For Pius teachers, administrators, trip to Rwanda becomes pilgrimage

Margaret Reist
JournalStar.com

The trip to Rwanda was supposed to be an academic journey for two high school teachers, a way for them to improve how they taught about genocide.

That isn’t exactly how it turned out.

The trip the two teachers, their principal and superintendent took last summer to prepare for a visit from a survivor of the 1994 genocide that killed a million people in three months became something much more personal.

Ilibagiza survived, unlike most of her family, hiding in a 3-by-4-foot bathroom for 91 days. Her faith — and a rosary given to her by her father when he told her to run and hide — helped her to not only survive, but to eventually forgive those who killed her family.

It was, in part, that message of forgiveness that turned a professional development trip into a spiritual pilgrimage for the Pius group. That, and meeting the people of Rwanda, seeing the poverty in which they live, and getting to know them and their giving nature.

“When we got there and saw the needs of the people and the needs in our hearts to reach out to them, it became a pilgrimage,” said Jane Connealy, who teaches English and psychology.

“What turned it into a pilgrimage for me personally was recognizing the need for forgiveness in my life.”

The idea for the trip began the summer before, when Pius staff got an e-mail from a member of a Catholic business organization planning to bring Ilibagiza to Lincoln to speak and asking if they’d like to have her speak at Pius.

The school was interested. And since both Julie Schonewise and Connealy teach a social literature class that covers genocide, they were particularly interested.

“I said, as a joke, I guess we’ll need to go to Rwanda and study genocide,” Schonewise recalled.

They applied for and got a $10,000 grant from the Fund for Teachers, which provides professional development money to teachers who want to expand their global awareness.

They decided to include Principal Tom Korta and Superintendent Jim Meysenburg to help make their trip something that could benefit the entire school.

Through a colleague who works for the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Schonewise learned that Ilibagiza takes visitors on tours of Rwanda.

Some months later, the four were on a plane to Kilgali, the capital of Rwanda.

They visited the Genocide Memorial, but that really wasn’t the heart of the trip.

“It was the jumping off point,” Connealy said.

From there, they bused to a tiny village called Kibeho, where Catholics believe Mary appeared to visionaries in the 1980s and foretold the genocide. On the way, they visited an orphanage and the Cana Center retreat, where they saw the shrine to Mary, and spent time at an elementary school and a school for the blind.

Kibeho was very poor, and the Pius travelers had no running water for two days. But they found it a place of peace.

“What it was all about was building relationships with the kids of Kibeho,” Connealy said.

The trip really didn’t focus on the genocide as much as it did on the people and culture of Rwanda, Connealy said. But the teachers already knew the ruling Hutu tribe had killed nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days.

Left: Pius X teacher Julie Schonewise looks on while a blind student reads Braille in Kibeho, Rwanda.

Right: Pius X Superintendent Fr. Jim Meysenburg, teachers Julie Schonewise, Jane Connealy and Principal Tom Korta (back) sit with children from a nearby village during their stay at the Cana Retreat Center near Kibeho, Rwanda.

Walking down a dusty road, Connealy said, she could almost hear the killers using the codes for their slaughter: “Cut down the cockroaches. Cut down the tall trees.”

The travelers did hear stories and visited Ilibagiza’s home, which was destroyed during the genocide but has been rebuilt as a place of prayer.

Ilibagiza’s family traveled with them from Kilgali to Kibeho, and Ilibagiza’s sister-in-law talked about how she survived the killings.

She told the travelers how she and her family were taken from their home, forced to lie in the dust while the killers fired at them. The bullets missed her, and she pretended to be dead.

Later, the 17-year-old girl was warned to flee by a boy who was among a group of killers but ran ahead and warned her they were coming.

That was something the teachers learned on their trip — that there were those among the killers who tried to help.

Throughout the trip, the Pius group learned about Ilibagiza’s ability to forgive. And they brought that message home to Lincoln, deciding forgiveness and reconciliation should be a yearlong school theme.

The teachers, with Schonewise leading the effort, had already developed curriculum ideas teachers could use to tie into Ilibagiza’s visit.

To some extent, the trip was always grounded in religion, because the travelers are all Catholics who teach at Pius.

And Immaculée Ilibagiza — who will be in Lincoln this week to talk about how she survived — is also a devout Catholic.

  • Family Consumer Sciences classes are making sundresses to send to the school in Kibeho.
  • Art classes are making Seven Sorrows rosaries.
  • Industrial arts classes are talking about building codes so they understand just how small the bathroom where Ilibagiza hid was.
  • Language classes are learning Kinyarwandan.
  • Social studies classes and social literature classes are studying the genocide.
  • Theology classes are learning about the visionaries in Kibeho.

On Wednesday, students from the 10 Catholic middle schools will join Pius students for an assembly with Ilibagiza.

Being able to reach that many students is important to the teachers — to help spread her message.

“It’s really about forgiveness,” Connealy said. “The power of forgiveness. To forgive others, and ourselves.”

Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com