Alumni sow seeds of hope in wounded country

By Michael Strasburger |

For Kathy O’Keefe, Director of Alumni Relations and Flagler Class of 1980, a journey to a genocide-ravaged country began with a letter that came in the mail.

“When I got the fist mailing piece from Luis Palau Ministries I just knew. I looked at the picture and I knew I wanted to go to Africa,” O’Keefe said.

This summer O’Keefe and two other Flagler Alumni, O’Keefe’s son, Tucker, class of 2006, and Ray Spencer, class of 1994, participated in a nine-day mission trip to Kigali, Rwanda.

They traveled with an organization called the Luis Palau Association, a ministry group based out of Portland, Oregon that specializes in hosting massive evangelistic festivals all over the world. The Republic of Rwanda contacted the globally-known organization and asked if they would host a festival there.

Rwanda is currently a center of focus for ministries and volunteer projects. In 1994 The Republic of Rwanda experienced one of the most violent genocides in history, where an estimated 1 million citizens were murdered within 100 days.

“Every single person there is a survivor on some level of a murder in their family,” O’Keefe said. “The nation was just gripped by an inexplicable ability to murder. It’s beyond comprehension.”

While there, O’Keefe worked with the Luis Palau Association to host a two day festival that recorded over 75,000 attendants. The festival was held in the national soccer stadium where stage equipment, musical recording artists, extreme sport athletes and many more attractions were brought in from Africa and the United States. Before the festival, O’Keefe participated in several work projects in rural villages, feeding children and helping pour concrete floors into the homes of genocide survivors.

O’Keefe was touched by the county’s dedication to self-recovery after the genocide. “The whole mentality of the country is ‘were not giving anything away’ . . . they want their people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” she said.

In effort to rebuild, Rwanda uses a system of “reconciliation prisons,” where the murderers during the genocide are introduced to the surviving members of their victim’s families and work to forge a relationship. Once they are released from prison, they move into “reconciliation villages.” There, they build houses for the victims’ families and live as their neighbors in an effort to learn to live in harmony.

“This is one of the trips where people ask you ‘did you have fun?’ No. It’s not that kind of trip. It’s a life-broadening trip,” O’Keefe said. “You invite these people into your life, and you walk away and it is like saying goodbye to a family member because they have shared their deepest pain with you.”

O’Keefe hopes to return to Africa next summer with the Luis Palau Association, potentially in the country of Uganda. “I think our job is just to say, ‘How can I touch this culture without changing them?'” she said. “They are a lovely people — wounded, but lovely.”

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