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By Lorraine Sanders
In early April 1994, 22-year-old student Immaculée Ilibagiza headed home from university for Easter break. She was somewhat reluctant to leave her studies, but went ahead at her father's urging. It was important that she be there for the holiday.
Within days of returning home for what was supposed to be a celebration, Ilibagiza found herself confined to a three-by-four-foot bathroom with seven other women, while her entire family--save one brother who was studying abroad at the time--and an estimated 800,000 people died during the 100 days that the Rwandan genocide raged outside.
For a total of 91 days, Ilibagiza remained in the tiny bathroom, a rare second such facility in the home of a local Hutu pastor. By pushing a wardrobe in front of the door, the pastor had harbored the eight Tutsi women, even as frenzied killers searched the home and called for them by name. No one spoke. During her silent waking hours, Ilibagiza, raised in a well-to-do Catholic Tutsi family, prayed using a red and white rosary from her father and studied her only reading material: a Bible and an English dictionary.
This is only part of the story Ilibagiza will tell when she visits St. Paul's Church in Noe Valley on June 12, for the first in a series of events celebrating the Catholic Church's Year of Saint Paul, which begins June 2008 and commemorates the 2,000th anniversary of the saint's birth. Churches around the world are taking part in the yearlong event, announced by Pope Benedict XVI last year.
"It's just a real message of hope and forgiveness," says the Rev. Mario Farana, a native San Franciscan who came to St. Paul's Church in 1993.
Journey Toward Hope
And that is where the second, and perhaps most important, part of Ilibagiza's story begins. After emerging from the bathroom weighing a mere 65 pounds and making a treacherous escape through Hutu-occupied territory, she reached safety at a French compound, only to learn that her father, mother, and two brothers had been brutally murdered. Still, Ilibagiza refused to let hate, fear, and suffering take over.
Instead, she forgave her family's killers and embarked upon a remarkable journey that eventually led her to find a job with the United Nations, marry a fellow United Nations worker, and immigrate to the United States. She also authored two books, including the bestseller Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, and founded the Left to Tell Charitable Fund, benefiting orphaned survivors of the genocide. Today, Ilibagiza travels around the world telling her story, which is being adapted into a feature film with MPower Pictures.
"The symbolism of what she's doing is just like Saint Paul. She's going out into the world, and she's spoken not just to Catholic people, but to people of all faiths and religions," Farana explained. (Saint Paul, according to church history, was born in Tarsus, in what is now Turkey, about 10 A.D. He spent his life spreading Jesus Christ's teachings, first to Jews and then to Gentiles.)
New Venture for Church
The parallels between Ilibagiza's life and the life of Saint Paul are not the only reason her visit to the church is a significant one. The cast and crew of Sister Act and a performance a few years back by musician Phil Coulter aside, the church has not made a habit of bringing in high-profile guests.
"This is the first time that we've had somebody of her stature," Farana said.
Nor has the church been comfortable spending money to make such appearances happen--especially not since seismic retrofitting, mandated after the Loma Prieta earthquake, totaled $3.2 million. The renovation of St. Paul's 97-year-old Gothic landmark at Church and Valley streets was completed in 2006, but the debt still lingers. So explains the $20 ticket price associated with the event. If they can fill St. Paul's, which seats about 1,000, event organizers say they'll come close to covering the costs associated with securing the internationally recognized speaker, who uses speaker fees to pay for travel expenses and to support her charitable fund's activities. The church is also working to raise private funds to cover expenses not met by ticket sales.
Inspired by Book and Bishop
Further contributing to the event's significance is the way in which the church came to invite Ilibagiza to visit in the first place. Last September, Farana stumbled upon Ilibagiza's book after a friend suggested he read it. Unbeknownst to Farana, Ilibagiza happened to be speaking that month at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School. Purely by coincidence, retired Archbishop Frank Hurley of Alaska was visiting St. Paul's Church and, also unbeknownst to Farana, was invited to hear Ilibagiza's talk in Oakland during his stay.
"When [Archbishop Hurley] returned to the rectory after the talk, he proceeded to tell Father Mario about this remarkable woman, and her presentation. Father Mario said it sounded like the exact same person he was reading about. He ran to his room to retrieve the book. Archbishop Hurley confirmed that yes, indeed, it was the very same person," recounts St. Paul's member and Sanchez Street resident Laure Moon, who was struck by the serendipity of the story when she began working with Farana to organize the event. That evening, Farana began hoping Ilibagiza would be willing to come to St. Paul's. Over the last eight months, the church has worked to turn this wish into a reality.
A Universal Message
On Thursday, June 12, Ilibagiza will be present for the church's inaugural event celebrating the Year of Saint Paul. The church is in the process of planning more commemorative events this year, but none may hold the wide appeal to non-Catholics and those outside the church as Ilibagiza's visit. While Ilibagiza's story is undisputedly and deeply intertwined with her Catholic faith, hers is not a message confined by religious bounds.
As Moon put it, "Even if you don't have a specific religious background or faith that you follow, there are messages that transcend that, and those are messages of hope and forgiveness.... I think, in all of our lives, we have some areas where we want more hope, and there's always something that's hard to forgive."
"An Evening with Ilibagiza" will take place at 7 p.m. on June 12 at St. Paul's Church. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for seniors and students. Advance tickets can be purchased by sending a check made out to St. Paul's Church, to St. Paul's Church, Attn: Katy, 221 Valley Street, San Francisco, CA 94131. For more information, call 648-7538 or visit www.stpaulsf.org.