Pilgrimage to Rwanda: Journey inspirational & educational for LesnarWORTHINGTON — When Kathy Lesnar read Immaculée Ilibagiza’s book about her experiences during the Rwanda genocide, she was moved enough by the story to seek out an opportunity to hear Immaculée speak. But she never dreamed that she would get a phone call — out of the blue — from the author.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
This is the second story in a two-part series. The first part ran in Thursday’s Daily Globe.
WORTHINGTON — When Kathy Lesnar read Immaculée Ilibagiza’s book about her experiences during the Rwanda genocide, she was moved enough by the story to seek out an opportunity to hear Immaculée speak. But she never dreamed that she would get a phone call — out of the blue — from the author.
“I’d been working with a company out of Chicago arranging pilgrimages to Bosnia,” explained Kathy, who does occasional freelance marketing in addition to operating Ax Portrait Studio in Worthington. The pilgrimages were to Medjugorje, sight of daily apparitions of the Virgin Mary to three visionaries. “Immaculée wanted to take pilgrimages to Rwanda, now that it’s relatively safe. She called the company and asked, ‘Who does this stuff — the marketing?’ and they gave her my number.
“It was very surreal. She called and asked if I’d help. Over the course of doing that, we struck up a friendship over the phone. That was 10 months ago, and in March, Immaculée had her first trip, and I was able to go along.”
After talking for months to Immaculée on the phone, Kathy finally met her face to face at the airport in New York. Twenty people from 15 states and one person from Norway made the trip.
“It was 12 days, and it was a spiritual, educational and cultural experience,” Kathy explained. “Culturally, the country is so different.”
In the aftermath of the massive genocide, Kathy characterizes the people of Rwanda as “hard working; committed to living a peaceful society; living together with their neighbors; happy; dependent on their Creator and very devoted to their faith.”
Kathy also points out that it’s a country with many orphans, due not only to the mass murders in 1994, but also the prevalence of AIDS, which was also used as a means of slow murder during the genocide. During the trip, the pilgrims visited three orphanages: Mother Theresa’s Orphanage, the Street Children’s Orphanage and Orphans of Rwanda (a college). Kathy has many pictures of the children with their smiling faces.
“I got the same feeling at all three places: they don’t want their children to leave Rwanda,” Kathy said, referring to attempts to adopt children out of the country.
The travelers also paid a visit to the Peace Baskets of Rwanda center, where women who are dying from AIDS make beautiful woven creations that are sold at a premium price in stores such as Macy’s.
Survivors of the Holocaust in Germany constructed a genocide memorial in Rwanda on the mass graves that hold the remains of hundreds of thousands of unidentified victims, and that was a solemn but highly educational component of the trip.
“Then we visited the village of Kibeho. That was the spiritual part of the journey,” Kathy detailed. “In 1981, it was reported by three school children that the Virgin Mary had appeared there and gave them messages for the world, all relating to God: He exists; he is real, and wants you to return to him. She showed them and told them what would happen if they didn’t rid themselves of the hatred in their hearts. What she showed them is what would happen a decade later: Your leader will fall from the sky, and there will be a river of blood.”
The African apparitions were approved in 2000 by the Catholic Church. There is a shrine in Kibeho, run by a priest, Father Lesczek, who has lived there for 18 years.
Kathy’s own faith, as well as her physical fortitude, was tested on the most adventurous part of the pilgrimage — a trek to see silverback gorillas. The hike to the silverback forest, which guides told them would take an hour and a half, actually took almost five hours, climbing straight up the side of a mountain.
“Rwanda is the only place to see silverback gorillas in their natural habitat. We found out that ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ actually means ‘Gorillas in the Clouds.’ It was pretty cool, but beyond my scope of adventure,” said Kathy. “I was doing a lot of praying. I remember standing on this mountain, thinking, “What am I doing here, on the side of a mountain in Africa?”
Although apprehensive about returning there, Immaculée showed her traveling companions the pastor’s house and the bathroom where she and seven other women hid for 91 days during the genocide. The pilgrims also witnessed a confrontation between Immaculée and the man who killed two of her cousins. He asked for her forgiveness.
“It really brought her story to life,” Kathy reflected. “I could almost put myself in that bathroom.
“Everyone had a life-changing experience,” she emphasized about the pilgrimage. “I think we’re all doing things in different ways and trying to make a difference. When 20 people go to Africa on a pilgrimage, the effects can be huge.”
On the Net: