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February 24, 2010 > One family's journey

One family's journey

By Suzanne Ortt

The Humanitarian Assistance Club sponsored Pastor Carl Wilkens' appearance at Logan High School in Union City on February 16, where he spoke to a full house in the Little Theatre.

Highlights of the Wilkens family's journey included a 9,000-mile move to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, in 1990. Wilkens was head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International, whose purpose was to build schools and hospitals. The country was peaceful. Wilkens and his wife Teresa had three young children, Mindy, Lisa, and Shaun, and felt this was a perfect place to raise a family.

A drastic change came as Hutus attacked Tutsis. Tension was high. The American Embassy ordered all U.S. citizens to evacuate on April 10, 1994. Privately, Pastor and Mrs.Wilkens decided he would stay; the rest would leave, including Carl's parents who were visiting.

The genocide ended three months later, after 800,000 Rwandans had been slaughtered. Wilkens commented, in response to a question, that the reality was much worse than what was depicted in "Hotel Rwanda." During this time, Wilkens' actions saved the lives of several hundred men, women, and children. A few months after the killing ended, he returned to the United States. Then in 1995, they he and his family returned to Rwanda. The five Wilkens' left Rwanda a year later and Pastor Wilkens began to serve a church in Days Creek, Oregon.

A far-reaching event was when Pastor Wilkens was featured on a PBS Frontline documentary, Ghosts of Rwanda. He began receiving requests from schools and community groups to speak about his experiences during the genocide. This prompted Pastor Wilkens and his wife Teresa to begin Pedaling2Peace. Their plan is to bicycle 4,600 miles, speaking to high school and community groups. Logan High School was one of those stops.

Several changes have occurred since 1996; with their children grown, they conceived the speaking tour. Pastor Wilkens quit his job and started the 4,600-mile journey, beginning in their hometown of Spokane, Washington and will continue by bicycling through California. The goal is to travel through the southern states, reaching Washington, June where they would love to meet the Obamas. Now, traveling on recumbent bicycles, the Wilkens' travel to schools, reaching students with their message, "Be involved. Work to stop the Darfur genocide, help with the status quo in Burma. The world has enough trouble spots to give plenty of choices."

Talking to the almost 300 students at Logan High, Wilkens told of those harrowing months. One pressing motivation to stay was to save the lives of his housegirl and night watchman, both Tutsis. He knew if he left, they would be slaughtered immediately. The militia did come to his gate one night. Two neighboring women intervened. They told the men that Wilkens was a humanitarian, and more importantly, that his children had played with their children. The militia spared them that night. A speaking point was defining a neighbor.

Within a few weeks, Wilkens began venturing out, moving through streets full of gunfire, mortars, and angry soldiers and civilians. These enraged people were armed with assault rifles and machetes. His goal was to bring food, water, and medicine to orphans and refugees trapped in Kigali. He saved hundreds of lives. He relayed this personal story. With thirty orphans being threatened, Wilkens, filled with trepidation, approached the Hutu prime minister, Jean Kambanda. He introduced himself and explained the danger to the children at the Gisimba Orphanage. After consulting with his aides, he informed Wilkens the children would be saved. He guaranteed it and Kambanda kept his word. Wilkens stressed to the audience to be willing to take chances, to make choices. Later, one of the thirty orphans was killed by a mortar thrown into the yard when the children were playing outside.

Wilkins interspersed the serious monologue with lighter moments. During the time of the fighting, his precocious parrot learned to whistle like a mortar. He demonstrated the sound. Also, the description of his recent problems of getting onto BART with the long recumbent bike produced chuckles.

At the conclusion of his talk, two tenth graders, Brandon Deadwiler and Jack Bragg, read a poem, "Freedom," written by Carl Wilkens. Mrs. Wilkens provided piano accompaniment as background.

The Humanitarian Assistance Club started five years ago when some students wanted to raise funds to build schools in Africa. Due to several snags, this goal is on hold. Currently the club is focused on AIDS in Rwanda. It has joined forces with FACE AIDS (a student run non-profit organization, committed to fighting AIDS in Africa.

Club officers, Frestle Maestrado and Emerald Mann, share this belief. "We live on the same planet. The countries we live in interact with each other and affect each of our lives; we are connected. Because our lives are interwoven we as humanitarians, believe we can make a difference in each other lives," they say. "Even if we are just regular people we know that the actions we take and the hard work put forth gives us the power and courage to help others. Each of us has the power to act and can help if we are willing to stand up and speak out for human rights."

Wilkens shared a letter received from a student, Gillian, who responded to one of his talks. Her note included these four points: People are decent. Start small. Do what you think is right. What you think is kind.

Related Resources:
Blog - Pedaling2Peace
PBS Documentary: The Few Who Stayed - Defying Genocide
NPR Documentary: Ghosts of Rwanda

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