Life of Purpose

Jean Baptiste Ganza, S.J., doing his part to build a better, brighter future for the people of Rwanda

Written by Tina Potterf
Photography by Chris Joseph Taylor
September 19, 2011

It is a moment that lingers, as if suspended in time, in Jean Baptiste Ganza’s mind. 
He was a young man leaving home to embark on a life-changing journey while his mother was struggling to let him go.

On the day of his departure, bound for the Congo in Central Africa to follow his calling to become a Jesuit priest, Jean Baptiste’s mother, with tears in her eyes and a heavy heart, kissed and hugged her son goodbye.

Little did he know at the time but that embrace and long farewell would be the last time he would see his mother alive.
 Within six months she would be murdered, along with five of Ganza’s siblings and nearly 80 extended family members, all among the 800,000 killed in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. The genocide was a result of ongoing conflict between the Tutsis and Hutus. Ganza is a Tutsi.

Losing his mother and much of his family 17 years ago in Gisenyi, Rwanda, set in a motion a particularly dark period for Ganza who, though alive, was struggling with survivor’s guilt. He was going through the motions of life but not really living it. 
A man so rich and convinced of his faith had suddenly lost faith in humanity and was questioning everything, including his belief in God as he grappled with bouts of heavy grief and anguish entwined with anger.

“You die with those who are killed,” he says. “In my situation, my faith played a key role in something that led me to choose to leave my parents, siblings and cousins that day.
He was suddenly without the core of his family—his father died 10 years earlier. 
“At the time I was angry with God because I felt he didn’t follow through. I started to ask why I survived,” he continues. “Why save me and not my brothers and sisters? But then I saw my leaving for the Congo as a sign that God wanted me to get out in time, that he had a mission for me.”

“It’s difficult to describe. You die with those who are killed.”—Jean Baptiste Ganza, S.J. 

That sense of mission led him to Seattle University, where within two years he’s made a name for himself. Father Ganza is recognized around campus as not only the young Jesuit—he’s 42 years old—with a warm and affable presence but also as an SU student and soon-to-be-alumnus when he graduates with an MBA early next year. He lives the mission of Seattle University through his dedication to the people of Rwanda and commitment to social justice. 

Many have come to know him through his openness in sharing his story, a story that is ultimately one of hope, faith and life.

Following the deaths of much of his family, he found some measure of comfort when survivors who were there with his mother in her last moments of life relayed a message to him.
“When death came for her, she said she was happy I wasn’t [in Rwanda] and that I could live,” he says. 
Time has brought healing to Ganza, who now dedicates his life to help in the healing of those who continue to suffer and live with the aftermath of the genocide.

Top of mind are his efforts for social reconciliation between the Hutus and Tutsis, the best means to a brighter future for the people of Rwanda, he says. He acknowledges the troubled history and tensions that continue to exist between the two and that his work—and the efforts of those who follow him—in reconciliation will take time. But when it’s your life’s mission, you do what it takes.
“If you are convinced that God saved you then you have to be convinced that he has a mission for you. I couldn’t see that at the time but I knew I had to continue with my mission of becoming a Jesuit,” he says.

“It was when I became a priest that I saw clearly that mission.”

Becoming a Jesuit aided in the healing process and restored his faith, Ganza says. The Jesuit ethos coupled with support for continuing his education and travel drew him in. 
“When I read the biography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder, I fell in love with his journey,” Ganza says. “His journey was similar to my own.”

Sitting in the library at Arrupe House, the Jesuit community on campus, Father Ganza exudes a warmth and quiet calm as he offers glimpses into his life. He speaks with purpose but in a voice that is pleasant and inviting. Casually dressed in a gray sweater pulled over a long-sleeved shirt and khaki pants, he looks every bit the student. 
Revealing his very personal story has with time become easier for Ganza.

“There was a time when I didn’t want to share,” he says. 
He holds onto pleasant memories spending time in the countryside of Kibuye with his siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, and of the special traditions and moments that wrapped around the family’s Christmas and New Year celebrations.

He remembers his family’s house filling up with neighbors who would drop in to welcome the birth of Ganza’s younger siblings and congratulate his parents. 
“I feel very privileged to have had a dad and mom who were there for me. I was loved, loved by my family and loved by God,” he says. 
He says God wanted him to come to SU.

But like any new student or individual in a new city and new environment, there were challenges. His early days and weeks at the university were tough. There were cultural and age differences. The self-professed extrovert had trouble connecting and making friends during his first quarter as a student. 
Among his classmates at Albers Ganza says he was reticent, at least at first, to disclose that he was a Jesuit as he knew that could change their willingness to open up to him or treat him as they would just another student, not as a priest. That soon changed. By his second quarter, he started to make friends and was soon actively participating in study groups and opening up, sharing more of himself and his remarkable life story.

Outside of class he was going out and exploring the city while indulging his wide-ranging interests.
As an outdoor enthusiast, Ganza is in the right part of the country to partake in one of his favorite pastimes, cycling, whether it’s at Alki Beach or around Greenlake. When he wants to escape the hustle and bustle of the city he hops a ferry over to Whidbey Island, for reflection and “to get in touch with nature,” he says.

Daily prayer and saying Mass at the chapel in the Arrupe House or at the Chapel of St. Ignatius energizes him.

“Seattle changed to me. It today is my home,” Ganza says. “I feel fully integrated in the community here on campus and outside of campus.”
Off the field he is, to put it mildly, an avid and ardent fan of European football—soccer—and plays regularly in pick-up games at Cal Anderson Park near campus.

He enjoys the cinema, particularly comedies, and dancing, both as a spectator and participant, although Ganza hasn’t put on his dancing shoes as much recently as he says he has in the past. Perhaps surprisingly, he is also into country western music and can be spotted on occasion soaking up the sounds and the bucolic ambience at the Little Red Hen in Seattle’s Greenlake neighborhood along with Dave Anderson, S.J., alumni chaplain. They go there to play pool, listen to music and have a beer.

Father Anderson met Ganza five years ago during a retreat for lay students at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. The two clicked right away. “We shared many stories during that time,” Anderson says, “and I learned about some of the realities of his country, Rwanda, and Africa.”

When it came time for Ganza to come to SU, it was Anderson who was waiting for him at the airport to transport him to campus. During Ganza’s first year he lived with about a dozen Jesuits at Arrupe House (he now resides in Bellarmine Hall.) The two started a tradition where they would have a glass of wine and watch soccer in the TV room at Arrupe or country music videos. “This was a great time for us to catch up on the day and support each other in our daily joys and challenges,” Anderson says. “ … Even though he is my brother Jesuit, he is also a very close friend and confidante who knows me as well as anyone does.”

“Seattle changed to me. It today is my home."

Anderson says Ganza is “such an effective preacher and teacher of God’s word.”

“One evening we were watching TV and someone came on and asked the question, ‘what are you passionate about,’” Anderson recalls. “I asked him the same question and without missing a beat he said, ‘I’m passionate about preaching and teaching Jesus Christ. Nothing gives me more joy than that.”

When it came time to pursue an MBA, Ganza—who holds a master’s in social sciences from the Catholic University of Central Africa in Yaounde, Cameroon, and a master’s in social ethics from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.— applied to many schools. He found SU’s MBA program the best of the bunch. 

The MBA program was challenging in the beginning but Ganza says the education he has received confirms for him that he made the right choice.

Albers Professor Bill Weis has taught Ganza and says that his presence and contributions in class enhanced the educational experience. 
“His manner, his caring, his equanimity, these special gifts brought out the best in everyone around him,” says Weis. 
In the Albers Emotional Intelligence course, Weis says Ganza “modeled how to genuinely be interested in your colleagues, how to show genuine curiosity and caring, how to truly ‘see’ the other’s essence and to see the world from other’s eyes.”
He adds, “Ganza’s story is inspiring as well as heartbreaking. His transparency in sharing his life helped his class colleagues be transparent in sharing their own stories …”

Carly Cannell, an SU staff member at Albers, got to know Ganza as a facilitator for two of his business courses. Working with him in class and professionally has been “a privilege,” she says, citing Ganza’s gentle demeanor and thoughtful way of engaging and accepting others.

“I think it can be intimidating for students to take an Emotional Intelligence class with a Jesuit and it’s only amplified when that Jesuit is also a survivor of the Rwandan genocide,” Cannell says. “Yet his humility and ability to connect and relate to others helped everyone feel safe to work with and learn from him. He sees the best in others and knows how to bring that out in them.”

Getting an MBA was a logical choice for Ganza, who felt he could do more good by having the business smarts around finances, entrepreneurship and fundraising that can be leveraged in future endeavors. His latest initiative is an important one: the construction and operation of a secondary school run by the Jesuits in the capital of Kigali.

Before he arrived in Seattle, Ganza and other Jesuits were instrumental in setting up and running an elementary school on Jesuit-owned property in the country. Today, the school educates 370 children and fits with his purposeful mission for reconciliation there.

“I came to the conclusion that helping people start projects, to have a better life and access to food and healthcare are other ways to strengthen reconciliation,” Ganza says. “I want to bring the Hutus and Tutsis together with common goals.”
A special moment came in the summer of 2010 when Ganza visited the school after it had just opened.

“This was the first time I saw the school with the kids in it. It was alive with the children in their uniforms, dancing,” he says. “It was a big party and so moving. They were happy. I saw the Tutsis and Hutus together. This is a big thing for the future of Rwanda.”

The need for a secondary school is longstanding. A former high school in the northern part of the country was heavily vandalized during the genocide. 
The new school will open in early 2012 and will reside next to the existing elementary school. Ganza is leading the charge to raise additional funding to complete the school.
This past summer he spent several weeks in Rwanda, visiting the elementary school, checking progress on the new school and spending time with family and guests from Seattle. 
In his time at Seattle University, Ganza and his story have inspired many.

Last year, he was nominated by his peers to be represented in the Hall of Leaders, a gallery of framed photos adorning a wall in the James C. Pigott Pavilion for Leadership that showcases leaders, as selected by a committee of students. In describing the Hall of Leaders, Michelle Etchart, director of leadership development in Student Development, said that it “highlights ordinary people who let their better angles shine and did extraordinary things with their circumstances.

To be included among this vaunted group was humbling, Ganza says, but it was made all the more special because the selection was made by peers.
“My first reaction was to turn it down,” he says, with a laugh. “I don’t like to be in the spotlight as sometimes I wish to be anonymous. But I thought if my story can inspire people, then it’s worth it.”

Getting to the place where he is today took time—time to reflect, to pray, to heal and to forgive.
“Before you forgive you will suffer. Hatred is heavy on you and toxic in your life,” he says. 
Following his recent trip to Rwanda he was back in Seattle in August, readying for his fall studies as a student. When he completes his degree, Ganza says he will return to Rwanda.
“This school we have started will need me,” he says, “for fundraising and day-to-day management. Not only the school but other projects in Rwanda and Burundi.”

The future beyond that? “It’s in God’s hands,” he says.

Father Jean Baptiste Ganza holds photos of his family members who were among those killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
As an MBA student at Albers, Ganza listens in during a study group session.
Father Ganza chats with Patrick O'Leary, S.J., before a recent Mass.
During a recent trip to Rwanda, Father Ganza visited the school he helped build. Here, he baptizes some of the school children.
Soccer is one of Father Ganza's greatest passions. When time and weather allows, he can often be seen participating in a friendly match at a nearby park.
Father Ganza poses with youth from Mercer Island, Wash., who will travel with him to Rwanda in December to help build the secondary school.