Catherine Claire Larson, a senior writer and editor for Prison Fellowship Ministries, recently released As We Forgive (Zondervan, 2009), based on her research in Rwanda. The book details the extraordinary power of forgiveness in a nation still healing from the genocide of 1994.
Here, Larson speaks with byFaith’s Melissa Morgan about how she conceived the book and how she hopes it will move readers.
What piqued your interest in this topic? How did you become interested in Rwanda?
Actually, my first interview assignment at Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) was to write about the head of PFM-Rwanda. From that first encounter, I found myself captivated by what was going on there. People are preaching the gospel in prison, repenting of horrendous crimes, survivors and killers are being reconciled. I couldn’t get it out of my head—little by little these things are bringing healing to Rwanda.
I also was attending an Anglican church plant from Rwanda to the D.C. area, and I heard many stories that way. My brother, who is the pastor of that church, asked me in 2007, “Cath, would you forsake the Super Bowl for the gospel?” I ended up picking up several Rwandans that night at the airport who needed a place to stay. One man I met had been in charge of placing 8,000 orphans in homes.
Also, around this time, I had a friend who was doing a film on the subject of forgiveness in Rwanda, and I wanted to support her efforts. Initially, I planned to just write a few articles, but then I realized that this topic hadn’t been covered before.
Typically, you hear so much negative about Africa. So it’s important to tell these stories. We have a lot to learn from our African brothers and sisters. God is doing something amazing there. He’s redeeming evil.
What is one of the stories of radical forgiveness that you found most compelling?
Devota was a young woman who had just become a Christian at the time of the genocide. Both of her children were killed, she was brutally mutilated, and then the hut she was staying in was set on fire. When we met, she took off her head scarf and showed me the scars on her neck. She has physically healed over time, but deep emotional wounds remained.
Devota attended a reconciliation workshop, a three-day meeting where different survivors and killers tell their stories, talk about amends and restitution, and then write down their sins and sorrows. (Survivors often attend these meetings because Rwanda is a small country, and they know they are going to have to live in community with offenders eventually.) She had a pivotal moment when she reflected on the passage in Isaiah that talks about God carrying our sorrows. At that moment, Christ became her pain-bearer, as well as her sin-bearer.
If God can meet people in this level of pain and destruction, it gives us hope that He can enter the darkness and sadness of our own lives.
Hearing about this woman and her story changed me. I thought I’d forgiven the deepest wound of my life, but this opened up a new thing for me. It became an example of how we live the Christian life through the heaviest sorrows.
What do you hope people take away from this book?
If God can meet people in this level of pain and destruction, it gives us hope that He can enter the darkness and sadness of our own lives. God truly walks with us—moving us to ask for and extend forgiveness.
The grudges we hold seem small and petty by comparison to the level of atrocity in Rwanda. It makes us reconsider the things we’re holding onto.
I hope the book challenges people to reconsider what forgiveness is. There’s this popular conception of forgiveness that says “forgiveness is a choice I make to release myself from anger, bitterness, and pain.” But granting forgiveness can be deeply painful. In forgiving, we choose to suffer actively rather than suffering passively. It hurts, but God call us to it—it’s an opportunity to vividly demonstrate the gospel to those around us.
That’s the other aspect of forgiveness I hope people see. That forgiveness isn’t just a private thing between you and God. It’s about you, but it’s also about bringing shalom to the whole earth.
If readers really grasp the concepts of this book, how might it change the world around them?
We see so many rifts in churches that are petty, over worship wars and other things. I wish we had the humility to say “I sacrifice my desires for the unity of the church, for the sake of my marriage, etc.” Reconciliation is desperately needed at every level of society. I have learned a lot about restorative justice through my work at PFM, so I hope that churches get a vision for going into prisons, and for integrating prisoners into their communities.
When we ask “Your kingdom come” it’s going to happen as we forgive those who trespass against us.
To learn more about Larson or her book, visit www.asweforgivebook.com.