I recently participated in the International Encounter for Reconciliation, sponsored by the Interchurch Dialogue for Peace in Colombia (DiPaz).
I was invited to present on “Ecumenical Experiences and Learning in the Construction of Peace,” so naturally I turned to my colleagues who serve as “mission co-workers” of the Presbyterian Church (USA). These are US-based staff who serve closely alongside global partners. I invited them to send me what they know about peace building work in their places of service by asking them, “What stories can you share with me about peace building in contexts of conflict and trauma?” The responses I received were varied and many; I brought two stories to the International Encounter for Reconciliation.
The Philippines: The Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute
The Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute in the Philippines brings together people from multiple countries and many religions. The heart of the work is in the theater arts, through which the founders saw that they could reach people not only from different countries and faith traditions but who were connected with different sides of a conflict. Their classrooms have included students with different military and paramilitary affiliations as well.
In a context of violent conflict and a culture of militarism that permeates the entire society, peacebuilding is a process of affirming humans as makers of a culture of peace and justice.
In the theater arts, you have to engage deeply in both self-understanding and the empathic understanding of others. Participants in peace education through the theater arts use their individual and collective imaginations, their memories, bodies, and voices to tell the story of conflict.
In one example of an exercise, participants are gathered in small groups of five or six people. They create a free-verse poem together, each person in the group contributing a line to the poem. After they are done, each group passes its created poem to another group. Then, they are instructed to destroy the other group’s poem. When each small group receives their poem—now destroyed by another group— back in their hands, the teachers lead reflective questions: “Why did no one speak up to resist the instruction to destroy the poem? What stories in your lives, your communities have been destroyed, trampled upon or silenced?”
PC(USA) mission co-worker and teacher Dessa Quesada Palm and her colleagues write, “This destruction of the collective written piece or the artwork is a metaphor for lives and narratives affected by conflict.”
South Sudan: “Healing Hearts, Transforming Nations”
Next, I shared about a program found in South Sudan. The South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church has worked with the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Mission Aviation Fellowship to carry out a training of trainers workshop series for a program called “Healing Hearts, Transforming Nations.” This program uses highly interactive, physical, and symbolic activities as well as socio-drama.
One of the culminating activities is called “Standing in the Gap,” in which participants confess openly and publicly the wrongs their people have done to other ethnic groups.
Kristi Rice, a PC(USA) mission co-worker serving in South Sudan, shares this testimony from a training of trainers graduate. I will call the graduate “Wesley.” Kristi writes:
Wesley said the dramas help people to connect with their own experience and understand principles more deeply than just through teaching. He shared how surprised he was to see a respected elder in the church come in tears (which is shameful in this culture) during the practicum workshop he facilitated. During a session about prejudice and the ways that we wound each other, the man initially said, “we are Christians and we do not want to say anything bad about people of other groups.” But later during the Standing in the Gap session, a woman confessed the ways that people from her group, the Nuer, have harmed and killed those of the Shilluk people group. The man was Shilluk, and her confession freed him to express the pent-up hatred that he had towards the Nuer for a series of attacks on his village and the people who had been killed and displaced. He said to Wesley, “this is the first time I have ever spoken of this hatred. I want to forgive the Nuer people and be free of this hatred. I want us to live together in harmony.”
Through the theater arts, or sacred spaces of symbolic action, or by simply listening to another’s story – we join in holy moments of mutual vulnerability in which all can be heard and seen and through which pathways toward peace can grow and flourish.