From the Los Angeles Times
Preaching the power of forgiveness many times over
Affected by genocide, a priest and a minister deliver message of hope.
By Teresa Watanabe
Times Staff Writer
July 7, 2007
One is an Armenian American priest who resides in Pasadena, the other a
Rwandan minister who lives half a world away in Kigali. Across culture and
distance, however, Father Vazken Movsesian and Benjamin Kayumba share a
powerful if tragic bond: their peoples' traumatic legacy of genocide.
Movsesian lost dozens of relatives, including a grandfather, during the
early 20th century massacre of about 1.2 million Armenians under the Ottoman
Empire, which became the modern republic of Turkey.
For Kayumba, the scars are more recent. He lost 152 relatives, including
both parents, during the 1994 slaughter of more than 800,000 minority Tutsis
and moderate Hutus by Hutu extremist militias.
The men also share a conviction: that only forgiveness can ultimately heal
themselves and their communities.
It's a difficult journey. During an interview this week, Kayumba recalled
that his mother was stripped naked, beaten, stabbed through the chest and
left to die on a road until dogs came to eat her flesh. In time, Kayumba
learned to forgive her murderer, and the anger that weighed Kayumba down
"From that night, I was free," he said.
Kayumba and Movsesian will share that lesson today at a "forgiveness forum"
carefully scheduled for July 7, 2007; it's a symbolic way of following
Jesus' exhortation to forgive "not seven times but seven times 77,"
according to the ancient Armenian Orthodox translation of the Bible.
The forum at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, organized by
Movsesian's In His Shoes Ministries, will also feature other speakers and
artists on the forgiveness theme, including a Latina mother who met and
forgave an Armenian gang member who killed her son.
Movsesian said his message has drawn opposition from some Armenian
Americans. But he said he intends to keep preaching unconditional Christian
forgiveness, following Jesus' actions on the cross.
"I've forgiven the Turks," he said. "Now I can move on with my life."
The two men crossed paths for the first time last year. Movsesian journeyed
to Rwanda at the invitation of Donald Miller, a USC professor of religion
and sociology who has co-written a book on the Armenian genocide and is
compiling an oral history of Rwandan survivors.
Movsesian said the trip immediately produced powerful emotional moments.
After arriving in Kigali, the group went to visit a mass grave for 260,000
victims. At the Genocide Museum, Movsesian said, he heard story after story
of survivors — how Tutsi women escaped Hutu soldiers by jumping into the
Nile River, for instance.
Suddenly, Movsesian said, it hit him. His grandmother had told of Armenian
women eight decades earlier jumping into the Euphrates River to escape the
Turks. He said he began "crying like a baby."
"We haven't changed," Movsesian said in an interview this week, shaking his
head. "Nothing has changed."
Shortly after his visit to the Genocide Museum, he met Kayumba, a field
activities coordinator for the Kigali-based Solace Ministries, a faith-based
nonprofit organization offering counseling, child care, medical aid and
other services for widows and orphans. Sharing their faith and family
stories, the two men also discovered common convictions about forgiveness.
For Movsesian, the ideas about forgiveness first came in 2005 as he planned
his ministry's commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Armenian
genocide, observed each year on April 24.
The Armenian American community has protested to the Turkish government,
which denies a genocide took place, pushed for a presidential resolution on
the issue and held annual memorials.
"We've done everything but what we're supposed to do as Christians — we
haven't forgiven," Movsesian said.
That year, he began preaching that message — taking care to emphasize that
forgiving does not mean forgetting — and took young members of his ministry
to the desert to form a human chain symbolizing forgiveness.
For Kayumba, the transformative moment came unexpectedly. Two months after
the genocide had ended, he drove from Kigali to his family's village to face
his mother's killer. Kayumba learned his identity through other villagers.
The two men had grown up together. When he saw the man walking along a road,
Kayumba said, his anger surged and he tried to run the man over.
The young man dived into a ditch, unharmed. As Kayumba jumped out of the car
and made for the trembling man, he said, a voice filled his head.
"Don't take revenge," said the voice he identifies as the Holy Spirit.
"Revenge is mine."
Kayumba said he looked into the eyes of his mother's killer. The man did not
ask for forgiveness, but Kayumba did — for trying to kill the man. Kayumba
offered absolution as well. His mother's murderer could go. Kayumba had
"The anger, frustration and trauma was totally gone," Kayumba said.
"Instead, I immediately felt relief, peace and love for this person. That's
why I say forgiveness is for us, our own benefit. Hatred and anger can kill
Whether the urge to kill is hard-wired into the human heart or not, as one
genocide seems to give way to another, the two men prefer to believe in
"We want to end this," Movsesian said. "We don't want to have to come back
and talk about genocide again."
But work remains to be done, Kayumba and Movsesian say. The priest's In His
Shoes Ministries, along with All Saints Episcopal Church's New Vision
Partners ministry, is coordinating donations for Kayumba's Solace
They are also sharing ideas about how to take action against another
genocide — in the Darfur region of Sudan.