Newman University in conjunction with Legatus – Wichita Chapter and The Gerber Institute for Catholic Studies will host a lecture by Rwandan genocide survivor and New York Times best selling author Immaculée Ilibagiza, at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 13, in the Performance Hall, inside the De Mattias Fine Arts Center on the Newman Campus. Overflow seating and a live video feed will be available in the Dugan-Gorges Conference Center, inside the Dugan Library and Campus Center.
Ilibagiza will speak on “Faith, Hope and Forgiveness.” A book signing will follow the event. Books will be available for purchase by cash or check only.
Ilibagiza was born in Rwanda and studied electronic and mechanical engineering at the National University of Rwanda. Her life was transformed dramatically in 1994 during the Rwanda genocide when she and seven other women spent 91 days huddled silently together in a cramped bathroom of a local pastor’s house. When Ilibagiza entered the bathroom she was a vibrant, 115-pound university student with a loving family. She emerged weighing just 65 pounds to find her entire family had been brutally murdered, with the exception of one brother who had been studying out of the country.
During her time in hiding, Ilibagiza overcame her anger and resentment by turning to faith. She prayed with a set of rosary beads given to her by her devout Catholic father from morning to night, and ultimately found it possible, in fact imperative, to forgive her tormentors and her family’s murderers. The strength of her faith made it possible for her to stare down a man threatening to kill her with a machete during her escape. She also later came face to face with the killer of her mother and her brother and said the unthinkable, “I forgive you.”
In addition to prayer, Ilibagiza used her time in the tiny bathroom to teach herself English with only The Bible and a dictionary. With that and other skills she was able to secure a job with the United Nations, and in 1998 immigrated to the United States. She later wrote her first book, Left to Tell; Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, which was released in March 2006 and quickly became a New York Times Best Seller. To date it has been translated into 17 languages.
“We are proud to partner with Legatus and the Gerber Institute to bring Immaculée to the Wichita community,” said Newman President Noreen M. Carrocci, Ph.D. “She is a woman of incredible faith and discipline, and her message on that faith and the importance of forgiveness is powerful and compelling. I don’t think anyone could be in the presence of this woman, hear her story, and not be moved to the very core of their being.”
One of the event co-sponsors, The Gerber Institute for Catholic Studies, is continuing this year to engage in dialogue reflective of the theme, “Reconciling Differences.” Gerber Institute officials said Ilibagiza’s story fits well with this theme, although perhaps from a different angle.
“Immaculée’s story dramatically illustrates a form of reconciliation that is sometimes overlooked,” said Jamey Findling, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy at Newman and director of The Gerber Institute. “Since after surviving unimaginable hardships that might have left her broken and shattered, she has instead emerged whole and intact. This is a form of reconciliation that does not occur externally, as between former enemies, but internally, in the recesses of the heart and soul. I’m really looking forward to hearing her.”
Members of the other co-sponsoring group, Legatus – Wichita Chapter, agreed that Ilibagiza’s experience and message are powerful.
“Immaculée’s inspirational message of love and forgiveness in the face of evil is a wonderful gift for all of us,” said Clem Ast, Legatus membership chair.
Legatus Program Chairman Dale Wiggins agreed.
“My wife, Alice, and I read Immaculée’s book Left To Tell and we thought it was such a compelling story of courage, faith, hope and forgiveness that we decided to see if we could arrange for Immaculée to speak to our Legatus group,” Wiggins said. “We then learned she had spoken at Wichita’s Midwest Catholic Family Conference last year and while there had befriended Clem and Patty Ast, also Legatus members. Clem and Patty have heard her speak a number of times and they couldn’t say enough good things about her presentations. We are delighted to have her back in Wichita.”
Ilibagiza has been the subject of a documentary titled The Diary of Immaculée, and has appeared in network television shows and print articles around the world. She has received several honorary degrees and been recognized with many humanitarian awards, including The Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace 2007 and the American Legacy’s Women of Strength & Courage Award. She has written three additional books in recent years: Led by Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide, Our Lady of Kibeho, and If Only We Had Listened.
Ilibagiza has been described as a “transcendentally spiritual woman” and “uniquely divine.” She is regarded as one of the world’s leading speakers on peace, faith, and forgiveness, and has shared her message with audiences ranging from world dignitaries to school children. She has also established the Left to Tell Charitable Fund to help others heal from the long-term effects of genocide and war.