Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Diary Of A Peacekeeper: Healing And Security For Miracle

By Maria Helena Ariza

I was born and raised in Colombia, a country that has endured more than 50 years of armed conflict between the government and armed groups. Thousands have died and 3 million people had fled their homes. But like the majority of the urban middle class population, I never directly witnessed political violence.

I’m lucky for having felt safe and free. But I know that people in remote villages are vulnerable to terror and recruitment by armed groups. They are underserved by the government, deprived of education and other services, and forgotten by those who have the luxury of security.

I have made it my personal mission to overcome the indifference that leads to vulnerable people being ignored. I have built my career around protecting people threatened by violence.

Working for Nonviolent Peaceforce gives me the opportunity to be an agent of change in the South Sudan. Every day, my fellow peacekeepers and I strengthen relationships with locals, build their capacity to prevent violence, and provide protective accompaniment to people at risk of violence.

I recently had the privilege of meeting Miracle.* She was kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army and forced to become a combatant and a “forced wife” of soldiers. Days before we met, she was reunited with her family. Like other returnees she faced the risk of re-abduction and being ousted – or even killed.

Miracle desperately needed psychosocial services and safe transportation to the Child Transit Center where she would receive them. Our peacekeeping team and a government social worker met with Miracle’s family at their home and explained the services available for Miracle.

Miracle was deeply traumatized and unwilling to speak. Although she didn’t talk or smile, she got into our car and waited for the adults to finish their conversation – a sign that she felt safe in our presence.

With Miracle in tow, we traveled for hours on one of the most dangerous roads in the region. We dropped Miracle off at the Child Transit Center and she began the long journey toward overcoming the effects of abduction, physical abuse, and sexual violence.

After Miracle spent a month in the transit center, the NP team accompanied her to her family’s new home. As she adapts to her new, more secure life, we have follow-up visits with her, monitor her physical and emotional wellbeing, and address the security challenges she faces.

Stories like Miracle’s demonstrate the vital role Nonviolent Peaceforce plays in remote areas. For me, it’s personal. Visiting Miracle’s village takes me back halfway around the world to Colombia. I can empathize with the vulnerable communities in isolated areas of my home country. As I travel dangerous roads to meet with Miracle, I know that I am overcoming the indifference that is pervasive among my countrymen. I am risking my safety and moving out of my comfort zone to stand up for people affected by violence. Each time I meet with Miracle, I defy indifference.

Maria Helena Ariza (back row center in above photo) is a peacekeeper in South Sudan. She was born and raised in Colombia and has an M.A. in International Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame.

* Name changed to protect client.

Date Published:
Wednesday, October 19, 2011, from the Nonviolent Peaceforce Newsletter

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Amazing Faith Dinner

I recently attended an “Amazing Faith Dinner.” The meal was sponsored by a local interfaith group called Global Interfaith in Action (GFIA). The theme of GFIA is the Golden Rule. Positively stated it enjoins us to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and negatively, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to you.” In one form or another, this rule is found in all major faith traditions. One of the goals of GFIA is to promote interfaith dialogue by creating opportunities for people to live in the spirit of the Golden Rule. The Amazing Faith Dinner is such an occasion. The dinner that I attended in November was a first for me. The following is a report about what happened during the evening. I offer this account in some detail with the thought and hope that others may replicate this gathering in other communities.

The plan is simple, which is its charm. GFIA selects a host for the evening and provides the meal and a facilitator to guide the discussion that occurs as the dinner is shared. The dinner is kosher and vegan. The meal and time for sharing is two and one-half hours. The setting is a private home. Everything is done to make the setting inviting and the guests comfortable. GFIA extends an open invitation to the dinner on its website and then selects the hosts, facilitators and guests for each household. I did not know the name of the host until a few days before the dinner. I met the other guests and the facilitator at our host’s home.

When I arrived at our host’s home at the appointed hour of 6:30 two other guests were already there. We sat in the living room and exchanged greetings and pleasantries while waiting for others to arrive. Soon the facilitator for the evening joined us. We were told that two or three of the people who had planned to join us for the evening had sent regrets. This meant that our group was two Moslem women, me and our facilitator. The couple hosting the evening had not planned on participating in the meal or the discussion. We quickly agreed that everyone would be welcome at the table, including the teen-age daughter of our host couple.

After we were seated around the table, our facilitator began the conversation by asking each of us to introduce ourselves. One of the women wore a hijab. She was Syrian by birth and has lived in the U.S. for twenty years. She and her husband own a popular restaurant that we all knew and frequented. The second guest introduced herself as a Moslem but she did not wear a hijab. She told us that she and her former husband were divorced. Our hostess, the daughter of a Christian minister, identified herself as a Christian but she allowed that she had many questions about the church and about Christianity. Our host identified himself as non-religious. Their teen-age daughter said that she thought the Golden Rule was a good thing. Our facilitator identified himself as a member of the Church of the Brethren. He said he was attending seminary on line and preparing to become a pastor. I introduced myself as a retired Christian minister. We were an eclectic group. The facilitator was the only one who had participated in one of these dinners previously. It was a new experience for all the rest of us.

Introductions completed, a stack of three-by-five cards was placed on the table. Questions were written on each card. We were instructed that each person at the table would take a card in turn and have five minutes to answer the question while the rest of us listened attentively. There would be no discussion during or after each speaker. The questions were open-ended. “What does faith mean to you?” “Do you think doubt is the opposite of faith?” “Do you believe in miracles?” “What has your faith been important to you?” “Do you meditate or pray?” Because our group was small, we were able to have two rounds of questions. The last half-hour was open for general conversation. At the end of the evening we were asked to fill out an evaluation form and on a separate card asked if we would consider hosting or facilitating a dinner in the future.

I have participated in interfaith panels and discussions in the past, but this evening was one of the most intimate group conversations that I can recall. The design of the evening was simply to have us to break bread with people from other faith traditions and enjoy a conversation, and to do this in a private home with a limited number of people. At the end of the evening we exchanged emails and facebook information and agreed that we want to continue to meet together in each other’s homes.

Obviously our group was self-selected in the sense that each of us chose to participate in this dinner, but there were no preconditions. I believe that in total there were probably eight to ten dinners that evening. Each dinner probably had six to eight people. I think this is the second or third year for the Amazing Faith Dinner, but I have not checked with GFIA about either the total number of participants or how many years they have sponsored this event. The plan is simple in design and relatively easy to implement. Bon app├ętit,

David P. Hansen

Friday, November 18, 2011

Of God's Promise and Ours

I had the opportunity recently to speak as part of an interfaith panel at a program sponsored by Franciscans at the St. Anthony Shrine and Ministry Center in downtown Boston. Participating in the discussion were the usual suspects, a priest, an imam, and a rabbi. The name of the program was, “Pilgrims of Peace: Reflections on Peace framed by the Abrahamic Traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The gathering was held on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Assisi Interfaith Peace Gathering, convened in Assisi by Pope John Paul II on October 27, 1986.

Though I hope I can help to move others, I am not always especially moved as a participant on a panel. Last night was different. I was deeply touched by the sensitivity and the depth of thought and struggle shared by my colleagues on the panel. Speaking first, Imam Talal Eid, someone with whom I have been on other panels, managed to address a deeply challenging topic, the perception of Muslims as terrorists, with a remarkable touch of humor that set people at ease. He told of participating in a similar gathering at which a Hindu speaker preceded him. As words of peace were offered from the Hindu tradition, Imam Talal’s wife whispered to him with agitation, “who is he to speak of peace,” referencing the killing of Muslims by Hindus in India. Imam Talal whispered back to his wife, “you should be careful because some people are going to say the same thing about me when I speak.” The point brought home with a gentle smile, he then went on to speak of the need and the challenge to reach out to each other beyond stereotypes as the start of peacemaking.

Wearing the traditional hooded woolen robe of a Franciscan Friar, Father Joseph Nangle spoke passionately and poignantly of the historic sins of the Church against both Jews and Muslims, in his own way asking for the forgiveness of the Jew and the Muslim sitting next to him. Reflecting my own commitments drawn from Jewish sources, he went on to speak of the activist way of pacifism, as it is rooted for him in Christian tradition. His words formed a natural bridge to my talk. Looking back to the recently read Creation story at the beginning of a new year’s Torah reading cycle, I sought to convey the underlying ethos of Torah and life as it flows from the very first words of the Torah, from the first moments of Creation, v’ru’ach Elokim m’rachefet al p’nei hamayim/and the breath of God hovered over the face of the waters. The world begins in a moment of utmost gentleness, simply as a breath upon the waters. In every moment of creation continuing to unfold, that gentleness offers a vision of the future toward which we strive, and the way of our own being in the world if we would arrive at that time.

In the printed program for the evening, words written by one of the organizers offer a natural bridge from the creation story to the following week’s Torah portion, the story of Noah and the flood. It is a bridge from the hope of creation’s beginning to the horror of violence that comes to fill the world, destroying people, animals, the earth itself, “we are now being challenged to reach out beyond humanity, because violence is being visited on God’s creation as well. There is an ever-growing consciousness in all religious traditions that respect and peaceful relations must be fostered not only between people, but also between humans and all creatures as well.”

That is what lies at the heart of the story of Noah and the flood, a warning that if we do not recognize and embrace the common bond that joins all life then life shall not be sustained on this earth. The ark itself, rising upon the flood waters, becomes a symbol of wholeness, all species living together, eating of the same food, the wolf and the lamb and the little child to lead, a reflection of the garden that was and that yet might be. Of the rainbow in the sky, formed of tears and light intermingled, a sign of God’s covenant made with all creatures, with people and animals, and with the earth itself, God’s promise never to destroy the earth again. And God continues to wait and hope for a sign from us, that finally we too shall make the same promise.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Exclusion and Religious Violence

One of the fondest memories I have of Gandhian communities in India is of morning and evening prayers. There was a school in Bangalore where we sat with small children as they began their day with prayers from all the wisdom traditions of the world. There was an evening with a boys school in Coimbatore, where some 300 young voices joined in the chants and hymns from all the world's religions. There were those times in Gandhian communities as the sun rose, and again under the stars, when we sat in a circle on the raised prayer site in the center of the ashram. We chanted Hindi prayer songs, sang Christian hymns, read from the Koran and the Hebrew Scriptures, closed with a universal prayer

I marveled at these experiences. How I wished my countrymen could try it. What a difference it might make if public schools in my country started their day with a recognition of religious wisdom and diversity. What a difference it might make with respect to religious tolerance, religious acceptance, religious understanding. What a difference it might make in preventing religious violence.

The problem is exclusivity. Christians misuse sayings of Jesus to promote Christian imperialism. Jews use ancient promises in their tradition to justify occupation of another people. Muslims misuse the Koran to uphold acts of terror against the innocent. Fundamentalist Hindus foment violence against their Muslim neighbors.

In each and every case, adherents to each religion claim exclusive rights to the truth and the path to the divine. In ruling out the pathways of others, they lay the ground for dissension and violence.

In my own Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ, I'm grateful we are a "united and uniting" church. We are a combination of three Protestant communities that joined together in the 1950's. We have also been working consistently to work more closely with others and heal some of the brokenness in the body of Christ, the church. We pride ourselves on being a welcoming church, the first major denomination to recognize the ordination of women and of gays and lesbians. Still, we are light years behind the need.

As Christians continue their efforts to talk to each other, the world is aflame with inter-religious conflict. And with each new spate of violence, more people despair of religious understanding or succumb to the inevitability of warfare.

Here in Brookings, South Dakota, we have an inter-faith dialogue. We have been meeting for two years now, once a month. The evening begins with a meal. When the Hindu community is host, we know we will have an excellent vegetarian meal. When we visit the Islamic Center, we anticipate and enjoy dishes common to the Muslim community. When we are hosted in a Christian church or at the public library, we know we will sit down to a buffet of excellent pot luck.

Conversation and discussion follows the meal. We avoid presentations and experts. All questions and comments are acceptable, as long as they are respectful and don't steal speaking time from others. We have gone from the polite to all questions are appropriate. We include persons who are Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Bahai, Quaker, Agnostic and Atheist. We find our traditions often have similarities we didn't recognize before.

Because the Hajj had just concluded, at our last session, we found ourselves exploring the topic of pilgrimage. We discovered how many of our group, from several different traditions, all had a profound experience of pilgrimage. The characteristics of each were common. It confirmed again the words of Ramakrishna, the nineteenth century saint: "God has made different religions to suit different aspirations, times and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with wholehearted devotion."

Gandhi respected all the wisdom traditions. A way of nonviolence does as well. But even more important, those of us who profess nonviolence must constantly find ways to practice and preach inclusivity, rather than the violence of the exclusive.

Carl Kline

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Homage to One, and to Seven Billion

Outside the garage, the morning after.

Around 1:00 a.m. on October 9, in the peaceful college town of Goshen, Indiana, Linda Miller was painting in her garage. Her 58-year-old husband Jim, a biology professor at Goshen College, was in the house. The couple's two school-age children were out of town at a marching band competition. It was just another ordinary night in the ordinary life of an ordinary family in an ordinary town.

Suddenly, out of the darkness, Linda was attacked by a young, well-dressed white man whom the police would later describe as a "would-be robber", a "home invader." Linda's cries of distress roused Jim out of the house. He managed to divert the assailant's attention, and Linda, though severely wounded, managed to get to a phone inside the house and dial 9-1-1.

When the police arrived, two minutes later, Jim lay dead of stabbing wounds in the yard. Linda, however, was still alive.

Today, after a period of hospitalization, Linda continues her recovery at home. The couple's attacker has not been found.

Jim Miller
Goshen College is my alma mater. Jim starting teaching there the same year I enrolled out of high school, more than 30 years ago. Like nearly every other professor on that Mennonite college campus, he was a man whose faith was synonymous with a commitment to a life of service and an ethic of nonviolence.

Since learning about Jim's murder, I've often wondered what the final moments of his life were like. But imagination fails me. It simply won't take me where real life took him. This is all I know for certain: Unarmed, he put his own body between his wife and her attacker; between her flesh and her attacker's knife. He sacrificed himself for the woman he loved. I suspect, though, and with good reason, that he would have done the same for a complete stranger. To say this is not to diminish his love for Linda. It is to acknowledge his love for humanity, despite the horrors we human beings are so capable of inflicting upon one another.

"It is in the shelter of each another that people live." So goes the Irish proverb. Jim Miller embodied this proverb, by the way he taught and the way he died, and whether we knew him or not, his life can inspire the rest of us. And "the rest of us" are many. In the very month that Jim died defending his wife, our world's population reached seven billion. Seven billion lives. Seven billion people needing to be sheltered by one another.

Not many of us will be asked to sacrifice our lives to shelter even one of those seven billion. But I do think our commitment to nonviolence asks us to sacrifice something. What are we willing to do? What are we willing to give? These are not questions to be answered once and for all. They are questions to be lived, and answered, daily.

As you reflect on these questions, I invite you to watch the video below. It's presented by Playing For Change, which has partnered with the United Nations to create an original anthem for a world now seven billion strong. The song, called "United," is performed by musicians and singers from around the globe. "We have to bring the world together, we have to live as one," they tell us. "We have to bring the world together, we shall overcome."

It's a song Jim Miller would have loved.

(Note: If for some reason you can't see the viewer below, click here to watch the video. Also, translations of those verses that are sung in languages other than English are included beneath the viewer.)

Verse (in Lingala):
This is the answer for the people
Who lost their loved ones from war
This is the answer for the people
Who lost their loved ones from hunger

Verse (in Spanish):
The moment is what counts
Live smiling until the end
But happy days will come
That nobody can believe (Chorus)

Verse (in Hebrew):
It´s time to say
We are all one heart
This song is of all of us
So let´s sing it together in one big voice. (Chorus)

Verse (in Arabic):
Lord of peace
Gift us with peace (Chorus)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Evolving Nonviolence in Mexico

I just returned from a few days in Mexico with groups of nonviolent activists. In a climate of violence, these courageous people are waging a struggle to reclaim their society for their children and their nation's future.

The primary inviting organization was These are people who are working to return the political process to ordinary citizens. They favor citizen power over political party power; solidarity over egocentrism; lawful behavior over corruption; competition over monopolies; empowered citizens over paternalism; systemic leadership over pyramidal leadership; and participation over passivity.

They are a countrywide network with tens of thousands of members. They are able to turn out large numbers for mass demonstrations and have done so in recent months. Their patience and work ethic seems admirable, especially as they are people with jobs, families, a life. But as violence escalates, one wonders if their efforts won't escalate as well. After a nine hour nonviolence workshop, it was evident people were interested in more, and that what had transpired would find a home in their future work.

Evolucion Mexicana has much in common with the Occupy Wall Street movement. It has much in common with those citizens who we now refer to as the Arab Spring. As monolithic economic interests have gone global, purchasing political power in country after country, so have peoples' movements gone global. And we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg so far.

A second group I met with was comprised of a dozen or so activists who recently staged an office occupation. They occupied a government office responsible for investigating the abuse of alcohol laws. After staying in the office for twenty seven hours, they secured pledges from several officials to consider community selection of investigating personnel. The final result from this occupation is still not known, but it was an empowering experience for those who participated. They spoke about how they now know the power and possibility of nonviolence. Some of their peace flyers began appearing on office walls in the building. The police who were supposed to be giving them a bad time were actually supportive, so much so, the office manager had the police arrested.

A third group has started a half-way house for young men just coming out of prison. The home has eight occupants, all under the age of 22. The average age for gang members is probably 16 years of age with the average life expectancy in a gang of 3 years. Going to prison may have saved their lives and the half-way house offers a fresh start. They are helped with work or school opportunities and all the residents are required to do one or the other. Plans are in the works for a second home as the first can only hold ten.

The final group I encountered was a school class of 150 thirteen and fourteen year olds. I was asked to speak with them about nonviolence. Little did I know while I was speaking, that very morning, the father of a classmate had been found murdered. He had been kidnapped a couple days earlier and only now had his body been discovered. Nor did I know a government official had tried to come into the school that morning with his bodyguards, only to be turned away by the principal as no guns were allowed on the campus. The government official was not happy.

Here were teachers and administrators working diligently to provide a peaceful environment and a hopeful future for children and young people. And here were students with insight beyond their years into the causes of violence in their society, and possible alternatives. As two of the girls said after the program, "we want to know more about nonviolence. So do several of our friends."

Carl Kline