Saturday, June 11, 2011

2nd Chance at American Representation

On the Saturday night before the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) the stewards gathered for a cultural night, where we shared songs, poems and dances from our local cultures. Hung Pham, a recent graduate of the Jesuit Theological Seminary in Berkley California and I represented America among the thirty-six stewards. We sang a few Appalachian folk songs; American enough that everyone sang along.

Since I was coming to Jamaica having just defended my thesis, I hadn’t put any thought into the presentation. Hung and I had thrown something together at the last minute with only a few emails exchanged in prior planning. As the other stewards performed and many of them expressed concerns for indigenous communities, I grew ashamed. I realized that I should have not only put much more effort into the presentation but I should have uplifted so many more voices; Native American, Hispanic, Migrant, Refugee…etc.

When the event was over, I thanked one of the stewards who was from an indigenous community in Australia. ‘Thank you’ I said, ‘Thank you for reminding me of who makes up my country.’ What does it mean to be American in an international context? Whose voices am I representing? How could I have done things differently?

My 2nd chance at representing the U.S. came a few days later. About half way through the IEPC, the young adults organized a youth night where we not only taught songs and dances to the audience (both the young and young at heart), but we also selected someone from each region to talk about that region and/or the youth present there.

After checking in with the other Americans and Canadians present, I gained their permission and support to speak, as a young American for one of these presentations. Here was my 2nd chance to represent America at this International Ecumenical Peace Convocation where so many of the problems discussed were the fault of my country. I worked on my piece throughout the day before the youth night and what resulted was a poetic representation of my struggles as an American working on Just Peace. It was difficult to deliver but in the end well received:

Lord Have Mercy

A Statement from a Young American at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation of the World Council of Churches.

By Rachel Stacy, member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) and steward for the WCC-IEPC

A small group of people sit in a circle, in a church basement, hidden away from the world. The concrete walls are void of images; the space is empty and hollow. The small group huddles together, trying to block out the surroundings.

This circle is a support group, like any other support group,

Of addicts, of perpetrators,

Of those guilty of hurting others,

Of those guilty of hurting themselves

These are the oppressors.

These are the oppressed.

My country sits among this support group. My country sits among this confession. Addicted to the sweet stickiness of power, guilty of grave injustices, my country suffers.

My country suffers as its hatred, the poison drunk in pursuit of revenge, dominance, and righteousness sinks deeply through its veins and murders not only the indigenous, the immigrant, the union worker and the poor…

But also taints the very Living Water of Christ which each of us drinks.

My country cannot be cleansed – such language is destructive. No fire will purge the evil from our lips. We carry the poison in our veins from one generation to the next – it is our history, it can never be forgotten.

The sins of my ancestors are with me but their sins have made me strong.

My arms are strong to link with my neighbors to change, to heal, to seek that which is life-giving and transform the past.

My legs are strong to move forward to accompany not only those of other countries suffering from injustice, violence, and poverty but also to accompany those of my own country:

The women at the welfare office

The immigrant in the desert

The unemployed at the picket line

And lastly

My immune system is strong to face the injustices of my faith and seek deeply compassionate ways to be with others and with God.

My country’s journey must begin now. Into the support group, into the experience o f healing from the trauma it has caused to others and to itself.

Lord have mercy.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Peace Churches: Historic, Living, or Dead?

Many conversations at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) planted seeds in my mind and in my heart. I found myself often saying “that’s really interesting, I need to think about it for a while.” Often only days later the conversations wove together and those seeds bore fruit.

One such occasion was a conversation with Stan Noffsinger, the general secretary of the Church of the Brethren, USA. I had met Stan last July, through mutual friends, at the Peace among the People’s conference and again in November at the NCC-USA meeting in New Orleans.

At the IEPC, we sat down to talk one evening while he was preparing to deliver a report the next morning on the activities of the Historic Peace Churches (Mennonites, Quakers, Brethren) during the Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV)

Stan remarked (not in exact words, but from my memory), “I’ve been working on this theory that the Historic Peace Churches need to give up their title as the ‘Historic’ peace churches and join with other faith communities as the ‘Living Peace Churches.’”

“Would we then lose our particularity? Would we lose our special status among other faith traditions that would otherwise disregard us?” I asked.

Stan thought for a moment and replied, “No, the Historic Peace Churches have experiences, resources, and wisdom that places us in the middle, in the leadership of this new concept of Living Peace Church. Our particularity remains in our history, that can’t be forgotten, but we are really doing ourselves a disservice if we continue to exclude others.”

“Hmm…” I told Stan, “I’ll have to think about it for a while.”

And in fact Stan did stand up in the IEPC and challenge all of us with such a theory. What would it mean for the Historic Peace Churches to let go our title and join others in the creation of a Living Peace Church? What would it mean? How would it look?

His challenge has stayed with me throughout the IEPC especially as I met and befriended leaders and peace builders from a variety of Christian traditions: Lutheran, Methodist, Orthodox, Catholic, Baptist… the list continues. The more people I met and the more ideas I heard the more I was convinced that a Living Peace Church is not only necessary but the building blocks are already a reality. ‘All we need to do’ is come together in conversations and work together.

In my recently completed thesis, I talk in one chapter about different parts of inter-religious dialogue. I break the process down into three parts: experiencing the other, sharing sacred scripture study or theological exploration, and living as a community in everyday life.

The IEPC was a chance to meet the other. I discovered vibrant passionate people with whom I hope to work with in the future. I also discovered a split in focus among the participants. Even within the Historic Peace Church meetings there were people incredibly concerned with documents that the World Council of Churches (WCC) was developing and there were people passionately concerned with bringing these conversations of Just Peace to the streets.

I have to say that I’m in the later group and my youthful enthusiasm for public theology at the expense of perhaps some unwise comments about the dryness of documentation delivered me some critiques from the older members of the conference. However, in reflection of this experience and in weaving it with my thesis; I find that both the documentarians and the practical theologians are needed. We need the people writing the documents, developing the theology, and conversing on the academic level. We also need the people engaging others in dialogue, challenging the streets, uncovering the poets and keeping this Living Peace Church alive!

And so, one of the fruits of this thread, this Living Peace Church thread, is an idea to develop a multi-fold project that both develops theological dialogue on the academic level and theological dialogue on the streets. I’ll let you know how things unfold; as faith moves into action of the Living Peace Church, we as the Historic Peace Churches can’t be left behind.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Seeds of Ignorance: Growing Pains

In my last post, I wrote about my challenges as an American at an international peace conference. My American identity labors in the pursuit of peace, negotiating the illnesses of my country with my drive to live out of its history.

But I wasn’t the only one challenged by this conference. Most of the young adults I befriended had their own trials and tribulations to work through. In this space, I offer up three stories and my own reflection as witness.

Syria.

One of the stewards was a young Orthodox woman from Damascus, Syria. Mary was one of the first stewards I met upon arrival in Jamaica. Since I recently returned from the Middle East and had been following the news of the region closely, I had all sorts of questions for her. “What are your views on the violence in your country? How is the violence impacting you? What is really going on?”

Mary is anything but shy and my questions opened up a flood gate of opinion. “First,” she said (not in exact words, but from my memory), “Your media is lying. The rebels are actually Islamic extremists who if they get their way will cleanse my country of Christians and enforce strict social codes on all of us, especially women.”

“But we hear something very different from sources we consider reliable.” I challenged. “Even Al-Jazeera and the BBC are reporting that student rebels are trying to bring about an Arab Spring like what happened in Egypt.”

“No.” Mary responded. “The rebels are Islamic extremists who threaten the secular nature of my government. The Christians are in danger if these people win. We were here first, before the Muslims. We Christians have a right to this land. We have a right to live peacefully in our country; peacefully with our Muslim neighbors. Syria has protected our rights so far. My government is a good one. The rebels are wrong.”

Throughout the IEPC, Mary raised her voice to challenge the media influenced information that all of us consumed about her country. She urged us not to forget what was happening to Christians in the Middle East, whether in Syria, Egypt or Palestine. Her story, and even consequently her difficulty returning home after the IEPC made me ask questions of truth, of media, and of narrative. While the events of the last week have made me even more confused about what is happening in Syria I can say “Stay safe my dear friend, we are all praying for you and your country.”

Canada.

My friend Miriam is a beautiful, compassionate Canadian with whom I processed many moments of frustration and confusion. She came in late to the steward’s program so many of us did not get to know her very well till the conference was underway. The time I got to spend with Miriam was priceless and I can’t wait to visit her in Toronto and work with her on ecumenical projects in the future.

Unfortunately many people at the IEPC did not get to know Miriam as I did. Confined most of the time to her wheel chair, Miriam has Cerebral Palsy (CP), a condition that impedes her speech and limits her movement. Several powerful people in my life also have CP and I feel incredibly blessed to have grown up with a least a minimal awareness of disability and accessibility challenges. I feel sorry for those at the conference too embarrassed or too afraid to approach Miriam for they missed an opportunity for deep friendship with my dear friend.

Miriam taught me several important lessons throughout the gathering, the least of which was that my awareness of accessibility challenges needed to be raised quite a bit. One night, when the IEPC gathered in downtown Kingston for an open-air concert, the stewards who were off duty decided to walk across the street for ice-cream. This was the first time I had gotten the chance to spend significant time with Miriam and when the others stepped off the curb, I stayed back to continue our conversation. Our friends would get us ice-cream and return shortly.

While we were waiting, a well meaning IEPC volunteer approached us and without acknowledging Miriam asked me if I, or whoever was monitoring her (motioning to Miriam) had arranged departure transportation for the conclusion of the IEPC—which was several days off. Shocked that someone could use such language as “monitoring” and disregard the humanity of my dear friend, I closed my eyes, breathed and tried to get a grip on what was happening. Miriam and I deflected the question replying that we would take care of it later and the women left.

“Does that happen to you often?” I asked Miriam. “How do you feel when people do that!?” Miriam replied compassionately “I’d get angry if someone did that to me at home, but here, it’s too difficult to challenge every person that behaves that way. I just feel sorry for them but I have to let it go and try to not let it bother me.” “You’re a better person than me.” I replied to Miriam with a coy smile, because I was the one trying not to let anger get the best of me.

Kingston.

Two hours were carved out of the schedule, between steward meetings, meals, and job assignments, to foster a space where youth could discuss the Ecumenical Call to Just Peace (ECJP). The ECJP was the central document of the IEPC and the plenary and workshop sessions were geared to its discussion and the development of response.

The youth discussion was a disappointing session, not because the facilitators didn’t try incredibly hard, but because of a series of factors slowly contributed to its downfall.

First, a large portion of the time was eaten up by presentations by older participants. One German man lectured on Germany’s response and distributed such response in a full-color multi-page document which was translated in German and English. A man from Colombia slept through the meeting until it was his turn to deliver a three sentence call for our youth input and then left before we could give it to him. And towards the end, in the midst of other confusion, an older American woman stole an opportunity to elaborate extensively on her international organization. Was this a youth discussion?

Then, there was the fact that few of the youth/young-adult delegates and stewards had actually read the ECJP. The cultural differences regarding oral and written traditions was clearly apparent as most of the Westerners had studied both the ECJP and its study document, while the participants from the Global South had not even heard about the document prior to the IEPC.

And lastly, ignorance of the WCC youth networks, ignorance of availability of resources in particular regions, and ignorance of the work of other youth in the room bred an environment of perceived injustice. Some regions felt cheated, felt unprepared, felt silenced because they had not had the access or the ability to respond to the documents in the ways that had been presented to us. Our ignorance clearly contributed to confusion and anger. We weren’t part of the Decade to Overcome Violence but we were its future. What responsibility did the WCC, the IEPC, and our individual faith communities have in educating, supporting, and empowering us to move the decade further?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Unless We Change

While my last post reveled some of my inadequacies around safety, security, and fear, when I consulted my notes for what to write about next, I found that the keynote speaker at the opening plenary spoke directly to the issue of fear and how it plays a role in the violence of this world. While this is only one piece of my reflection on the plenary speech, I am gently reminded that my experiences at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC), in Kingston, Jamaica are ongoing. As I live into my future, the past dances intimately with my present and my reflections offer up new creations as possibility.

To my surprise, the opening keynote speaker was a Quaker; although he was also an Anglican priest which gave him some respect among the high-church communities. When Paul Osetreicher’s name appeared on the plenary screen it had neither title nor rank, simply Paul Osetreicher, Religious Society of Friends. I almost cheered.

My enthusiasm quickly sobered as Paul spoke poignant and reveling words that challenged everyone present. Not only did Paul sincerely acknowledge the failures and sins of the church in the past and in the present, he also called the church into a new way of being:

Unless we change, unless the Church moves to the margins and become the alternative society that unconditionally says no to war, no to the collective murder that every embattled nation or tribe, every warring alliance, every violent liberation movement, every fundamentalist cause, and now the War on Terror declares to be just, until we throw this justification of war, this ‘just war’ theology into the dustbin of history, unless we do that, we will have thrown away the one unique ethical contribution that the teaching of Jesus could make both to the survival of humanity and to the triumph of compassion.

Paul challenged the use of Jesus’ teaching to kill, to destroy, and even to fear. He reminded me that the history of my own little peace church insists that love casts out fear. The Quakers of the past have witnessed to that fact despite suffering and persecution. Paul continued:

Love of those who threaten us, care for the welfare of those whom we fear, is not only a sign of spiritual maturity, but also of worldly wisdom. It is enlighten self-interest…If my potential enemy has no reason to fear me, I am safer too.

Paul’s words are strong and prophetic, but with regards my last post, I wish it was that simple. If my potential enemy has no reason to fear me, I should be safer. But with what reason do men fear women whom they rape? Do robbers fear their victims? On a large military-complex, nation-state scale Paul is surely right, but on the streets?

The issue of Right to Protect (R2P) was only glanced at throughout the IEPC. I hope that in the future, ecumenical and inter-faith communities can critically look at issues of R2P and Just Policing. Paul called the world wide community to train even its United Nations soldiers as police are trained, ‘Not to kill enemies, but to prevent or to end violent conflicts.’ This is a beginning, but even the histories of police are riddled with violence, abuse of power, racism, and economic inequality. I was taught that the police were safe; I have police officers in my family; I can go to the police in my country for help… can you? Not everyone can.

Paul also spoke about heroes. How the heroes of the military-industrial complex are celebrated for their violence instead of the number of people they save. I challenge that it is not the heroes who must be abolished but rather their prevailing myth. The hero should not be rewarded for slaying the monsters but rather for coming home, transformed by the lessons s/he learned, to lead the community into a place of Just Peace.

We need our heroes. We need the police who will save the innocent from the gunfire; the firefighter who rescues the helpless from the burning building. But my heroes are also the women who are survivors, not victims; the many people who live with disability and the react to bigotry with compassion; the diversity of peacemakers who listen, who tell stories, and in turn challenge me to be a better person.

And in such way, Paul is one of these heroes, for not only did he challenge the world wide community present at the IEPC, but he offered new visions, new creations. One of my professors told me a while back that we must first imagine a new world if we are to create it. While incredibly poetic in nature, Paul offered up an image of the Pope being received by a foreign state, not with the usual ‘soldiers carrying fixed bayonets that are designed to kill [but] rather than by children bearing flowers.’

He offered examples of non-violent direct action, of stories of people faithfully standing by their convictions to peace. Paul opened up the IEPC with a vision of peacemakers as strong, as faithful, as powerful people who can and will change this world.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fear Not!

During our training as stewards we participated in a seminar on safety and security. Kingston, Jamaica is recognized as one of the most dangerous cities in the world and in such a climate the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) choose to hold a conference on Just Peace. While the campus was on high alert, various things happened that caused me to question our safety and security. From the dangers of human-kind, like the two people from our hotel who were held up at gunpoint in full sunlight on a Sunday afternoon, to the dangers of Mother Nature, like when we were on the 18th floor of the conference center and felt the entire building shake from the tremors of an earthquake.

How do we serve others when we feel unsafe? Are we called into creating safety and security or is such an illusion? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “There is no way to peace on the way of safety… Peace is the opposite of security.” How then do we teach, advise, and suggest to others ways of acting, being and doing that are not based on fear but instead on smart choices. How do we help people calculate the risks of their decisions?


Jamaica is a new set of calculations for me. I’ve been to occupied Palestine, rural East Africa, and inner-city slums in the United States. I’ve felt unsafe before but my knowledge of the areas or the knowledge taught to me by locals helped me calculate the risks and make smart choices. I’ve grown aware of how fear plays a part in my feelings of safety and security and although I fully acknowledge its presence, I do not want it to control me.


One thing that we, the stewards, were told over and over was not to wander anywhere in Kingston without a local. The local stewards taught us through skits and presentations about the violence of Kingston and the dangers-- that youth in particular-- experienced daily. We internationals stood out. We didn’t know where was safe and where wasn’t.


The imposed accompaniment requirement was frustrating. I felt embarrassed and burdening to ask the Jamaican stewards to take me places. I let other stewards do the asking and then jumped on the bandwagon when the group left. (My own confession) While I didn’t want to burden anyone, I didn’t like feeling trapped inside the compound either.


In reflection, I wonder how people of Palestine, Columbia, Iraq, and Canada, feel as they are accompanied by Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) or the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). Do these people feel frustrated that they must be accompanied by internationals in order to feel safe? Or are they much more gracious and humble than me?



Safety and security also makes me think about risks. What do I have to consider in calculating my risks in any given situation? In my journal I made a list of the risks I can think that people have to consider:


+Race


+Gender


+Sexual Orientation


+Disability


+Language


+Family at Home


+Responsibilities at Home


+Valuable on Person


+Access to leave the country


+Access to one’s embassy


+Access to the police


+Access to medical facilities


I’m sure there are many more, and I’m interested in what other people come up with. In my own analysis I find that for the most part as a young, unattached, affluent, American, English speaking, straight white woman without disabilities, most of these risk factors are very low. In places where women are respected not even my gender is much of a threat. However, here in Jamaica race, gender, and even language pose risks to my ability to walk around alone on the streets of Kingston.


I have to admit, my fear caused me to think about leaving Jamaica early. I had scheduled my time here to include one week after the IEPC to travel and visit with Quakers. I joined up with a few groups of internationals and traveled a bit throughout the country. Then, my fear peaked and at the airport when I dropped off my friends, I inquired if I could travel standby on a flight that night.


Other plans were in store and as it worked out there was no way I could leave Jamaica until my original departure date. I had just enough money to get me to the Friends Center at Worthington Friends Meeting where I met amazing, kind and hospitable Quakers. My fear would have prevented me from meeting these wonderful people, learning about their life and community, and sharing with them their love for their city and their country.


While I’m ashamed that my fear prompted me to act in the ways that I did, I’m thankful that in the end grace prevailed and not fear. For as the angel said to the shepherds “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:10) Thank you my dear friends in Jamaica; thank you for being patient with me.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Welcoming the Stranger

Way opened so that my role as a steward at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) in Kingston, Jamaica, was to help out at the registration/info table. With two other stewards and two fantastic World Council of Churches (WCC) staff members we not only welcomed and registered the 1,000 participants but we also fielded every possible question from internet malfunctions to directional requests.

I loved it. To welcome the stranger, to bring folks into a space such as this international peace convocation was amazing. Not only did I get to personally meet most of the other Quakers but I also recognized names of people whom I had read about and met hundreds of faces for the first time.

There are many stories from the registration table and I have moments both humorous and heartbreaking that will stay with me in remembrance. One example of a moment that sent others laughing was when I was working with the other American steward (who was helping out with computer issues) at the registration desk and a familiar face walked into the room. Lois Wilson had been the keynote speaker at the NCC-USA meeting we both attended in November. A charismatic spry woman who is described in the book she later gave us as a ‘minister, ecumenist, educator, author, Chancellor, Senator, wife, mother of four and grandmother of twelve’ has become my personal hero. If I could do half of what she has done in her life and still have the grace and humor that she displays on a regular basis, I would be more than satisfied. And by the way the two of us Americans reacted when she came into the registration hall, you would have thought that a movie star had just walked in.

Prior to the beginning of IEPC, the stewards had engaged in ecumenical training in hopes that we would be prepared for the experience that lay ahead. One of the conversations that resulted from this training was a conversation about titles. As I mentioned in my prior post, I’m concerned about titles; Quakers don’t normally use them. So, how was I to authentically address an Orthodox Bishop, respecting my tradition as well as his? One of our leaders suggested that if I ever came across a situation where such a title was in question, I should simply ask. So in good form, when I got the opportunity to register an Orthodox Bishop (who spoke English well enough not to be misunderstood) I asked. “As an Orthodox Bishop, what should I call you?” I inquired innocently. The Bishop smiled and simply said “You can call me Mike.”

Not everyone who approached me at the information/registration table was in their best form. We had some sever issues with the Internet during the first few days of the IEPC and many people were annoyed. Have we idolized our technology so much that we cannot do without? A question for another time perhaps. However, in the middle of a rather busy registration hall a prominent member of the WCC leadership exploded his humanness. He publicly yelled at me for not being able to fix his internet connection. Shocked, I took the anger flashed at me and immediately grounded it. I closed my eyes and it took me a moment to recover. In that moment my dear friend had stormed out of the room. Running after him and addressing him by name I offered some possible solutions.

In reflection all I could think was how human each of us is, no matter our title or rank. Later on this man humbly apologized to me and in such displayed that a person holding power can be human both in his frustration and in his compassion. So, I thank him now for reminding me that all leaders are just people with good moments and bad and with my own imperfections I might have a shot to be a little like him.

The registration/info table was always full of surprises and I learned so much from the two WCC staff with whom I worked. From them I saw grand displays of patience and multi-tasking. I witnessed them take care of people in strong, calm ways that made people feel safe and secure. I have so much to work on, not to mention adding a few languages to my repertoire, so that I can continue to welcome the stranger and begin to call the stranger friend.