Living in Rwanda in the early 1990s as a missionary, Wilkens witnessed the genocide that killed 500,000 Tutsis, the nation’s ethnic minority. He stayed in Rwanda during the uprising — the only American to do so — and provided support to orphanages in the capital, Kigali. Wilkens has been speaking at schools nationwide with the organization Facing History and Ourselves. In The City, he visited St. Ignatius College Preparatory on Tuesday and will visit George Washington High School today.
You were living in Rwanda with your wife and three children before the conflict. What was it like staying behind while they left? It was something we discussed very thoroughly. It was an opportunity for me to become a central part of helping these people, and my family understood that. I believe in the power of prayer, but if I could do more than that, why shouldn’t I?
What were your day-to-day activities during the conflict? For the first three weeks, I was forbidden to leave my house, so I was mainly concerned with having enough to eat and drink to survive at that point. After I was able to leave, I managed to find a Rwandan colonel, and I asked him what I could do to help. He directed me to a few nearby orphanages that needed relief work, and I dedicated myself for the next three months to finding food and water for all the people who had fled to these orphanages.
What do you hope students will gain from your presentation? The importance of entering into somebody else’s world. ... Understanding our relationships with people outside of our worldis the key to preventing violence everywhere.