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Actress Patricia Heaton emotional hearing testimony of forgiveness

Actress Patricia Heaton was utterly overwhelmed with emotion after meeting with a woman who says she has totally forgiven the man who murdered her entire family.

The Rwandan genocide broke out in 1994 when the government-backed Hutu tribe began to slaughter the Tutsi people. As a result of the brutal slayings, most of which were committed by machete, it is estimated that up to one million people were killed in the space of just a couple of months.

Despite growing up together as good friends, Callixte and Andrew were separated by one crucial factor — their tribe. As the genocide began to gather pace, Callixte found himself part of a mob that brutally murdered many members of Andrew’s wife’s family. He was subsequently imprisoned for 13 years.

“While he was imprisoned, I hated him,” Andrew explained to ET Good Works. “My wife hated his wife, our children hated their children.”

Wallowing in jail after the genocide finally came to an end, Callixte said he experienced instant regret for his heinous crimes, adding that he sought the Lord for forgiveness.

“I spent a lot of time in grief,” he said. “I repented to God for my sins.”

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But there was to be an extraordinary moment of hope in this otherwise dark and demonic story of murder and betrayal, and it came through the extension of an olive branch between the two wives.

“The women were able to overcome the hatred,” Heaton explained.

“God touched my heart one day, and I felt I had to take a step to reach out to her,” Andrew’s wife, Madrine, recalled of the staggering reconciliation.

For Calixte’s wife, Marcella, it was during a church service that she felt the Lord compel her to reach out. “We went to church and heard the pastor preach. It was as if the pastor was talking to us,” she told World Vision. “He looked right into our hearts. After church we said, ‘We have got to talk,’” Marcella said of the two families. “In 2010, we got back together. Since then, we have been close.”

Eventually, following Callixte’s release from prison, the unthinkable occurred — Andrew forgave him, and the two families became bonded in deep friendship. A decade later, two of the families’ children are engaged and the rest are good friends.

“Our children saw us change,” Madrine explained. “They watched their parents’ hatred turn into friendship. Today, their sons, Jean Bosco and Manuel, both 19, are like brothers.”

It is an impossible feat made possible only by the love and grace of the Lord Jesus.

Heaton, a committed Christian, said that she immediately noticed the manifest presence of God when meeting Andrew.

“When I walked into that house and saw them all sitting there together, Andrew took my hand. I looked into his eyes and just the love that was coming off of him,” she said. “The peace, the joy, that was radiating off him — I thought, this is what God can do when we allow him to help us forgive people.”

Heaton added that it is only by the power of God that we can forgive others of such serious wrongdoing, noting that we “can’t do this of our own human effort.”

The actress, who was in Rwanda working in partnership with humanitarian relief organization World Vision, then asked the group to pray for her.

“I felt such a spirit of love in the room, it was so big and so powerful,” she recalled. “I thought ‘this is a little bit selfish of me, but I want some of what he has.’ I thought, ‘I’m not going to leave here until he blesses me. It’s such a beautiful gift and I felt like I was in the presence of saints. I don’t know if I will ever be in the presence of saints in this lifetime.”

“I see so much love coming off of your faces,” Heaton told the group, “and it’s astounding that’s possible after what you’ve been through.”

With the help of World Vision, the two families have now become business partners, prospering through the running of small coffee and cattle businesses.

The two men, once archenemies, now walk miles together to the local market, where they collect cows and sell them for profit. In the bitter tribal divide of the past, cattle ownership, Callixte said, would be a way to divide communities on the basis of social class. Now, however, “they symbolize nothing but opportunity,” he told World Vision.

In addition, Callixte and Andrew visit prisons together, speaking to genocide perpetrators about the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. “It has set us free, me and him,” Andrew said of the unlikely friendship. “It has set our families free.”

“They have been completely blessed by their ability to let go of revenge,” Heaton added as she teared up. “You realize that ‘I need that hope as much as they do.’ It restores your faith in mankind and it shows you what people can do when they work together.”

An astonishing tale of God’s love and forgiveness being expressed in the most horrific of circumstances. May the Lord bless these two families!