Maggy Barankitse on forgiveness

In a short excerpt from a longer interview, the founder and president of Maison Shalom in Burundi explains the importance of forgiveness.

Marguerite “Maggy” Barankitse is a humanitarian who created Maison Shalom -- House of Peace -- out of the carnage of the Burundian genocide. In nearly 20 years of existence, Maison Shalom has grown to include schools, a hospital, agricultural cooperatives, a microfinance system and other projects.

Maison Shalom began after Barankitse saved 25 children orphaned in a horrific night of mass killing during the civil war between Tutsi and Hutu tribes.

But she has always been clear that her mission is not to build an orphanage or even to help children but rather to help raise them in God’s love and to create a new generation that will break the cycle of violence in her country. The mission of Maison Shalom has expanded to the communities in which the children live, and its holistic initiatives seek to improve the lives of all people.

Barankitse has received many honors, including the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award, the Opus Prize and the Fondation Chirac Prize for Conflict Prevention. Barankitse received an honorary degree from Duke University at its commencement ceremony in May 2013, when she also spoke at Duke Divinity School.

While on campus, Barankitse was interviewed by journalist David Crabtree about her work with Maison Shalom. Their conversation is presented in a 20-minute video.

Excerpts from that same interview can also be viewed by topic in a series of short video clips. In them, she talks about her phrase “Love made me an inventor,” why she built what she did at Maison Shalom, how she found the courage to create an innovative institution, why she built a morgue, her own struggles with God, and her view that life is a feast.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Q: You speak of forgiveness. That’s central to your mission; that’s central to Maison Shalom.

Forgiveness is the key of life. If you refuse to forgive, you refuse life. If you don’t take time and say, “I want to live; I want --” Of course, forgiveness is a process; it’s not like a baguette magique [magic wand], to say, “Oh, I forgive.”

It will come, but you must take time. Take time to read this page. And you must decide to turn the page. Read together with killers, with other persons who suffer, and step by step try to turn the page and to write another page, a beautiful page. And then it allows you to continue to live.

If you don’t want to forgive, then you -- you have hatred in your heart, and it will kill you, because hatred kills. Hatred kills, because it’s a cycle of violence.

You think you are weak if you forgive. But somebody who forgives becomes powerful. Imagine if I don’t forgive: I have those victims’ children, and I will never prepare their future.

I will organize; it will be a rebellion. Maison Shalom will be a house for rebels who will take weapons when they become adults and go to kill the killers of their parents.

If I love those children, I must change their life and make them like candles amidst darkness.

The children taught me how to forgive. It’s a process; it was not so easy for me, even today.

Sometimes I think that I’ve forgiven, but -- I remember one day I met a killer; he was in front of me, going in the church for communion, and he had the clothes of one of the parents of one of the children of Maison Shalom.

I was so angry that I went and took him and said, “No! Imagine, no shame! How can you?”

Then I thought, “Oh, I taught the children to forgive” -- and then after church, I asked him to forgive me, and I called him, and we shared food. I said, “OK, you ask for forgiveness from the children, and then we will forgive.”

It’s like that. It’s not so easy to turn the page. Because, of course, when I return to my village, sometimes I cry, because I remember my cousins, I remember my uncles, because they killed 60 persons from my family. And my family wanted revenge; they became killers also.

Then it’s a process, and it’s a gift from God.