Photo: Felix Carroll

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By Sarah Chichester

"I forgive you."

Alone, these words are powerful. But when spoken to murderers who brutally killed your family, these words cut to the heart of Christian accountability. As children of God — our merciful Savior who yearns for us to ask for His mercy — we must extend mercy to others.

"You must not shrink from this or try to excuse yourself from it," Christ told St. Faustina (Diary of St. Faustina, 742).

At the Divine Mercy conference on March 6, in Tampa, Fla., Immaculee Ilibagiza gave witness to this. A survivor of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 that left nearly a million people dead, Immaculee shared how she came to forgive the people who slew her father, mother, and two of her brothers.

"How can you not believe in God after reading her book and listening to her speak?" said Mrs. Dunnigan, a 7th grade religion and science teacher at Nativity Catholic School in Brandon, Fla., and one of the more than 1,100 conference attendees.

Mrs. Dunnigan did not come to the conference alone. She brought with her a fellow teacher, Mr. Archer, and a group of young students who read Immaculee's book, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.

After she read it last summer, Mrs. Dunnigan found it an inspiring supplement to the sometimes-less-than-inspiring religion textbook. Left to Tell served as a tangible teaching moment to the truths of our faith.

"Of all the classes that we teach, religion should be the most interesting, the most passionate, the most exciting," Mrs. Dunnigan said. "When I read this book, I thought that this would be a wonderful way to teach our kids our Catholic faith because of the power of prayer, the power of forgiveness, and the power of God's love."

She was right. Even though Mrs. Dunnigan scheduled the readings in small sections, students quickly finished the entire book ahead of schedule; one student finished the book in two days.

In other words, the book was a hit.

"It was the best book I ever read, and I've read a lot of books for a long time," said Benjamin Huggins, one of the 28 students who came to the conference.

Classmate Erica Gonzalez agrees, "I thought the book wasn't going to be any good, but after I read it ... Wow!"

For Tina Cassella, the healing that took place in Immaculee's heart gives a great sense of perspective.

"Nowadays you won't forgive someone because they said something about you behind your back," said Tina, "but she had to forgive people who killed everyone she knew — that's a lot different. What we have to go through is nothing compared to what she went through."

The Opportunity of a Lifetime
After hearing about the impact that Immaculee's book had on the Nativity students, Dr. Bryan Thatcher, founder of Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, invited the religion teachers and students to hear Immaculee speak and also to meet her.

Dr. Thatcher, the organizer and emcee of the conference, even introduced the students during the conference, to a round of applause.

Following Immaculee's personal testimony, the students joined her on stage for a group photo. She joyfully embraced each of them. Later, she took time to pose with the students individually and to sign autographs.

"It was truly amazing to read the book and then hear her talk about it, hearing her talk about her experiences with humor," said Benjamin.

"You can sense God in her eyes and in her voice," added Mr. Archer.

The Divine Connection
So many instances in Immaculee's life could have made her bitter or could have hardened her heart. But as her one day in hiding stretched into two and eventually into 91, the power of the Rosary and the power of the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy protected her from two things: the killers who continually searched for her, and Satan's seeds of doubt and discouragement that initially took root, but only temporarily.

Even after returning to her decimated home and hearing of the gruesome deaths of her loved ones, Immaculee clung to her faith and her rosary beads.

Immaculee witnesses to the personal connection between God and us. Said Mr. Archer, "As teachers, we try to remind the students of this personal connection that it exists even in the worst of times. This is the connection that we seek in everyday life."

For one very special day, the students from Nativity Catholic School got a chance to hear and meet a woman who survived a horrible holocaust to bear witness to one truth: God loves her and God loves you. Not just today, not just when times are easy, but when times are dark and all hope seems lost.

Remember: God loves you.

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Bryan Thatcher MD, EADM - Mar 22, 2010

It is so critical that we as a nation teach our youth to stand up for something, to fight for truth, and that forgiveness and humility are signs of strength, not weakness. May all those who attended the conference receive healing from God's Divine Mercy.