- Today Online
MLK Day Bus Ride + Rwanda Genocide
Updated: Mar 9
• Via Bus Ride + Special Visit, Students Take
Deep Dive Into History of Religion, Faith, Rwanda
This article first appeared as the cover story in the February edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
• Related Commentary — Contemplating marriage, divorce and genocide
By Bruce Deckert — Editor-in-Chief • Today Magazine
DOES ANYONE REMEMBER the fun Sesame Street song and game — not to be confused with a song and dance — called “One of These Things Is Not Like The Others”?
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Let’s sing the song, or at least play the game, substituting proper nouns for the term “things” — so for what might be the first time in human history, join Today Magazine for a soulful rendition of the rephrased Sesame Street song and/or game, “One of These Proper Nouns Is Not Like The Others.”
Posed as a question — which one of these five proper nouns is not like the others:
• Avon High School
• Martin Luther King
• Carl Wilkens
Actually, this is a trick question — posed, indeed — because all of these proper nouns are connected to one another, believe it or not. How, you ask? You can’t tell the players without a scorecard, the saying goes, so let’s answer this question and connect the dots and see the mosaic these interrelated people and places comprise.
History teacher Stuart Abrams led an Abrahamic Bus Ride Against Hate — referring to the biblical patriarch Abraham — for Avon High School students on Martin Luther King Day in January.
The bus trip featured visits to three local houses of worship, representing the three faiths that look to Abraham as a foundational figure — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The three locations: the Jewish synagogue Beth El Temple in West Hartford, the Avon-based Catholic Church of Saint Ann, and the Avon-based Farmington Valley American Muslim Center.
This accounts for the first three proper nouns in the above list — the other two are as follows: The day after MLK Day, Rwanda became the focus of a special event at Avon High. At Abrams’ request, Carl Wilkens spoke to students and staff about his career calling in Rwanda, a central African nation located just south of the equator. Abrams and Wilkens met as a result of their shared work with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Wilkens has been described and documented as the only American who stayed in Rwanda during the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
Known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, Rwanda is about the same size as Massachusetts, square-mileage-wise. During this genocide about 800,000 Rwandans were mass-murdered by fellow citizens in a state-sponsored extermination campaign that lasted about 100 days — from early April through July 1994 — according to multiple media reports and historical documents.
Afterward, Wilkens and his wife Teresa founded the organization World Outside My Shoes as a platform for sharing stories not only about the genocide, but also about how Rwanda has moved forward in the past three decades via restorative justice.
Along with their three children, they were in Rwanda for the four years before the genocide as representatives of ADRA, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency that pursues humanitarian work worldwide as an official arm of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
“I tell my students that they’re heroes-in-waiting — just waiting for the opportunity to demonstrate their courage” — Stuart Abrams • Avon High history teacher
On the World Outside My Shoes website, under a bold-blue heading that says OUR WHY, is the following simple yet profound statement: “We believe the possibility for healing, restoration and connection exists — even when it seems unattainable.”
Right under and after that amazing and quasi-paradoxical affirmation, with the bold-blue heading OUR MISSION, is this gem: “To equip and inspire people of all ages to build trusting relationships through restorative thinking and practices.”
Meanwhile, one of Abrams’ goals for the MLK Day bus ride is to underscore the shared values of the three faiths connected to the venerable Father Abraham.
Abrams is the advisor for Avon High’s combined UNICEF and Amnesty International club, which sponsored this inaugural bus ride — he hopes it will become an annual event. Avon students started the club, according to Abrams — “they needed an advisor, and for some reason they asked me.”
SHARED HUMAN VALUES
The symbolism of a bus ride on MLK Day is rich, hearkening back to the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, one of the pivotal early events in the civil rights movement.
During Avon High’s initial Abrahamic Bus Ride Against Hate, Beth El Temple rabbi Jim Rosen noted that his predecessor, rabbi Stanley Kessler, protested side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr.
Kessler joined MLK in 1963 for protests in Alabama, per the Hartford Courant, and at the March on Washington where King gave his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. Kessler helped established Beth El in 1954.
“There is a spark of holiness and goodness in every human being,” Rosen said. “We share dignity as human beings. Everybody comes from a common ancestor, so we can’t afford to hate and demean and hurt others.”
At Avon’s Saint Ann church, pastor Alphonso Fontana reminded his bus-riding visitors of a sometimes forgotten fact: “Christianity’s roots are in Judaism — Jesus and his family were Jewish.”
While anti-Semitism has no place anywhere on earth, this scourge should especially be nonexistent in Christian churches. Fontana spoke of common human values like peace and justice, and defined virtue as the pursuit of “what’s good and true and beautiful … love is the greatest of all virtues.”
He observed, “There’s no evil at a societal level that didn’t start out at a personal level — change has to start with ourselves.”
Fontana addressed the issue of genocide and the human desire to “overcome atrocities” by saying simply: “We can’t do it without God.” A few moments later, he underscored his point: “We need help — we need God’s help. We need a relationship with God.”
The Saint Ann building was constructed in 1957, he noted.
At the Farmington Valley American Muslim Center, imam Safwan Shaikh explained the Islamic view of the three religions represented in the MLK Day bus ride: “We believe Islam is a continuation of Christianity and Christianity is a continuation of Judaism,” he said.
He emphasized the importance his mosque places on interfaith dialogue and community service. In addition, he said, “We want to provide a safe place for our people to gather.”
Referring to the time that 21st-century citizens spend on and devote to their cellphones — the ongoing scrolls, the familiar human devotion to celebrity culture and the like — he noted, “Humans can’t not worship … trust me, everyone worships.”
The Farmington Valley American Muslim Center was established in 2013. Their Avon location was previously an Episcopalian church.
Both Avon houses of worship demonstrate their commitment to the Farmington Valley community by hosting programs that generously help their neighbors. Saint Ann is the site of the Avon Food Pantry, while the American Muslim Center hosts a mobile Foodshare and a mobile medical clinic.
Abrams’ classes at Avon High encompass human rights, genocide and other heavy-duty historical topics. The genocide class considers horrific 20th-century events such as the Armenian genocide during World War I, the Holocaust during World War II and the Rwanda genocide in the 1990s.
A Today Magazine reporter spent only two days with Abrams and Avon High students, yet it appears evident that his work at the high school has been fruitful and worthwhile. In the face of unfathomable questions and his ongoing study of human depravity, he somehow maintains a hopeful outlook.
“I tell my students that they’re heroes-in-waiting — just waiting for the opportunity to demonstrate their courage,” says Abrams, who began teaching at Avon High in 1994.
Of course, confronted with a crisis such as genocide, it’s safe to say that no human being can truly predict how he or she would react. Abrams says that he struggles with the following historical conundrum: Some atheists saved Jewish people during the Holocaust.
In the face of these centuries-old philosophical and theological quandaries, he offers some disarming and refreshing honesty: “I have a lot of questions — I don’t have any answers.”
The story of Corrie Ten Boom and “The Hiding Place” makes clear that some professing Christians also saved their Jewish neighbors when the German nation was essentially hijacked and kidnapped by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi bullies and miscreants and sociopaths.
The account of German pastor and author Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes clear that at least one religious leader in Germany took decisive action vis-à-vis Nazi atrocities, for he participated in one of many Hitler assassination attempts. The movie “Valkyrie” documents another, one of numerous attempts to kill Hitler by those directly in the Nazi military, according to historical sources.
The plot Bonhoeffer participated in failed, and his decision — his attempt at a heroic stand in the face of unspeakable evil — resulted in his execution in April 1945, less than a month before the Allies achieved victory in Europe. Meanwhile, many German pastors apparently sat on the sidelines silently while the Nazi war machine systematically and brutally killed 6 million Jewish citizens and millions of others in concentration camps, spewing smoke and ashes from incinerated human bodies into the air over their beautifully pastoral German neighborhoods.
Presumably, many of these pastors lived to see many more days, long after World II ended and the Allies overcame the Nazi regime. So Dietrich Bonhoeffer dies as a criminal in Germany — while countless other professing Christian pastors who apparently didn’t share his dismay and disgust for Hitler’s Nazi kingdom keep moving forward in postwar Germany.
When Abrams says, “I have a lot of questions” — he isn’t alone. And yes, answers can be elusive.
Yet Abrams and his fellow educators would surely agree that in order to be a caring human community — and to make a constructive difference in society — we must find the best answers to society’s worst problems, even when those answers seem evasive.
True, we humans are finite, and we sometimes vacillate, our confidence and uncertainty alternating like foggy days trading places with sunny days. But across the ages, theologians and philosophers and poets have observed this reality: Whether we want to or not, everyone will eventually have to decide on an answer to life’s most essential questions and most thorny issues.
Abrams raised one of these ancient queries during Wilkens’ presentation to Avon High students and staff, asking Wilkens about the proverbial “silence of God” during dark chapters in human history.
One time-tested way to answer a question is to ask a question in return. Asked about God and genocidal suffering, Wilkens began his answer with a query: “What about God?”
Best-selling author Philip Yancey similarly asks questions as he searches for answers via these books:
• Where Is God When It Hurts?
• What’s So Amazing About Grace?
• What Good Is God?
• Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?
• Disappointment With God: Three Questions No One Asks Aloud
Tough questions, indeed. Let’s return to Wilkens’ Rwanda-connected query: “What about God?”
He continued: “In Rwanda tradition, there’s a saying — this country is so beautiful that God may wander the world during the day, but He returns at night to sleep in Rwanda.” He explained that after the genocide, some people in Rwanda asked: “Has God forgotten us?”
Others said: “God doesn’t like us — so let’s forget about God.” Wilkens said that after some time passed, many in Rwanda reconsidered, saying wistfully: “We got really lonely — so we decided to try God again.”
In his presentation, Wilkens addressed what is typically considered one of the biggest philosophical and theological dilemmas in human history: If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?
This has been described as the problem of evil or — wait for it — the problem of evil and suffering. The knee-jerk assumption and frustration underlying the question is this: Since evil and suffering exist, either God isn’t all-powerful (aka omnipotent) or He isn’t truly loving and good.
Here is one component of Wilkens’ take on the dilemma, as expressed to the Avon High students the day after MLK Day: “If I were all-powerful and loving, I would have stopped the genocide, but what does that do to choice? When you talk about God’s love — I don’t believe there’s any sustainable love without choice.”
Some people — from so-called brilliant philosophers to so-called everyday citizens — claim that the problem of evil is a cogent argument against the existence of God. Regarding the person who professes to be an atheist, Wilkens said: “When someone doesn’t believe in God, God probably doesn’t believe in the god they don’t believe in either.”
Wilkens began his talk at Avon High with two compelling and haunting and staggering questions:
• “How can someone who is a kind, generous neighbor become a murderer?”
• “And how can someone who becomes a murderer be trusted again?”
He followed up the second question with this riveting query: “And can they become even more human than they were?”
After the 1994 genocide, some of the Rwandan people who survived the massacre essentially lived side-by-side with neighbors who had murdered their closest loved ones. Wilkens observed, “Some have survived, some have been killed — how do you rebuild trust?”
Yes, a further cogent question.
In addition to riveting queries, Wilkens told some riveting stories — this is just one: During the Rwanda genocide, an 18-year-old youth killed a woman’s closest family members. “He was on the killing squad that murdered her husband and sons,” Wilkens said.
Instead of giving this young man a death sentence — or, at the very least, a lifetime prison sentence — a civilian community court set him free after determining that he was genuinely remorseful.
But there’s more — the bereaved woman forgave the young man. Wait, there’s more — when one of her daughters got married, she asked the young man to be the emcee at the wedding reception. And — can you believe it — there’s more: When the bereaved woman welcomed a grandchild into the world, she asked the young man to be the child’s godfather.
Wilkens asked, “How did he convince her that he’s changed — that he’s a different person?" The woman, who manages a family farm, offered this simple yet profound answer to Wilkens’ question:“Each planting and harvest season, he’s there — he does things for me my sons would have done.”
Humans long for answers, but sometimes agonizing questions are left hanging in the air and no answers — whether human or divine — are immediately given. Meanwhile, life goes on, and we all have no choice but to move forward, the proverbial one day at a time.
Do you have questions — about life and death … about churches and prisons … about church and secular leaders who abuse power and people, and others who instead care for congregations and constituents … about pain and pleasure … about the problem of evil and the gift of good … about God’s existence and goodness and justice?
Let the conversation and dialogue in our community begin and/or deepen.
Martin Luther King was a proponent of civil conversation among friends and enemies. He proposed interfaith dialogue, even as he was rooted in a tradition that proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as the one-and-only Son of God and Son of Man. He proclaimed nonviolent social protest, even as black citizens and peaceful civil rights marchers were assaulted by white citizens and police across the South who disgraced the uniform, as police today agree nationwide.
By the way, every police chief in the five core Farmington Valley towns unequivocally denounced and grieved the murder of George Floyd by former police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis.
Related Today News — Award-winning George Floyd coverage
Yes, MLK favored civil conversation, interfaith dialogue and nonviolent protest. He also promoted freedom and grace and truth — as best he could, for of course he was a human being with strengths and weaknesses, like every other person on the planet.
Six decades ago, in Washington D.C., he powerfully voiced his universal and quintessential human dream, concluding his legendary speech with these words:
“Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
To be sure, freedom has been championed here in the Farmington Valley for many years — yet does freedom ring clearly enough from Talcott Mountain and the Valley’s other hills and high places?
So many questions have been raised in this single story — why not conclude with a few more: Could a genocide occur here in Connecticut? In a worst-case scenario, what action would you take and whose side would you be on?
Upon further review, are virtual genocides or close parallels occurring right now in Connecticut — and if so, what are we doing about them?
Indeed, let the conversation and the appropriate constructive action continue. +
• Related Commentary — Contemplating marriage, divorce and genocide
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• Bruce William Deckert is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Today Publishing — he has received multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his writing, editing and design work