'Genocide to generosity' course inspired by Rwandan healing

By Stephen Cauchi

October 6 2020A new forgiveness and reconciliation course inspired by the healing of Rwanda from its civil war and genocide will be offered by the Anglican Living Well Centre.

The “Alive to Love” course is devised by Anglican Dr John Steward, who was inspired by a successful and influential National University of Rwanda course he took while working for World Vision in that country.

Dr John Steward

The Rwandan course was about “each person examining their own truth” and discussing it in a “safe, respectful, confidential, non-intrusive” small group setting, he told TMA.

“It’s what I call a re-humanising process. It helps us see inside what we’re struggling with and haven’t been able to deal with. What’s hurting us? What is behind the anger?”

The Rwandan genocide occurred “basically because of unforgiveness,” he said. “Because if we can’t forgive ourselves for our failures and we pretend we’re not failures, then we can’t forgive others as well.”

Dr Steward, who was born in 1945 and has a PhD in soil science, attends St John’s Cranbourne. He lived overseas for 12 years in Asia and Africa and travelled widely, visiting projects of World Vision and training its community development workers.

From 1983 to 1997 he worked for World Vision in Melbourne. Following the Rwandan civil war and genocide of the early 1990s, he was asked by World Vision to go there in 1997. 

“World Vision in Rwanda said if we don’t do something about healing and reconciliation, all the good work we’re doing could be destroyed overnight if there’s another outbreak of violence.”

While in Rwanda he came across a personal development course, offered by a professor of public health at the National University of Rwanda, that had sessions on grief and loss, emotions and forgiveness. 

He watched it transform his dysfunctional administrative assistant and when he did the course himself, he was impressed.

He said to his managers, “Let me tell you, this workshop I guarantee you will impact every staff member because I’ve noticed how traumatised they all are, and if they do it, I reckon their productivity will at least double.”

It was the second time such a course had made an impression on Dr Steward. Prior to going to Rwanda, he participated in a men’s violence program in Melbourne’s outer south-east, “to deal with unresolved issues in my life and to save my marriage”. Many of the men had been violent and had narrowly escaped prison.

“I’d walk up to one of the guys and go, ‘Now what’s happened to you … your face is different. Something’s happened to you.’”

“I found the same thing happened in Rwanda. I could see on my admin assistant – she hadn’t (even) finished that workshop and she was clearly becoming different.”

Dr Steward said he was so convinced of the effectiveness of the Rwandan course, he told his managers he would go home unless they funded a team of people who could offer a similar course.

“I convinced the management team to let me recruit some Rwandans who would go through this process and then share it with others.

“Over five years, we took 300 World Vision staff through their healing journey.” 

Eventually the program spread to their spouses and then to regional areas of the country. “My team oversaw the training of 1000 grassroots facilitators of these approaches.

“So you can go to many places in Rwanda and there’s somebody there to help you through the process.”

Dr Steward lived and worked in Rwanda from 1997-98, then returned once every six months from 1999 to 2008 as a part-time World Vision consultant. It was during this time that he also began working as a spiritual director after training at Retreat House, Cheltenham – the predecessor of the Living Well Centre.

Visiting Rwanda allowed him to track the impact of the course and mentor his team. “It allowed me to see the changes in the country and the changes in the people, hear the stories, and to see that change was sticking. People weren’t just reforming for a while and then going backwards.”

The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 forced World Vision to cut his consulting job. He has been back to Rwanda for self-funded visits since, but has focused on being a spiritual director and training spiritual directors. 

However, his visits to Rwanda over the past decade prompted him to write a book, From Genocide to Generosity, in 2015 and the accompanying study guide To Live Well and To Do Well. The “Alive to Love” course is based on the book as well as the original course in Rwanda that so impressed him in the 1990s.

“The study guide draws on many of the elements that have helped ordinary Rwandans regain a helpful life at peace with themselves and seeking peace with themselves and seeking peace with others,” he said.

“I came to know a few of the people who had begun journeys of change and some of them became my friends. Their stories are like a pool of sanity in a world gone mad. Five years ago some of them asked me to write their experiences so all the world could know you can recover from terrible times.”

He ran the course four times in 2019, with his students including Australian Defence Force nurses who served in Rwanda as well as Christian groups. “It’s on the confidence that I’ve used it that the feedback shows it’s helpful to people that I then have offered it to the Living Well.

“It’s most ideal for people who have a passion for peace … but aren’t sure how you get there.

“My hope is that each participant in the group will be open to trying to lead their own small group once I have taught them facilitation.”

The Living Well Centre for Christian Spirituality runs its programs – which specialise in spiritual direction – at the Community of the Holy Name spirituality centre in Cheltenham and at Hartwell Church of Christ. Dr Steward has been a supervisor at the Centre for eight years.

Prior to 2019 it was located at St George’s Malvern and, prior to 2011, Holy Trinity East Melbourne. 

Before 2001 it was based at Retreat House in Cheltenham, next door to its current location. For over fifty years the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne offered at Retreat House a ministry of spirituality, direction and retreats. 

The program is an eight-day course, offered as a two-day intensive four times a year. It starts in 2021 and will cost $600.

For details of the course, visit http://www.livingwellcentre.org.au/alive-to-love/