Speaking in Dimnent Memorial Chapel Wednesday evening, Paul Rusesabagina didn't only share a message. He exemplified it.
Rusesabagina, the real-life hero of the Academy Award-nominated film "Hotel Rwanda," risked his life to protect others while their countrymen were slaughtered. He asked the members of his audience on Sept. 14 to make a difference themselves.
"It's you, especially you young people, tomorrow's leaders, who can make this world what you want it to be," he said. Noting the millions who are victims of genocidal conflict, he said, "Ladies and gentlemen, all of these people need you."
An overflow audience of more than 1,600 attended his address, "Hotel Rwanda: A Lesson Yet to Be Learned." They included not only members of the Hope community but guests to campus who had traveled hours to hear Rusesabagina speak.
Anticipating strong interest, the college had arranged to have a live feed run to the college's Knickerbocker Theatre on Eighth Street. Both the 1,100-seat chapel and the 536-seat theatre were filled to capacity. Even the chapel's choir loft was pressed into service to accommodate more listeners.
For two months, Rusesabagina held insanity at bay as he watched his country fall into the grips of genocide in 1994. A Hutu manager of a luxury hotel in Rwanda's capital city of Kigali, he sheltered more than 1,200 people, including his own Tutsi wife and children, saving their lives at a time when extremists massacred more than 800,000 members of the Tutsi and moderate Hutu tribes in just 100 days.
While militants threatened and surrounded the well-groomed grounds of the hotel, he spent hours on the phone, pleading with influential leaders, his international connections his only defense against attack. He bartered luxury items for the lives of strangers seeking refuge. No one housed at his hotel died during the massacre.
During his talk, Rusesabagina traced Rwanda's contemporary struggles back to the nation's European colonization in the latter 1800s, noting that the tribal tensions began when the German rulers found it useful to play one group against the other - a practice that continued, he said, when the country became a Belgian protectorate following World War I and resulted in ongoing strife when Rwanda won its independence.
After next recounting his own story, he emphasized that the tragedy of ethnic conflict and genocide is not limited to Rwanda alone and challenged the international community to call the killing what it is and to do something to end it, decrying the lack of action taken to help Rwanda and elsewhere.
"What does it require to call a genocide a genocide?," Rusesabagina asked. "In Rwanda, just like the Sudan and Darfur, the whole international community did not call a genocide by its name until the time it had ended."
"Ladies and gentlemen, almost the whole of the Sub-Saharan Africa is burning," he said.
Rusesabagina's own efforts are continuing. After the hotel was successfully evacuated in June of 1994, he sought out his broader family. He discovered that many had been killed, and took in widowed spouses and their orphaned children.
Recalling the horrors of finding many of his family members murdered, including his mother-in-law, her daughter-in-law and six of her grandchildren while together at her home, he said, "That sad experience had opened very wide my mind to what a disaster the genocide had been in the whole country, for the whole nation."
He initially went back to work managing the hotel, but after being threatened in 1996 he relocated to Belgium.
He is today a businessman, and has also established the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation (HRRF), to, as noted in literature available at the address, "combat the horrors of genocide inflicted upon children by providing assistance and education."
The HRRF began, he noted, with his extended family's experience.
"That is how I started helping people," he said. "From the family the foundation, which was not existing, extended to many people now."
In anticipation of Rusesabagina's talk, the college had shown the film "Hotel Rwanda" at the Knickerbocker Theatre on Monday-Saturday, Sept. 5-10, and Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 12-13.
Both the film and Rusesabagina's visit were scheduled as an introduction to the annual Critical Issues Symposium (CIS), which will be held this year on Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 27 and 28, and is titled "From Auschwitz to Darfur: Genocide in the Global Village." The symposium will feature keynote addresses by Haruun Ruun, an RCA world mission program associate who serves as executive director of the New Sudan Council of Churches, and James Waller, a psychologist who recently published the acclaimed book, "Becoming Evil: Why Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing," in addition to featuring several concurrent and departmental sessions.
Those interested in more information on the symposium should visit www.hope.edu/cis. All CIS events are free and open to the public.