We are all called to the work of reconciliation. To be agents of reconciliation we need to be able to hear God’s voice in the other. God speaks through every one of us, even those with whom we disagree. When we can learn to listen to the other for God’s voice, we can begin the work of reconciliation.
I experienced this profoundly in 1998 while attending the Lambeth Conference. There were about 750 bishops present at the meeting, and I happened to be sitting among a group of African bishops when a resolution on homosexuality was being considered. Only about seventy-five of us voted against the resolution, and these African bishops all around me started booing and stamping their feet when they saw my hand go up. Then I walked outside and saw a young, gay English priest being chased by an African bishop who was insisting he be healed. The first thought that went through my mind was, “I have to get to Africa. I have to go there – not so that I can change their minds about homosexuality, but because I clearly don’t understand them.” I believed God would speak to me through these Christians whose views I struggled to understand.
Since then I have made a number of trips to Africa. My experiences in Africa have helped me to understand what African Christians uniquely have to teach me for my own salvation. For example, for the longest time I didn’t understand that all of Scripture – including all four Gospels and even Paul’s letters – was written by and for people who had deep tribal affiliations. Christians in east Africa, where I’ve spent a lot of time, still come to Scripture with a deep tribal commitment. They understand who they are through their tribe, so they have a different context from which they listen to the voice of Scripture than we do in the West, especially around issues like forgiveness. When I hear their stories, I am reminded of how I sometimes hold onto things that people have done against me. Africans remind me, because of where they receive their identity, of a different reality – and one part of that reality includes an intense drive toward reconciliation.
I witnessed the reality of this drive toward reconciliation when I recently took a group of college students to Rwanda. I wanted to expose these students to a larger experience of Christianity, to get them concerned about Christians all over the world. Some years we go to Rwanda; some years to Israel/Palestine. This year, we went to Rwanda specifically to meet Philbert Kalisa, who runs an organization called REACH Rwanda, which brings together Hutus and Tutsis who were so bitterly divided by the genocide. Philbert works with Hutus and Tutsis in their villages, trying to get them to talk about their experiences and to pray together. Often they develop a project that comes out of and supports this interaction.
We went one day to a celebration of the Hutus in a village where a house had been built for a Tutsi woman. The house was finished and ready to be dedicated, a typical African event. There were about 800 people present, and it seemed like everybody spoke. One woman, named Lydia, got up to speak. She was probably in her late forties. She told us that her husband had been murdered in the genocide, along with her two children, ages one and three. She herself was raped multiple times and is now HIV positive. Philbert’s organization, REACH, had come into town to try to work toward reconciliation, but Lydia wanted nothing to do with it. Gradually, as time went on, she began to get involved in the organization’s cooperative work among the women, making and selling baskets. And then, gradually, she was drawn more and more into the group’s prayer. Eventually, the man who killed her husband got out of prison and came to see her, to ask for her forgiveness. And she forgave him. In front of all of us that day she called him up, held his hand, and said, “Now Nathan is my friend, and we talk almost every day.” Sitting there, listening to this, I just felt so convicted about my own life: I still remember petty things done to me by one of my Brothers maybe twenty-five years ago, which I’d found it impossible to forgive. Watching this incredible reconciliation, I knew I had to start living my life in a different way.
We all do. In liberal Massachusetts we often hear people express the belief that all of us have the same rights, or we hear people say that they’re against discrimination and violence. For Christians, these are absolutely hollow statements that have no reality – unless we’re actually out doing something. We collude with bigotry, violence, and oppression unless we’re actively working for change. In the church, it’s easy to become overly concerned about our own piety. Yet prayer should lead us to activism. I knew a Roman Catholic spiritual director who used to teach that if somebody came to you for spiritual direction and, after eighteen months, still was not involved in any kind of active work of reconciliation in society, their prayer life had failed them. God draws us to the communities and individuals and causes that we’re supposed to be working on. We need to listen for that impulse, concern, or passion in our prayer. And then we need to actively join in the work of reconciliation that is happening around that cause.
It doesn’t matter how educated we are or how old we are or how much money we have; we are part of the body of Christ. In and through the body of Christ, healing is offered to each of its members. Each and every one of us, as a Christian, is given power in the resurrection. We are the Risen Christ. And we are given a choice about how we exercise that power. God calls us to exercise the power of the resurrection in working for the reconciliation of all.
To learn more about opportunities to join in the Episcopal Church’s ministries of reconciliation, visit:
To view images and hear audio from recent SSJE intern Seth Woody’s project on “Hope Amidst Bones” in Rwanda, visit: