Renowned nun tells her incredible story in GCU talk

Story by Laurie Merrill
Photos by Travis Neely
GCU News Bureau

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe brought warmth, compassion and wit to GCU in a talk about her work with the abducted children of Northern Uganda.

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, whose work with the abducted children of Northern Uganda has received international recognition, provided inspiration and a few laughs closer to home Friday during a talk at Grand Canyon University

Flanked by three other nuns from the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Nyirumbe delivered a powerful plea for getting involved in the Northern Uganda crisis, urging GCU employees to help "one woman, one child at a time." 

She also informed the rapt audience that there's a reason rebel fighters never attacked Saint Monica's Vocational School in Gulu, Uganda, which she has headed since 2001. She has opened a second school in Atiak, Uganda, on the border of South Sudan.

"God is the protector," Nyirumbe said. "God is mighty."

Then she smiled an enormous smile and offered another reason: Even Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army, she said, were no match for a school filled with capable women. 

"They know the girls we have have been well-trained," she said, then added: "That's ... a joke." 

Nyirumbe's honors include a 2014 Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World, the 2014 United Nations "Women Impact Award," the 2012 Starkey Hearing Foundation "So the World May Hear" Award and the 2007 CNN Hero Award.  

"To see someone who devotes their life to the Lord is just amazing," said Trish Anderson, program manager for Student Development and Outreach. "That there are people like her, and like Mother Teresa, is just so amazing and powerful to us." 

Nyirumbe and three other Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus shared their joy with GCU employees during a talk Friday.

"Our greatest incentive is to find our purpose," said Dr. Joe Veres, executive director of Student Development and Outreach and manager of the Learning Lounge. "Sister Rosemary has found hers. It makes an impact on a global level."

Kony and his army abducted tens of thousands of children during a civil war that ravaged the country for two decades, leaving havoc and problems such as a scarcity of clean water. 

With tenderness and passion, Nyirumbe described the plight of the children — more than 60,000 of them, according to news accounts —  who were torn from their homes and trained to become killers. 

"They targeted girls particularly because they could use them as sex slaves," Nyirumbe said. "The girls were brainwashed and forced to commit atrocities and to kill their siblings or relatives." 

They were made to believe that no one would accept them if they escaped. It was worse for girls than for boys who managed to return because so many girls had borne children whose fathers were rapists and murderers. 

"They have children who would not be wanted by anybody," Nyirumbe said.

Nyirumbe defied Komy by reaching out and inviting girls who had fled to find refuge in her school and to raise their children there. An average of 250 girls live in the sanctuary at any one time. 

They arrive having no homes, education or skills. But they are not victims, she said. They are survivors.   

"We must make them feel victorious," she said. "We give them affection and acceptance. When you have love, you have everything. We shall love them." 

The school teaches practical skills such as sewing, typing and cleaning. The girls learn to grow food, to attain self-confidence and independence, and to provide for their families.

Nyirumbe became a nun at age 15 and four decades later continues helping refugees in Northern Uganda.

"We tell them, 'Get married to the skills,''' she said. 

The best gift is returning their dignity. 

"Anything that is bad or considered ugly can be beautiful," she said. "We are moving them from trash to treasure."

Nyirumbe said Kony and his soldiers terrified her, the other nuns and students at the school. When the army was nearby, they shut and locked every door in the school and huddled together and prayed. She asked the Lord to help her see the good in the killers. 

"I developed deep, deep prayer," she said. "I wanted to see God's image in them." 

Once, she spotted a rebel crouched by the door. She overcame her fright and approached him, found out he was wounded and gave him medicine. He walked off down the road, thought better of it, and returned to retrieve the bullets he had placed in the school oven and in the food. 

Another time, a soldier entered the school and demanded to see his "wife" and children. Nyirumbe informed him there were no wives present — only former sex slaves. 

She also recalled with a smile that she was creative in ways she rescued women. She dressed some as nuns to disguise them. She bundled others into ambulances and drove them to safety.

Nyirumbe and the other nuns enjoyed their visit to GCU almost as much as GCU employees.

She clearly feels their pain and trauma. Supporting these women and giving them a purpose is her calling. 

"I am a dreamer," she said. "I dream of making lives a little better. I dream of healing their pain. I dream of mending their brokenness." 

Nyirumbe praised Pipeline Worldwide, a Phoenix nonprofit organization that helps countries such as Uganda and sponsored her trip to the U.S. to attend a fundraiser last week. The organization contacted GCU, and Dr. Tim Griffin, GCU’s pastor and dean of students, arranged for Nyirumbe's talk at the University.

She also found humor after she and the other three nuns got lost en route to GCU and waited on the wrong floor of the parking garage before taking the elevator to the first floor. 

"Sometimes it's good to get lost," she said. "One thing — people were kind of surprised to see so many nuns on the elevator all at once." 

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Kayla Fonseca, administrative assistant to the Dean of Students. She drove the four nuns in a golf cart to and from the garage. They thought the ride was so much fun, they wanted it to last longer, she said, and Nyirumbe asked Fonseca if she could drive. 

"She's the sweetest lady I have ever met," Fonseca said. "When she hugs you, you melt in her hug." 

Nyirumbe also asked GCU employees to read a book written about her, "Sewing Hope," and to see a film of the same name narrated by Forest Whitaker, actor, producer and director.

Whitaker said in Time Magazine, "What truly fascinates the people who have the privilege to meet with Sister Rosemary — as I did when I a narrated a film about her, 'Sewing Hope' — is her magnetic and contagious energy. For girls who were forcibly enlisted as child soldiers, Sister Rosemary has the power to rekindle a bright light in eyes long gone blank. 

"For women with unwanted children born out of conflict, she allows them to become loving mothers at last. The traumas she heals are unfathomable, but the reach of her love is boundless."  

To contribute, purchase purses and jewelry made by students, and learn more about Nyirumbe and the vocational school, click here.

Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or [email protected].


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