Forgiveness Makes You Free: The Incredible Story of Fr. Ubald

When you first meet Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga, a Rwandan priest whose healing ministry brings him regularly to the United States, you would never suspect what unimaginable horror his gentle, bespeckled eyes have seen. His easygoing manner and ready laugh draw people to him like fireflies—and they listen, spellbound, as he gives them the same message God laid upon his heart twenty-five years ago: “You must forgive and have mercy, and you must beg pardon from those you have harmed. And when you come to Jesus and open your heart to him, he will heal you.”

In the months I worked with Fr. Ubald to write his story, I witnessed the truth of this message over and over. Traveling with my husband to see the Center for the Secret of Peace, I found more than 5,000 people crowding the outdoor arena—at 10 on a Tuesday morning—singing and clapping their hands, fully engaged in worship. These were survivors of the 1994 genocide who had lost most of their family, often at the hands of former neighbors and friends. More than a million Tutsi and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in just one hundred days during the Rwandan genocide. Yet somehow they found a reason to sing and a way to forgive the unforgiveable.

Starting on April 7, 1994, when an airplane carrying the president of Rwanda and other officials was shot down, a well-orchestrated attack erupted against the minority Tutsi people. In the “land of a thousand hills,” the streets ran with blood as men and women took up weapons— some under duress, others from fear and resentment— against those they had known all their lives. Fr. Ubald, who was driven from the parish he had pastored for a decade, could only watch in horror as more than 5,000 who had fled to the parish grounds for sanctuary were shot, beaten, and stabbed. In another parish miles away, his sister survived by hiding in a pile of bodies, covered with the blood of her four-year-old daughter who had stood up from their hiding place and been caught in the crossfire.

Nearly a decade would pass before Fr. Ubald learned the fate of his mother and other family members who were executed by Hutu militia at the order of burgomaster Straton Sinzabakwira, the man to whom they had fled for protection. Straton voluntarily returned to Rwanda two years after the genocide, guilt-ridden over his part in the violence and determined to do what he could to establish the events he had witnessed. He was quickly put in prison for his part in the genocide and faced death on three separate occasions at the hands of those who wanted to cover up the truth of what had happened. But in 2004, Straton was finally called to testify at the Gacaca Courts, the traditional courts of ritual justice that provided the only measure of relief for those whose family members had vanished, establishing the sequence of events, the names of those who had committed the violence, and the location of the bodies.

When Straton rose to give testimony, he recognized Fr. Ubald as the man who had often come to his prison to speak of the power of forgiveness. “First, I must beg pardon,” Straton said, pointing at Fr. Ubald. “I gave the order to kill his family.” Later, he took the priest to the location where his family had been buried in a mass grave, so that he could establish a memorial there. Fr. Ubald assured Straton that he forgave him and proved it by tending to Straton’s two children after their mother died, including putting his daughter through medical school. Upon Straton’s release in 2017, he began traveling across Rwanda with Fr. Ubald, going into prisons and parishes with his testimony and trying to help others find healing, reconciliation, and peace.

In 2009, fellow genocide survivor and bestselling author Immaculée Ilibagiza invited her friend Fr. Ubald to the United States to give his testimony and to offer healing prayers for those seeking physical, mental, and spiritual healing. Wherever he is invited, Fr. Ubald brings the Eucharistic presence of Christ to the people, processing slowly in the sanctuary before declaring the healings that Jesus has done among them that day. He invites them to raise their hands to claim the healings, go to their doctor to confirm that they are well—and then return to give praise to God. And this is exactly what happens.

In March 2019, Fr. Ubald’s story Forgiveness Makes You Free was released, providing another opportunity for people to encounter healing and peace. In addition to his own dramatic story of survival and healing, he includes the five keys for spiritual renewal, healing testimonies, and a guided spiritual exercise for those who struggle to release the pain of the past and want to experience the healing touch of Jesus. Without glossing over the real pain and hardship his people have suffered, Fr. Ubald provides a compelling reason to believe absolutely that forgiveness really does make you free.

You can learn more about Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga and his ministry at frubald.com and at secretofpeace.com.

Heidi Hess Saxton is an author and editor who traveled with her husband Craig to Rwanda in June 2018 to help Fr. Ubald complete his book, Forgiveness Makes You Free: A Dramatic Story of Healing and Reconciliation from the Heart of Rwanda.

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