The Scent of Life, the Sacrament of Presence

In memorable dispatches from Rwanda this summer, reporter Rick Hampson of USA Today covered the visit of Cindy McCain, wife of the Republican presidential nominee, to the scene of a crime – the horrible African genocide of 1994.

It’s hard to imagine, but the killing fields of Rwanda were among the most brutally efficient in human history, ranking alongside those of Cambodia, mainland China, Nazi Germany and Russia in earlier generations. Fourteen years ago, in the course of about 100 days, members of the Hutu tribal majority engineered the deaths of about one million people, mostly in the Tutsi minority tribe.

While Cindy McCain and her allies in CARE International were in Africa, half a world away, 15 female Rwandan business owners (from all of that nation’s ethic groupings, one of them a survivor of the genocide) participated in a “Peace Through Business” program in Oklahoma City. Three weeks of classroom instruction at Oklahoma Christian University preceded a week “shadowing” businesswomen around Oklahoma.

The visit of the Rwandans was arranged by Oklahoma businesswoman Terry Neese. She is known around the country as a regular on Fox News segments, and also turns up frequently on Cable News Network and other networks. Her Labor Day column was printed in Monday’s Washington Times. Neese’s work as director of family policy issues at the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) in Dallas has enhanced her growing impact as a national “player.”

Less well known, Neese’s efforts befriending and training third world entrepreneurs are just beginning to get some attention. She told me last week, “The program is founded on a simple premise: It’s possible to change the world by educating women about business and giving them the tools to succeed.” A woman of many hats, Neese is president of the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women (IEEW), lead sponsor of “Peace Through Business.” She said it has been “amazing to see the effect” of this effort in the lives of participants.

This summer was certainly busy for Neese. In addition to her program at Oklahoma Christian, she traveled to Midland, Michigan for the August graduation of 15 Aghan women from IEEW’s program at Northwood University. While there, Northwood President and CEO Keith A. Pretty surprised her with an  honorary Ph.D.

Back home in Oklahoma, one highlight of the month for the Rwandans was a day spent at the historic Paseo Arts District in Oklahoma City. An eye witness shared this account of the Paseo visit with me: “The women began their Paseo experience at the Art of Yoga studio, where we ate box lunches from Prairie Gypsies and observed a yoga class.” After lunch, the visitors “proceeded to JRB studio where Sue Hale [a ranking newswoman at The Oklahoman] gave us Paseo history, then led us on a tour of several of the galleries. The ladies shopped and ‘talked shop’ with many of the proprietors.”

Hosts of the Paseo visit included business women, local artists and/or gallery owners who mentored the women from Rwanda, several of them handicraft shop owners. Joining the Rwandans for that day was Monica-Luechtefeld, Executive VP/Supply Chain and information technology for Office Depot. The company donated 30 laptop computers to the Rwandans and to Afghan women who attended school in Michigan as part of Neese’s Peace through Business 2008.

That their names might enter cyber-space in a blessed context, the students from Rwanda included Chantal Sarah Bucyana, Rebecca Busingye, Joy U Gahigana, Cecil Halkey, Bertha Kabuto, Goretti B. Kabuto, Apollonia Kibukayire, Betty Habimana Kinyana, Ruzindana Lillian Kyampaire, Juliet Mugisha Mbabazi, Elise Umulisa Milenge, Eron Asiimwe Nsenga, Margueritte Francois Nyagahura, Gloria K. Uwizera and Emertha Uwanyirigira.

When the women “graduated” from Oklahoma Christian, Juliet Mbabazi spoke for the group. She thanked Neese and other organizers of the program. Her beautiful, lilting voice was addictive to hear. Juliet grew emotional as she explained that women in her country preserve cultural and family traditions, not with the written word, but by tellling stories aloud. She said tales of their summer here will begin, “Once upon a time, in Oklahoma.” Then, she cried. And, so did we.

Juliet watched me as I watched her. After her speech, she came and sat next to me on the front row. I was so enchanted during our moments of conversation that I neglected to take detailed notes. I simply remember Juliet gave thanks to God, to Terry Neese, to Oklahoma Christian, and to Oklahomans, repeatedly. Talk about an attitude of gratitude!

The IEEW program is a big deal, and it’s based right here in Oklahoma. Among the local and international dignitaries attending their graduation was Doreen I. Kagarama, first secretary at the Embassy of the Republic of Rwanda in Washington, D.C. Oklahoma’s own Judge Vicki Miles, just the second African-American federal district judge in America, came to the ceremony.

Judge Miles was appointed by the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist to represent the U.S. judicial system in various international forums. She has continued that work in recent years, and recently visited Rwanda. At the IEEW graduation, she renewed a friendship with Goretti Kabuto, one of Neese’s students.

Looking back on it all, Neese told me, “Everywhere they went in our state, the women from Rwanda were greeted with open arms and affection, and they reciprocated. In the end, what struck me about these women is not the differences among us, but how similar to ours are their dreams of peace, prosperity, faith, family, friends and freedom. My fervent prayer is that God will protect them, and never allow those of us who worked with and love them to forget their smiles and their wonderful hearts.”

The women went home to Africa in August, taking with them new friendships and warm memories of a month spent learning about American ideas and practices memorialized more than 200 years ago as “the pursuit of happiness.”

While in Africa, Mrs. McCain met with women who had survived the genocide, including one 36-year-old who lost 120 relatives and was raped 12 times, resulting in internal organ damage that has prevented her from having any children. During that memorable visit to Rwanda, an Anglican archbishop said Cindy McCain had brought to his people “the sacrament of presence.” 

To those of us who believe in them, Sacraments are considered a visible sign of God’s love. Here in Oklahoma, the Rwandan women entrepreneurs gifted us their own form of  sacrament, in their presence. No doubt it was the same with the Arghan women in Michigan.

In a column, Washington Post writer Michael Gerson said Cindy McCain could never forget “the scent of death” she encounted in Rwanda in 1994. 

Here in Oklahoma, meeting the Rwandan women and witnessing their encounters with American women as varied as Miles and Neese, I was blessed for a time with the scent of life, itself.

Photo Detail:
Photo One:  Women from Rwanda, Africa, dance at the conclusion of their recent graduation ceremony from the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women, held at Oklahoma Christian University. The woman in a pantsuit in the front is Doreen I. Kagarama, first secretary of the Rwanda Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Photo Two:  Juliet Mugisha Mbabazi, a businesswoman from Rwanda, spoke emotionally of her love for the people of Oklahoma during graduation ceremonies for IIEW.
Photo Three:  In the dark outfit at the center, U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles of Oklahoma, only the second black woman district judge in U.S. history, greets Rwandan graduates of the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women after a recent ceremony at Oklahoma Christian University.

About the Author:
Since 2002 Patrick B. McGuigan has regularly contributed commentaries and news stories to Tulsa Today, and previously served as our capitol editor. He is an editor at The City Sentinel, an Oklahoma City weekly where portions of this essay appeared previously.