I just finished reading An Ordinary Man, the autobiography of Paul Rusesabagina. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, Rusesabagina is the focus of the movie Hotel Rwanda, the story of how one hotel manager saved over 1200 people during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. During 100 days, over one million people were killed in politically-motivated ethnic violence. Yes, that’s 1,000,000 people. Rusesabagina does not spare any details in describing the brutality and insanity of this genocide.
The book is not only Rusesabagina’s life story, it is a brief history of the country of Rwanda, a discourse on good in the face of evil, and a political critique of those who allowed it to happen—Rwandans, the United Nations, the United States, and various European countries. This is a chilling and ultimately frustrating story, but it is a book that is hard to put down. We are left asking, “How could this have happened?’ We are also left with the message that it could happen again.
An interesting twist is the fact that Rusesabagina started out to become a Seventh-Day Adventist minister. While in seminary, he realized that he did not have the sense of calling that would sustain him in small, rural pastorates and sought a more urban lifestyle as the manager of a European-owned hotel in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Toward the end of the book the author shares a bit of his struggles with faith, but I was left wanting more.
Rusesabagina is well-read, literate, and reflective, and it is clear that some of his biblical and theological training is still part of his thinking. Although he indicates that he has little involvement with formal religion or any church at this point in his life, the book gives great personal insights on seeking a vocation and an affirmation of finding one’s calling. For Rusesabagina, the greatest call in life was to exercise the gift of hospitality through being a hotel manager. In fact, he points out that one of the key lessons he learned was from his training to be a Sabena hotel manager: “They showed me how to respect myself by respecting others.” (p. 164) This sense of calling sustained him during a time of chaos.
Despite his protests, Rusesabagina is nothing less than a hero. Here is a man who used every tool at his disposal to save his fellows from slaughter. In the face of evil, he exercised integrity. While facing personal danger, he showed courage. We may have some moral scruples about some of the people with whom he negotiated and the methods he used, but we cannot dispute that this was a man of integrity who put everything on the line to serve others.
This book is required reading for entering freshmen at Middle Tennessee State University this year (including my granddaughter). Paul Rusesabagina will be the speaker at the university’s convocation in August. I hope to hear him. He has shown us how “an ordinary man” can be a hero.