In the fall of 1997, mid-semester of my first year of seminary, my theology professor assigned us a book to read. It’s called The Angels Have Left Us, and it was written by Hugh McCullum following hundreds of interviews with those directly affected by the Rwandan genocide in 1994 — survivors, NATO officers, church leaders, government officials, etc.
I was 22 years old. And I had not yet heard of what happened over those 100 days in Rwanda, when over 1 million Tutsi people were murdered by their fellow Hutu countrymen. It’s been 25 years, but my memory’s eye can see my professor holding that book in his hands and asking us to voice our immediate response to it clear as day.
I was gutted.
But I’ll tell you, that professor made his point — if you’re going to talk about God’s love, if you’re going to voice anything about what God can do or who God is, you sure better not say anything that you could not say to someone who survived those 100 days in Rwanda.
Last night, I watched the first episode of a series currently on Amazon Prime. This is Football has six episodes in its first season, and it takes an in-depth, emotional, sociological look at the ways football (soccer, y’all NFL people!) has had significant, transformative impact on various countries and communities.
The first episode is called “Redemption,” and it centers on a tight-knit group of Liverpool Football Club fans…wait for it…”The Rwandan Reds.”
In the middle of Rwanda, they gather on game days, and watch “The Reds,” do their thing. They even have their own local team, and they step on the pitch in Liverpool red jerseys, their favorite players’ names gracing the backs of those jerseys, and the fans chanting the same songs you’d hear live at a game, or any “Liverpool bar” in any city or country (that’d be Molly Malone’s, here in Louisville).
Three men are at the center of the episode: all three of them are survivors of the 1994 genocide; all three of them lost the majority of their family members; all three of them cannot talk about those 100 days without stopping to gather their thoughts, without gazing off in the distance, without naming their memories through clogged throats. All three are deeply traumatized.
And all three gather with their fellow Rwandan Reds, at the bar or on the pitch, whenever it is possible to do so. Because they are all avid Liverpool fans.
All this alone would have made an incredible story–three men who have survived the absolute worst of humanity and gone on to have families and careers, gone on to smile again, gone on to play again.
But that’s not even close to all of it.
In 2004, the Rwandan national football team qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time ever. This was a very a big deal — only a decade past the genocide, it was rightfully celebrated that this tiny country had overcome such tremendous tragedy to land on the championship pitch. President Paul Kagame was there for the qualifying match, and the footage of his joy is enough to make even the Grinch turn soft, y’all, I swear.
But, listen up, because this is the important part:
Y’all? On that team were both Hutus and Tutsis.
On that team were both perpetrators and survivors.
On that team were players who had macheted their way through entire villages where family and friends of other players lived.
On that team were men who just ten years before were sworn, mortal enemies.
On. The. Same. Team.
And the same is true when the Rwandan Reds gather in a bar to watch Jurgen Klopp’s boys take on Man City or Chelsea or whoever. And it’s also true when they gather on the pitch to take on another local team.
Hutus and Tsutis both. Murderers and victims both.
I sobbed the entire last 15 minutes of the episode, unable to grasp how these men have found their way through such all-consuming, terrifying, decimating evil, to a place on the other side where they are able to say, “We are not Hutu or Tutsi here. We are Liverpool.”
These men in this episode — they spoke of pain, of grief, of hate, of evil. They spoke of hiding and running and seeing their family members murdered. They spoke of how none of it made sense and it was all so confusing and awful.
They spoke of forgiveness. Of a grace that cannot be explained. Of the way their common love for football has transcended literally all else and left them nothing short of family to one another.
The makers of This is Football saw to it that these three men made it to Anfield, the home of Liverpool Football Club. And they joined the thousands of others in Liverpool’s anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Theater friends: Can you imagine what Rodgers and Hammerstein think of their Broadway song being sung by football fans the world over?!?).
Their joy was palpable. Their redemption real. Their hope for each other and their beloved nation a thing that defies any sort of logic or description.
It’s miracle. All of it. Simply miracle.
My faith tells me such things as what the prophet Isaiah said are possible:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
And Hutus and Tutsis shall play football together, and be redeemed.