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Storytelling and service counter genocide

For many nights in 1994, Carl Wilkens slept on the floor in the hall of his home in Kigali, Rwanda, as genocide swept away lives outside.  He wondered if the rest of the world knew or cared.

After returning to the United States in 1996 to be chaplain at Milo Adventist Academy and pastor of a church in Days Creek, Ore., he realized that he was now the rest of the world.

Carl Wilkens
Carl Wilken writes about his decision to stay in Rwanda.

“I began asking what was I doing to care about ending the genocide in Darfur,” he said.

In 2004, after an interview on a PBS Frontline documentary, “Ghosts of Rwanda,” teachers contacted him to speak to their classes on genocide and human rights.  For four years, he traveled around the country, speaking two to three days a month.

Carl, who began his career as a vocational education teacher and as an aid worker in Africa, decided on another career change in 2008.

In 2009, he and his wife, Teresa, created the nonprofit, World Outside My Shoes, to address us-vs.-them thinking and equip people to enter the world of “the other” at home or around the world.  Now he travels to schools to tell stories to teach how to address genocide and understand how it relates to hatred, intolerance and prejudice.

He has spoken only a few times in the Spokane area.  In the 2009-2010 school year, he and Teresa bicycled from Spokane via Seattle to Los Angeles, speaking at schools enroute.  They started at Freeman High in Rockford and spoke in Reardan, Davenport and small towns in Eastern Washingtion.

Carl will be keynote speaker for the 2011 Yom Hashoah commemoration at 7 p.m., Thursday, April 28, at Temple Beth Shalom, 1322 E. 30th Ave., in Spokane.

“In presentations, I talk about the commonalties of genocide and bullying. I help students understand what it means to use derogatory slang expressions,” Carl said.  “Words have power and shape thinking, feelings and actions.  We talk, and there is a consequence.”

He sees storytelling and service as key to breaking down barriers between “us” and “them” to re-humanize people who have been dehumanized. 

“Storytelling helps us see ourselves in the other and see what we share in common,” he said.

When people are involved in service, they see the person, not preconceived ideas about an ethnic group, he added.  Doing something physical together—moving a table, digging with a shovel—builds bonds.

“Stories and service are the best ways we have to build peace around the world,” he said.  “We can’t say we are against genocide and have intolerances.  It’s not just about ending genocide, but about building peace and community.”

Carl moved to Spokane for his senior year of high school at Upper Columbia Academy, where he met his wife, Teresa.  He earned a degree in industrial education in 1981 at Walla Walla College. 

A one-year college experience with Student Missions in South Africa instilled a love of Africa.  Six weeks after he and Teresa married, they moved to Zimbabwe to lead a vocational education program.  After four years there, where their two daughters were born, they served two years at a mission hospital in Zambia.

After he earned a master’s in business in 1989 at the University of Baltimore, where their son was born, they went to Rwanda with the Seventh-Day Adventist Development and Relief Agency. 

They studied French for six months in France, arriving in Rwanda in spring 1990.  Carl built primary schools and operated clinics. 

Six months after they arrived, war started when the Tutsi minority returned by force 30 years after fleeing violence in Rwanda just before its independence.  For three years of war, Carl worked in displaced persons camps. 

About 900,000 people were displaced, one-seventh of Rwanda’s 7 million people, living in an area the size of Northeastern Washington from Spokane to Coulee Dam north to Canada.

He generated projects, bringing in bamboo for people in camps to make privacy mats as temporary walls for latrines and clinics.  He brought truckloads of car springs and taught blacksmithing, so people could make garden hoes. 

After three years of war, the international community pressured Rwanda to establish a multi-party transitional government, including a small group of Hutu extremists, the Coalition for the Defense of Rwanda.  They were determined never to share power with the Tutsi or moderate Hutu.

“They designed and implemented the genocide.  It wasn’t a matter of friction between groups of people who did not get along.  Genocide was not the result of prejudice, division or people not getting along.  It was a clear, organized strategy, using radio to construct the enemy persona.

“The strategy was to break the bonds between the Hutu and Tutsi.  There was more love than hatred between them.  Thousands intermarried.  They had the same language, religions, marriage customs, food, music, culture and history.  We can’t say one hated the other so much they decided to exterminate the other.  Marrying the other was more prevalent than killing the other,” he explained.

Carl said “the other” is a construct of politicians to manipulate people in order to stay in power.  Men and women who studied around the world developed a problem-solving strategy based on exclusion.

“Genocide stems from thinking my world would be better without you in it.  Exclusivist problem solving is temporary at best and genocide at worst.  The lessons apply to any society,” he said.

“Look at how we often think we might solve problems by getting rid of someone in our office or congregation,” Carl said. “We also see problem solving by exclusion in U.S. attitudes toward immigrants and refugees.”

While some Americans offer a generous welcome to newcomers, others focus on differences, problems and complaints, he said.

Carl and Teresa now live in Spokane, where his parents, John and Edith Wilkens, have lived many years since the 1970s.

In 1994, his parents were visiting them in Kigali, Rwanda, and heard the explosion when the President’s plane was shot down on Wednesday, April 6.  The American embassy evacuated Americans on Saturday and Sunday. 

His wife, children and parents were part of a vehicle convoy to Burundi.  His parents returned to Spokane, and his family stayed in Burundi and then went to Nairobi for three months of the genocide.

Not knowing if he would survive, Carl made tapes to his wife and children during the genocide, telling them stories of what was happening. He has written a book based on those tapes.  Pre-publication copies of I’m Not Leaving Rwanda are available online April 9 at

Carl stayed to protect their two Tutsi workers.  He expected it would be over in two weeks, but it was three weeks before he could leave his house because of a 24/7 curfew.

Of 5,700 foreigners who lived among 300,000 in Kigali, he knew 10 who stayed—five Catholic sisters from Spain, two Catholic fathers, a Frenchman who stayed with orphans, a Swiss man with the Red Cross and him.

During the genocide, people in Kigali lived off food stocks that the international community had in place for the displaced people.

To help supply three orphanages with food, water and medicine, Carl formed a relationship with Col. Renzaho, the man in charge of Kigali who has since been convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. 

He negotiated with thieves and people in the market for powdered milk, bags of beans, barrels to haul water and diesel for his truck. He negotiated to go through roadblocks.  He found cooking oil through the UN.  When he took wounded people to a Red Cross field hospital, he was given medicines for the orphans.

“Serving meant building relationships with people in the killing squads,” he said.

“Prisoners collected bodies to bury in mass graves or throw in rivers.  Shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania were covered with  people murdered in Rwanda,” he said.  “The rivers that flowed through the beautiful mountainous country into the Nile carried grandmothers, grandfathers, parents, teens, children and babies.

“In Rwanda, no denomination distinguished itself in standing up against genocide, despite mandates to love neighbors and enemies,” he said.

Carl, who attends South Hill Seventh-Day Adventist Church when he is in Spokane, said his faith journey continues.

He believes in God and that God has personal interest in his life and in the planet, as he lives his life around principles of Jesus.

Concerned about divisions denominations can create, he disagrees with practices that separate denominations from each other.

In his travels, Carl has become ecumenical, visiting Jewish synagogues, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist and many other congregations.

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