TomReflections from Rwanda

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:

Q: How did it all begin? How did you come to SSJE?

My earliest memories are of the church. When I was about eight, I said to my parents that I wanted to be a priest. I was something of the odd one out in my family, and the church was the one place where I felt really appreciated. My father was very influential with me. Of course, football was also important to him, but I wasn’t interested in football; and business was important to him, but I wasn’t interested in that. So, the church felt like the one place that was right for me where I could connect with my father – and that proved to be true. As I was growing up, monks and nuns were never foreign to me. We lived about thirty miles from an Episcopal Benedictine community. My father, who worked in shoe manufacturing, used to give them all their shoes. They were guests in our house a lot, and we would go over to the Abbey. When I was ateenager, I started to go there periodi-cally on retreat. My mother and all my aunts on both sides of the family were educated by Episcopal nuns. So the whole language of monasticism was there throughout my childhood. It was in my DNA.

Q: When did this familiarity develop into a personal feeling of call?

When I was in seminary I began to feel attracted to the religious life. I had a professor who really encouraged me to pray and, with that, I started to become intrigued. Before then, I had basi¬cally thought that monks were losersprobably because they make this very counter-cultural decision to reject what we are always taught to value: They don’t get married, they don’t care about making money or climbing the ladder to success. When I was a child that differ¬ence seemed off-putting, but over time it became intriguing to me. In seminary there were several of us who became intrigued about living a common life, a simple life – not forever, but for a while. I suppose, in some ways, we also wanted to prolong seminary. So we talked a bishop into letting us share a house and salaries, and to be respon¬sible for five churches. By the end of the final year in seminary, I was basically the only one left: Somebody had gotten a good fellowship; somebody had gotten married; and, actually, somebody had decided to become a monk. I didn’t want to do this alone, so I went off to England, where I’d heard there was a house like the one we’d intended to start. In England, I lived for two years in a clergy house, where four of us shared one and a half salaries. We were parish priests who prayed together four times a day and shared meals. We took yearly promises to live a simple life. It was re¬ally wonderful training. Finally, I decided that it was time to come home. During the next two years, as assistant rector of a parish in the inner city in Milwaukee, I started to under¬standunder¬stand that I probably had a vocation to a more traditional kind of religious life. I started looking around. I knew all the religious communities in the United States except the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, which I knew of only from England, but I wasn’t ready to make a commitment to any of those communi¬ties. My spiritual director said to me, “You should do what people always do when they can’t decide what to do with the rest of their lives – apply to graduate school.” So I did. I went off to Catholic University that fall to do a Masters in Liturgical Theology. While I was there, I came up to Cambridge to visit the Monastery because SSJE was the one religious order that I hadn’t visited.

Q: How was that first visit to SSJE?

I walked in the door and, before I’d even talked to anybody, I said to myself – “This is it.” Later on, I had a conversation with Paul Wessinger, who was the Superior at the time. I told him, “I’m coming in the fall.” I think he was a little surprised at how forthright I was. He said, “Well we should probably get some references for you.” So I gave him some references. And then he said, “It would probably be a good idea if you came back again for another visit.” So I came back for a week to visit. Then I came back the following fall as a novice. I’ve been here ever since. As I look back on it now, I think I came here because I was looking for two things that were quite positive: I wanted to be able to pray more, to really learn how to pray. That desire was quite genu¬ine, I think, and of God. And secondly, while I liked parish life well enough, I wanted a much more intense experience of community. If those desires were positive and of God, I think there were also some that pushed me here that weren’t so great. Even as a little boy, when my grandfa¬ther, uncle, and father – who were all in business together – would sit together on Sunday afternoons before the family meal, having a drink and talking about business and making money, I knew that that was not a world I wanted to enter. Certain issues around money and relationships certainly influenced my curiosity about the religious life. I don’t think those issues are entirely gone, but I think they’re in the process of going on their way. And they helped to bring me here.

Q: How would you describe what happened in that moment when you walked through the door for the first time?

Grace. I’ve had a few other instances like that in my life, where it’s been clear to me – to my core – that I am supposed to do this thing. It’s grace. That’s the only way I can describe it. My experi¬ence wasn’t mediated by anything or anyone; it was just the experience of standing for the first time in that front hall and suddenly saying to myself, “Well, this is it.” I think that when you’re in the place you’re called to be, you know. Something in you just clicks. It clicks and makes sense. Standing there in the front hall, this made sense to me. It’s funny, because, once I got here, I didn’t really have the luxury of discern¬ing a vocation the way some people do, because I was given so much responsi¬bility almost from the very beginning. I was the Novice Guardian almost immediately after I made my first vows. And I was elected Superior the year after I made my life profession. So I didn’t have a lot of time to think about wheth¬er or not this was my vocation until after I finished being Superior. With all that was happening, I just didn’t question my vocation very much. There were certainly times when I was unhappy, times when I wanted to leave. There may even have been times when I threatened to leave. But I don’t think I ever questioned that this is what God wants me to do, that I am where God wants me to be.

Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about accepting that call?

Self-awareness. The self-awareness that comes from a life of prayer and from liv¬ing in community. It’s not about being a bishop; it’s not about being a priest; it’s not, ultimately, even about being a monk. It’s about the gift of self-aware¬ness. I never thought my life would be this wonderful

In this Palm Sunday sermon, Br. Tom Shaw invites us to steal away to Jesus: Let the power of his humility, self-sacrifice, and surrender soak into us during this Holy Week, giving us the power to stand on the edge of glory, to look to glory, every day.

This sermon currently is available only in audio format.