned Théo as I had assumed. I just couldn’t see him until I followed the impulse of love and acted on the compassion I felt. I couldn’t see God until I started looking for him within myself and in others, when we are at our best rather than at our worst.

In that single moment, something shifted within me. I stopped looking in vain for signs of God “out there” somewhere, independent of ordinary human beings. Instead, I started seeing God where he has been and is—in Théo’s uncle who saved his life, in those who gave his sisters and him something to eat when they were starving, and in the man who took them in before he died. Above all, I began to see God in Béatrice, the woman who has been hiring him so that he could afford to pay his rent, and who sticks by him offering him whatever she can with limited resources and so many others to care for.

Théo sees God in all the faces, voices, arms and hands of each person who has helped his sisters and him over the years. He also sees God now in Jill and me. And because he sees God in us, it is suddenly possible for me to see God in myself as well as in him.

In the inspiration of the moment, I went from questioning whether God is truly anywhere, to seeing God everywhere. The darkness may be great, but when Christ shines through you and me, the light is greater.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. (2 Corinthians 4:6-7)

Thanks, Théo. You have given me far more than I have given you.

Wherever I see good, I now see God.

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Filed under Horror and Hope in Africa

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