To Die Trying

Paul-RusesabaginaA religious leader once asked Jesus a question. “If loving God and loving my neighbor is all that religion requires, then tell me, who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with a parable, a parable that is one of his most well known stories: The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

This story turns up everywhere in our culture, even in places where people do not know what a Samaritan is or that it was Jesus who first told the story. With such familiarity, we typically think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a story about being a good neighbor. Yet, this is not Jesus’ point at all. Jesus does not even attempt to define the word “neighbor,” though that is what the religious questioner wanted.

Jesus takes another course altogether. He defines, instead, what it means to “love your neighbor.” He speaks of a love that involves itself in unexpected, revolutionary, boundary-breaking ways. Of course, the only way to explain such a love as this is with a story:

Paul Rusesabagina is the former hotel manager who inspired the movie Hotel Rwanda. Beginning in April of 1994 (has it really been more than two decades?), over the course of a hundred days, an estimated one million Rwandans were killed after extremists in the majority Hutu population turned on the Tutsi minority.

Fifteen percent of the population was annihilated. For perspective, that would be the percentage equivalent of a genocide wiping out nearly fifty million Americans, the total combined population of the greater Southeastern United States: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee – every human being living in those states, gone in three months.

Hotel Rwanda focuses on the seventy-six days in which Mr. Rusesabagina transformed the luxury hotel over which he was responsible, into a refuge for the terrified. On the first day of violence, twenty-six people came to Paul’s home for shelter. They knew he was a person of influence with high connections and that he could help them. That is why they came, of course, but they also knew he was a person of compassion.

They bet their lives on him, and it was a bet that paid off. At the end of that three month massacre, Paul Rusesabagina had saved 1,268 people in his hotel. Somehow, Paul kept corn and beans in the kitchen; he rationed the water in the pool for drinking when militia cut the utilities; and he took all the room numbers off the doors and burned the registration records, so the roving bands of machete-welding killers would not know the identities of those under his protection.

At one point, Paul and his family were given the opportunity to leave Rwanda. He packed his bags to depart. It was then the residents of his hotel came to him and begged him to stay. “Paul,” they said, “we know you are going to be leaving this place tomorrow. But please, if you are really leaving, tell us, because we will go to the roof of the hotel and jump. A better death would be to jump and die immediately.”

Paul said, “By that afternoon I had made the toughest decision of my life. I said to myself, ‘If you leave, and these people are killed, you will never be a free man. You will be a prisoner of your own conscience.’ I then decided to remain behind…and if I was to die, I would die helping my neighbor.”

So, who is your neighbor? That question is incidental, really, as anyone you meet along life’s way fits the definition. “Will you love your neighbor?” – that is the primary question, and one we have the opportunity to answer daily.

Will we be called upon to love with the fearsome intensity of Paul Rusesabagina? It’s not likely, but I hope that when the time comes for us to leave this world, we die trying; we leave knowing we have helped and loved our neighbors. This is so much more than a story. It’s the way we save and heal the world.

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