By Jennifer McGuiggan
Carl Wilkens is an advocate for genocide awareness and the director of World Outside My Shoes, a
non-profit educational and professional development organization committed to inspiring and equipping people to enter the world of "The Other." As the organization's website (www.worldoutsidemyshoes.org) explains, “'The Other' may be under our own roof or on the other side of the globe.”
Wilkens and his family lived in Rwanda during the 1990s. He served as head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International, and in 1994 he was the only American who chose to remain in the country after the genocide began. He chose to stay, he explained, because of the power of presence. He hoped that his physical presence would have some influence perhaps even on the killers. He was especially concerned for the Rwandans who lived and worked in his home.
“Enemies aren't born,” said Wilkens. “They're constructed.” And as such, he said, they can be deconstructed. The two most powerful tools for deconstructing enemies are stories and service. “Stories inspire service. Service empowers stories,” Wilkens told the audience on the third day of the Ethel LeFrak Conference. He recalled how a group of neighborhood women came and blocked the way to his house, standing between a group of armed militia men and the Wilkens family on the first night of the genocide. (Wilkens' wife and children would evacuate soon thereafter, while Wilkens would stay behind.) These Rwandan women told the men stories of the Wilkens, and no harm came to the family.
Wilkens addressed an important point of the Rwandan genocide. Contrary to popular belief in the U.S., the Hutus and Tutsis did not hate each other for years before the genocide, and violence didn't just erupt spontaneously. In reality, the planners of the genocide had to work hard to break the bond between the Hutus and the Tutsis. “There's nothing spontaneous about genocide,” Wilkens said.
He reminded the audience that we see what we believe, which means we must examine what we believe about “The Other” (those whom we perceive to differ from us in some way). Nobody wants to stand alone, he said. “Religions need to be about connecting us to our Maker and to our neighbors.”
“When we combine our minds and muscles in acts of service, it changes the way we think about The Other,” Wilkens said. “In any crisis we've got to look for allies. By writing off someone you miss out on potential help.”