Book Review | Rwandan teen's visions of Jesus make for engaging reading
Some skeptics might call the religious visions detailed by author Immaculee Ilibagiza in "The Boy Who Met Jesus: Segatashya of Kibeho" nothing but the hallmark hallucinations of temporal lobe epilepsy. Others will see them as direct manifestations of the divine in everyday life. In any case, this story of a poor, illiterate Rwandan shepherd boy's spiritual journey is absorbing and sometimes inspiring.
Segatashya came from a pagan family and never had the opportunity to attend school or church or read a Bible. On a summer day in 1982, under a shade tree, the teenager experienced an apparition of Jesus.
As he explained, "I saw Him (Jesus), and He spoke to me. ... He said He chose me as a sign to show people who don't believe in Him -- like pagans and any other nonbelievers -- that He is not forgetting them. He sees them, He cares about them, He loves them and He hopes that they invite Him into their hearts."
Eventually Segatashya set off on a profound spiritual mission. For eight years, before he was murdered in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, he traveled and bore witness to life's purpose: to love Jesus and one's fellow humans, to strive to reach heaven.
Despite sometimes being beaten by those who doubted his sincerity, Segatashya seemed to retain his innate innocence. Ultimately the depth of his spiritual wisdom convinced and comforted many of his critics.
Ilibagiza has also written "Our Lady of Kibeho" (with Steve Erwin), a book about the Marian visionaries whose experiences in the early 1980s made the town a famous pilgrimage site. Unlike their visions, however, Segatashya's were not officially authenticated by the Catholic Church before his death. Ilibagiza recounts in "The Boy Who Met Jesus" how Segatashya once appeared to her in a dream, advising her not to be overly concerned with this: "'Isn't telling my story more important than waiting for someone on earth to give my words a stamp of approval? Isn't letting people know about the messages Jesus gave to me the most important thing in the world?'"
Ilibagiza, who studied electronic and mechanical engineering at the National University, lost most of her own family in the Rwandan genocide. She met Segatashya about a year before he died; her research sources also include extensive interviews with his younger sister, Christine. Ilibagiza's tone throughout "The Boy Who Met Jesus" is reverent and respectful. She spends perhaps more time than needed in reflecting on her own feelings toward Segatashya.
No matter how one regards supposed mystical apparitions such as this, the story is often engaging. After all, Segatashya represents our own primal yearning with the questions he poses directly to Jesus: Why were we created? Why must we suffer? Is there life after death? How do we get to heaven?
(Ilibagiza's life was transformed dramatically during the 1994 Rwandan genocide where she and seven other women spent 91 days huddled silently together in the cramped bathroom of a local pastor's house. The story is told in her first book, "Left to Tell; Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust," released in March of 2006.)
Roberts directs the journalism program at the State University of New York at Albany. She is the author of "Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker" and other books.
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