Light through the cracks: a lesson from Naaman

This reflection on 2 Kings 5: 1-14 is written by Jon Nofziger, Constituency Engagement Facilitator for MCC BC. Jon has served with MCC in Germany, England, Haiti, and Nicaragua, as well as Miami, Winnipeg and Abbotsford.

How do we experience the reality of God in the chaos of the world today? Sometimes God works in unexpected ways and we miss recognizing God’s actions.

Peace candle

Naaman was a man of great authority, held in high esteem, second only to the king of Aram. He was popular, a folk hero, a victorious military leader. Yet he became afflicted with the skin disease leprosy. He feared that his condition — and his loss of beauty — could  lead to dismissal from his prestigious position. For Naaman, leprosy may have been as much a spiritual condition as a physical condition.

Naaman attempted to purchase healing, a pattern that is still prominent today. Many people use wealth and power as leverage to gain “healing.” Many today are perishing form the “leprosy” of power. When have we sought to purchase our healing?

In the story, Naaman became angry when the prophet Elisha failed to receive him with the pomp and ceremony he felt he deserved. Naaman’s pride prevented him from seeing how God could act in simple non-pompous ways. Many of us are like Naaman — we believe God must personally attend our pleas and it must be a grand show. If things don’t turn out as desired, we conclude that we didn’t get God’s attention or we have not been faithful. Why do we, like Naaman, expect God to respond in a set manner or time frame?

The story provides two “cracks” that shine light on how God acts. The first crack is a little slave girl – a weak insignificant person, someone on the margins of society — who cares for Naaman’s need and points him in the direction of God. The second crack is Naaman’s servants, who convince him to follow Elisha’s mundane instructions to wash in the river, and not wait for the pomp of a pre-conceived expectation. Sometimes it takes “simple” events or people to open our eyes to divine light shining in through the cracks.

Like Naaman, we too can believe our own “rivers” are cleaner than God’s; thus our own plans are as good, if not more complete, than God’s. How do we substitute our way for God’s way? Do our expectations try fit God’s methodology into a box in ways that we can “see and understand.” We need to be open to seeing the distorted light oozing in through the cracks. True faith is assurance that God is working in our lives and in the world, even when we don’t perceive the signs.

In the Lord of the Rings series, the great wizard Gandalf says, “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay: small acts of kindness and love.” It is the Bilbo Baggins of this world — the slaves, the servants, the marginalized ones — that demonstrate how God will ultimately destroy evil.

In the MCC world, it is often the ordinary people who provide the cracks. As Doug and Naomi Enns, our MCC reps in Lebanon and Syria, inform us — ordinary folk are opening their churches, mosques, homes and lives to offer refuge to thousands of people fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq.

All of us have cracks in our lives. I believe God shines through these cracks. As we move forward as the church, may we encourage one another to see God/Christ in the unlikely actions and people who point us to the cracks. In his work “Anthem,” poet Leonard Cohen puts it this way:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Displaced by religions of peace…

Esther Epp-Tiessen @ MCC Ottawa Office:

Today’s reflection originally appeared on the blog of Mary Lou and Dave Klassen, MCC workers in Nigeria. Learn more about the work of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Teams here.

Originally posted on peaceonigeria:

“Instead of me providing it is me receiving,” observed Samson Adamu when he finished passing through the line to receive his sleeping mats, bucket and soap. Adamu is from one of the 995 families who received assistance from MCC through partner, EPRT (Emergency Preparedness Response Teams) because of the conflict that has engulfed Wase LGA._W4A3267 (Large)

Many of the beneficiaries were confused by the question, “why are you here?” Their forefathers have lived in peaceful coexistence with their neighbors for generations. The different ethnic groups accepted their differences and lived with them. Faith was not an issue to kill for.

Samson describes how just months earlier he had hosted those who came to attack his community, giving them places to sleep and food to eat. The best he could discern why they came back to attack in April 2013 was “religion”. Samson is a faithful Muslim and his attackers, he knew, were Christian.  In other parts of Plateau…

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Park(ing) Day: Re-imagining city spaces

This week’s guest writer is Myriam Ullah, community engagement coordinator for MCC Saskatchewan. Myriam recently celebrated her one-billion-second birthday!

Parking Day streetOn September 19, 2014, MCC Saskatchewan participated in Saskatoon’s third annual Park(ing) Day.

Park(ing) Day is an annual worldwide event where artists, designers and citizens transform metered parking spots into temporary public parks.

So why do people do this — create bike lanes, pop-up retail, and public spaces infused with art and culture just for ONE DAY?  Because it is an experiment in “city-building,” where people envision their city in new ways and see if their visions are worth building on.

The overall idea is to re-imagine how city spaces could be used if we didn’t have so many cars. People are invited to host a creative stall the size of one metered parking spot for the day, alongside food trucks, entertainment, speakers, and other fun things.

For the past three years, Park(ing) Day Saskatoon has taken place on Riverdale’s 20th street, site of two MCC thrift shops (a clothing shop and a furniture shop). So we thought Park(ing) Day would be a great way to highlight thrift! We hosted two parking spots to demonstrate that second hand shopping can stylishly clothe us, furnish our homes, and build a community that balances between give and take.

MCC stallsThe clothing thrift shop set up several racks of clothes and held a “dress-our-mannequins” contest. It asked passers-by to choose a character, and then dress a mannequin within three minutes according to the character’s style. Many people participated and got really creative in playing dress-up. It was amazing to see how many visitors affirmed the thrift shop idea and expressed how much they love shopping there.

The furniture thrift shop made a curbside living room to showcase some of the amazing pieces they have in their store. Some people stopped to sit for a rest, others bought the items on display, and many more just paused to chat.

Alongside the stalls, we set up an MCC booth to draw attention to the many projects that thrift shop revenue supports and we invited folks to make their own thrift slogan buttons. Our slogans included: “Thrift Shopper for Peace,” “The Re-Purpose Driven Life,” “Keep Calm and Go Thrifting.”

parking benchWe had a great time re-imagining how these small city spaces could be better used to build community and were inspired by the task. All of need to continue to re-imagine our world at peace with God, one another, and creation.

If you’re interested in reading more about the ideas behind PARK(ing), a reading list, courtesy of the Saskatoon Public Library, is available here.


World War I and the Humanitarian Imperative for Nuclear Disarmament

This week’s guest writer is John Siebert, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a non-governmental organization that works with churches, governments and civil society, in Canada and abroad, to advance policies and actions to prevent war and armed violence and build peace. Project Ploughshares is a longtime coalition partner of MCC.

The widespread use of weapons of mass destruction in World War I (WW1), particularly chemical weapons such as chlorine gas, shocked the public conscience and added to the existing demand for banning such weapons. The staggering numbers — 100,000 dead but more the hideously disfigured bodies of the wounded 1 million — shocked the conscience of the public as these poor souls returned home and compelled efforts to make chemical and biological weapons illegal to possess or use.

Attempts by nations to ban chemical weapons reached back into the 19th century, and extended well forward into the 20th. And yet in Syria chemical weapons were recently used in civilian areas. You scratch your head and wonder how long and how effective these efforts are if, after over a century of work to outlaw this particular class of weapons, it is worth the candle.

It is.

Photo credit

Photo credit

Setting norms in international law is notoriously difficult and time consuming. Implementation and verification are even more difficult and more time consuming. The difficulties of implementation and verification typically are used by opponents of constraints as an argument for not even trying to set new international norms. It becomes a vicious circle favouring a lack of action.

So, the advocates of legal restraint on specific military technologies have to somehow overwhelm the natural momentum of advocates for hard security realism, those who argue for the primacy of power as determining the outcome of conflicts and the use of dodgy military technologies, with another kind of argument.

The good news is that the machinery of disarmament for conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction has made great strides since WW1. Chemical and biological weapons have been deemed illegal; both possession and use. Certain classes of conventional weapons have been banned as well, including personnel land mines and cluster munitions.

But efforts dating from WW1 took almost a century to bear the less than comprehensive results we have today in outlawing and eradicating chemical weapons.

The way it works in practice is that these international norms are eventually nearly universally accepted and observed. The legitimacy of these weapons is then permanently degraded so the world can focus on the outliers, or spoilers, who continue to possess or use them. It isn’t perfection but the process makes the world considerably safer if not absolutely safe from the banned weapons.

no nukesSimilar arguments used to ban chemical and biological weapons, and some classes of conventional weapons, are just as applicable and arguably more so to nuclear weapons.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC), following the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, in 2011 passed a resolution indicating “that the principles and rules of international humanitarian law apply to nuclear weapons and that the threat or use of such weapons would generally be contrary to the principles and rules of international humanitarian law.”

Why? Nuclear weapons violate the principles of war because their use fails with respect to distinction, precaution and proportionality. Nuclear weapons cause incalculable human suffering that are unconstrained by time or space, there is no way to prepare for, or to meet, the overwhelming humanitarian needs of those affected even by a limited nuclear exchange, and damage to the natural world would be incalculable and could not be mitigated. We often explain this by the term “nuclear winter.”

In short, the possession or use of nuclear weapons threatens the future of human and other species, and the biosphere of the earth itself.

The ICRC sought in 2011 and going forward to “reframe the international debate” on nuclear weapons from considerations of geopolitical, security and deterrence to the humanitarian imperative to make them illegal and eliminate them.

Experience from other disarmament processes says that certain weapons, or a class of weapons, have been eliminated only after they have been outlawed. Civil society reflects and focuses widespread public disgust and mobilizes sympathetic states against the outlier and spoiler states who want to continue having them in their arsenals.

Not since the post-Cold War draw down of nuclear weapons from approximately 60,000 warheads to the current 17,500 has there been such a sense of optimism about the prospect for eliminating nuclear weapons. Let’s make the momentum continue!

“We just want peace” — from the global to the local

On Sunday, September 21 and throughout the preceding week, churches, communities and individuals around the world celebrated the UN International Day of Peace. It is a general call for peace around the world, but also a specific call for communities caught in the midst of ongoing conflict, violence and war.

Every year on this day in Colombia, where I have been working with MCC for almost three years, various churches, including Mennonite churches, come together for forums, marches and vigils as part of a national campaign called Pan y Paz or Bread and Peace.

bread The idea behind this campaign is that peace cannot thrive at the national or local levels without economic and social justice. It is why our events include a symbolic action — offering bread to all who pass by. Peace from this perspective demands that everyone has access to the necessary resources in order that all can live in dignity — that no one goes hungry.

Pan y Paz is a call to action for the Colombian state, but also to society in general. The impacts of 50 years of conflict, which has left over 200,000 dead and approximately 5.5 million internally displaced by the violence, run deep throughout society. As peace talks between the Government and the FARC (Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) enter their third year, it is critical that issues of economic and social justice are central in any movements forward. However, communities and individuals also need to become involved as well, promoting peace, dignity and justice within their own neighbourhoods, and caring for those around them.

This focus on peacebuilding and the conviction that all people are image bearers of God and deserve to be treated with dignity is what originally drew me to MCC — leading me to work with MCC in Winnipeg, three years in Colombia, and now joining the Ottawa Office team. I love to engage and analyze overarching political and social issues, but what has been most rewarding and inspiring are the personal connections to communities. I am inspired to think about what peace and justice look like within a community, for a family, in the life of a friend.

For the past two years I have participated in Pan y Paz with the Mennonite Church community in San Nicolas, a neighbourhood of Soacha, just south of Bogota. San Nicolas, as with Soacha in general, is an area in which many displaced people live, having fled violence in other regions, with more people arriving every week. As a result, issues like poverty and urban violence, especially among the youth, are rampant. Families are struggling to start over and many youth are seeking and finding their sense of community within gangs or armed groups.

Colombia march with Pedro LuisChildren and youth well outnumber the adults within the Mennonite Church community in San Nicolas. Many of the children joined due to participating in the church’s daily lunch program. The youth have also found a community within the church, forming music groups, and taking on leadership roles.

This year, before the church community marched through the streets with their banners, candles and bread to share chanting “¡Más pan, Menos balas!” (More bread, Less bullets!), there was a mixture of celebration and sadness. The celebration came as the children led the time of worship, singing songs of God’s hope and love, all while dancing and jumping.

But as the service came to a close, the pastor shared the news of yet another young man, known to many in the church, who had recently passed away. It appears that he killed himself. This is not a rare occurrence in the area, as young people are frequently lost in the despair of their circumstances, or others killed for their involvement in gangs and other violent activities.

One of the youth led the congregation in a prayer for all of the youth in the area.  He prayed for peace in the community, for joy, happiness and purpose in the lives of the children and youth, so they can bring change within their neighbourhood, their city, their country. The children and youth within this church community are struggling for peace and for change and are refusing to give up hope.

As the community lit their candles and marched in the streets, I kept thinking of something the pastor said to me as we walked out onto the street, making the high level peace talks reach down to the community level — “ Solo queremos la paz.“ We just want peace.

By Rebekah Sears, new policy analyst for the Ottawa Office. Originally from New Brunswick, Rebekah is still in Colombia where she has been serving as policy educator and advocacy worker for MCC; she will relocate to Ottawa in late October. She has a Master’s degree in International Affairs from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and has completed policy analysis and research for World Vision and Citizens for Public Justice, and has also worked briefly on Parliament Hill.



This week’s guest writer is Natalie Frisk, Curriculum Developer at The Meeting House Church – a church for people who aren’t into church. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario and is ordained with the Brethren in Christ Canada. Natalie is married and has one amazing daughter. We invited Natalie to contribute to our Ottawa Notebook, when we heard about her amazing personal initiative. Read on….

I used to be a Just War Theorist. I’m a person of action, and so when there is a person being persecuted or unjustly injured in some way, I want to jump into action. I would have never expected that my jump to action would be as a peace advocate.

About 9 years ago, I started to go to The Meeting House Church while attending Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. The idea of church in a movie theatre felt strange, but what felt even stranger to me was the sense that after years of feeling slightly unsettled in various denominations, I was home.

Dauda Babangida, left, and Abubakar Idris are Peace Club participants at Muhammadu Abdullahi Wase Private School in Wase town, Nigeria.

Dauda Babangida, left, and Abubakar Idris are Peace Club participants at Muhammadu Abdullahi Wase Private School in Wase town, Nigeria.  MCC provides significant support to the development of Peace Clubs in several African countries.

Week by week, I experienced beautiful people, beautiful teaching, and was able to anchor myself in a beautiful home church. After a short period there, I was confronted with what would become one of my greatest hurdles: peace teaching. I couldn’t seem to wrap my mind around it, and so I took it to my home church to wrestle through. A leader in that home church kindly said, “Why don’t you just look at what Jesus said?”

Could it be so simple? I thought I had. I mean, I knew the Gospels. I knew what the Bible said. Didn’t I?

And so, I took up the challenge and all I could find over and over again was Jesus preaching enemy love. “Pray for those who persecute you.” “Love your enemies.” “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.” They went on, and on, and on. Jesus taught peace. Jesus lived peace. Jesus was and is the Prince of Peace.

I had a choice: I could continue on in the way I had always thought about war as if fighting was “helping,” or I could follow the way of Jesus.

Jesus. I wanted to follow Jesus. I wanted to know and learn the way of peace.

Fast-forward a few years, and I found myself becoming a voice for peace; however, I started to realize that being a voice just wasn’t enough. Peace required action.

Roughly a year ago, I read an article about a five-year-old girl who decided to sell pink lemonade for peace. It’s a fantastic piece that I’d invite you to read here. In short, this little girl had a vision to sell lemonade and donate the funds raised to peace initiatives. She raised a couple of thousand dollars, had a huge impact in her city, and was able to actively promote peace. Did I mention she was just five?

This story stuck with me and I wasn’t able to shake it. Maybe it was the innocence and creativity combined. Maybe it was the other-centredness of a child at such a young age. Or maybe it was because peace was such a passion of mine.

Whatever the reason, the story made me restless. It inspired me to act.

Peacebuilding among young people spreads conflict transformation skills throughout society. Mittapab ("Friendship"€) is a group of Lao young adults and teachers. They build peace in Vientiane by working with high school students, using their own curriculum. Students learn to promote relationship peace and cope with daily conflicts. Global Family support helps Mittapab teach conflict transformation to teachers and students. This photo shows a peace training among high school students.

Mittapab (“Friendship”€) is an MCC-supported peace project in Lao. It trains teachers and young adults in conflict resolution skills which they pass on to high school students in Vientiane. Students learn to promote relationship peace and cope with daily conflicts. This photo shows a peace training among high school students.

And so, one morning, I woke up and announced to my husband that I’d like to raise $30,000 for peace initiatives with MCC by my 30th birthday. He said it was crazy – but that was exactly why I needed to do it! I called my initiative PeacebyPiece.

I realized that peace is something we talk about, aspire to, and hope for, but we very rarely take action for it. I needed to push myself (and encourage others!) to put my money where my mouth was when it came to putting peace into action.

My birthday has come and gone. I raised about $5,000 for peace, but have readjusted my goal to continue to raise funds during this year. I have sold Poinsettias for Peace, Popcorn for Peace, t-shirts, and even threw a fundraiser birthday party for peace for myself. For me, failing was still succeeding. I’ve had to opportunity to share in churches, in youth groups, and will continue to call others to creative active peace making wherever I go. The funds that have been raised to this point will make an impact.

My hope is to continue to raise the conversation of peace in our every day lives, peace around the world, and be able to help support some of the incredible work that Mennonite Central Committee is doing to build peace in our world now and for the future.


Lessons from Sandra

Every two weeks I visit Sandra at the provincial Women’s Correctional Centre west of Winnipeg. When I arrive, I lock my belongings and outer clothing in a locker, pass through a metal detector, and wait until a heavy locked door opens electronically and a guard ushers me into the visiting area.

Sometimes Sandra and I sit and talk at a round table. More recently, because of a misdemeanor on her part, our visits have been “non-contact,” which means we sit in a tiny booth and talk via telephone, while separated by thick plexiglas.

Open CircleI visit Sandra (not a real person but a composite of people I have met) because I am a volunteer with Open Circle. Open Circle matches inmates in several Manitoba prisons with people who commit to visiting them twice a month for at least a year. My job as a visitor is to be a friend — someone who doesn’t ask many questions, offer much advice, or judge. Mostly, I am there to listen and to be “radically present.”

When I signed up with Open Circle, I did so with some selfish motives. I wanted to connect more closely with “real” people who suffer from the real world and its very real structures of oppression. In our work in the Ottawa Office of MCC, we try to address systems and structures of violence and injustice and work for policy change. I believe in our work deeply, but I often feel myself losing touch with the very people who are the reason for this work.

Sandra has put me in touch with reality very quickly. I have learned so much from her. These are just a few of her lessons for me.

  • Approximately 80-85% percent of the women at the WCC are Aboriginal – as Sandra is. I knew this intellectually before I ever entered the WCC. It is quite another thing to see it and comprehend it at a heart level. It is an absolute travesty that Aboriginal women should be so over-represented in prison.
  • Virtually every one of the inmates, whether convicted or charged with committing an offense, has also been a victim of terrible violence, abuse, trauma and or neglect. I regularly hear about beatings, assaults and rape. Some of the violence is self-inflicted — Sandra’s arm is covered from wrist to shoulder with razor scars.
  • Photo Credit Radio Canada

    Photo Credit Radio Canada

    The prison is not a cozy place. The only chairs I’ve seen are plastic stacking chairs. Sandra wonders if her back and hip pain is related to the fact that she can never sit in a comfortable chair or lie in a comfortable bed.

  • In Sandra’s unit there are two treadmills and a WII for about 120 women to share. Along with a prison diet that is heavy in high-fat foods, it is almost certain that the inmates will gain a lot of weight. Sandra tells me she has gained 40 pounds in six months.
  • One of the most painful things, for Sandra, is being separated from her children for long periods of time. She loves her kids deeply and worries intensely about them, even though she acknowledges the mistakes she has made as a mother.
  • The prison is located in a field outside the city and far away from any public transportation. This makes it very difficult for Sandra’s family members and friends to visit and it compounds her sense of isolation in prison.
  • There are countless daily humiliations – the ugly grey sweatpants and T-shirts which all inmates wear, the overcrowded cells, the withdrawal of privileges such as time outside one’s cell, the lack of information about the status of one’s case.
  • The prison can also be a place to celebrate small victories – as when one inmate can walk away from a fight, when another can stop biting her nails, when another can learn a craft. There is also the kindness of particular officers and prison staff.
  • Although Sandra hates being “inside,” she is afraid about what it will mean to be “outside” again. She is fearful about how she will find food, clothing, and a place to live, about having to make decisions, and about being drawn back into a destructive lifestyles.
  • Aboriginal communities view crime and criminal behaviour as resulting from a lack of balance in individuals and communities. Traditional restorative justice practices focus on helping people recover balance. Sandra doesn’t quite articulate it this way, but she lets me know that the prison system, with its focus on punishment, exacerbates imbalance and further diminishes some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

I always come away from my visits with Sandra with a jumble of contradictory thoughts and feelings. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with sadness and I cry a good bit of the way home. Sometimes I am filled with rage at a system which, rather than helping women to heal from a terribly wounded existence, only harms them further. Frequently I am reminded of the legacy of colonization of which both Sandra and I are a part.  Always I am confronted with my sheltered and privileged existence.  Always I feel like I’ve walked on holy ground.

I continue to believe that addressing systems and structures at a macro level and working for policy change is ever important. But that work must be rooted in relationship with “real” people. Sandra has also taught me that.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office.