The Advocacy of Faith

By Anna Vogt

This week’s guest blog is written by Anna Vogt of Dawson City — she claims she is the only MCC worker from the Yukon!  Anna is currently serving in Colombia with MCC’s Seed program and she blogs regularly at the llama diaries.  In her reflections, she juxtaposes her own ideas about advocacy with the very different ideas expressed by the Colombian women with whom she lives and works. How do you respond to her musings on the advocacy of prayer and fasting? 

Advocacy is the focus of the month! What is it, how does it work and who does it are all questions that we Seeders are wrestling through after our big trip to Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala, and of course, our present work in Colombia. Here’s a reflection of working with the church:

I supposedly work with the social organization of the local church in Mampuján. It’s been an up-hill battle for me, as I wrestle with cultural assumptions and too many church services where I feel like an outsider. It’s all just so different from the advocacy-focused, socially-engaged, progressive Mennonite church I attended in Langley!

Colombian women prayHowever, many church members in Mampujan, the majority women, also firmly believe that they are engaged in advocacy. Through praying and fasting, they consistently emphasize that they are changing their world for the better. I have had countless conversations with people who describe the positive changes they have seen because of their actions: husbands have become converted, thus improving family life, vital rain has fallen to provide water for crops, healings have taken place, and perhaps most dramatically of all, no one was killed during their displacement. The arrival of reparations is attributed to both the hard work of the community leaders and the faithful actions of the church as they sacrificed food for the good of the community in many fasting services.

In a world and a political climate where displaced people have very little obvious power, along with the historical marginalization of Afro-Colombian communities, these women are changing the world in the only way they see possible. The physical world seems to have little need for them, but they control what happens in the spiritual. People who the rest of the world views as powerless view themselves with dynamite in their hands. A personal God who is ready to intervene at the cry of his people is a powerful drawing card for this type of advocacy, when there is no easy access to other avenues of power. Their actions recognize the injustice in which they live and the way they advocate for change is also an implicit recognition of those injustices and marginalization. Many times, it is just as effective to dedicate time to prayer and fasting than to write a letter to the editor or to President Santos.

Prayer empowers women and also provides a community space where they talk about their problems. They visit each other and pray for sick members of the community, providing comfort and company to those in need. One woman told me the story of when she told her husband he was no longer allowed to verbally abuse her because she was a “precious jewel to the Lord.” Through her relationship with the church, she found the strength to advocate for herself in a harmful situation.

Enter Anna. Fresh from university and eager to change the world. Ready to bang the church over the head with the gospel of social change and direct action. Straight from meetings with Members of Parliament and protests in Canada and confidant in her ability (and therefore the ability of everyone) to access traditional political power. Eager to tell people to stop fasting and to start walking, to stop praying for change and come to meetings about income generating projects with the real possibility to change their lives.

But, it is not that easy, is it? When I tell people that what they are doing is not enough and does not actually work make a difference, I face the risk of taking away their empowerment and the skill set that they have developed to deal with their unique situations. If I don’t try to understand what they are doing and why, my temporary presence can be harmful, not helpful. They understand the way their world works a lot better than I do.

Does this mean I don’t do anything? No, I don’t think so- I am also a valid person with valid ideas. But it does mean that I need to think a lot more about what I do engage in and what my assumptions are, based on where I come from, especially before I try to engage a world I don’t really understand. I still do not enjoy going to church very much and, like any other institution, the church also has a negative side and impact on the community. However, I’m learning to listen and to understand before I judge and before I act.

More on advocacy to come!

Planting peace, story by story

This week’s guest blog includes reflections and quotations from persons who participated in MCC Alberta’s two-week Planting Peace training, held May 5-17. The seminar brought together 25 young adults from around the world to explore what it means to build peace.

By Jackie Karau, Kenya

My idea of peace has always been tied to avoiding conflict as much as possible. If any conflict did arise, I would try my best to find which of the parties involved would be most likely to apologize and I would encourage them to do so as quickly as possible. I would then be very happy about having handled conflict so well. I never stopped to think about whether the apologies were heartfelt or not, or whether the apology was truly accepted or not. As long I had made “peace” and handed it over in a nice little box with a bow on it, then I was very happy with myself.

Planting Peace 2 Planting Peace has challenged most of what I thought peacebuilding should be. I have learned that sometimes peace has nothing to do with conflict at all. In some communities, peace means access to clean water and education, in others it may mean standing together as a congregation even when there is fear or doubt, in others it may mean listening to young people who are struggling with being accepted and helping them find constructive ways to channel their emotions. I have also learned that sometimes peace is looking beyond hijabs, turbans, colours, and accents and just engaging with someone, feeling their emotions, hearing their stories, crying with them so they know they are not alone, laughing and sharing in our humanity. Peace is not just hearing stories and feeling sad, it is about sharing these stories so that others can learn from them, so that future generations will not make the same mistakes.

There is a lot of conflict in this world, and perhaps the reason world peace seems like this unattainable utopia is because we want to solve all these problems in one big sweep. I thought of it as this magical peace inoculation that we could give to an entire population and declare it done. This is just not possible–peace is not a trophy handed at the end of a finish line, and it is definitely not a destination. Peace is found in the journey–when the walls we build to keep others out crumble, when uncomfortable realities are told and discussed and grieved, only then can relationships slowly be rebuilt.

Quotations from other Planting Peace participants

Planting peace 5“I want to work for peace so that everyone grows well.” – Jason  Konayuma, Zambia

“Life is very narrow without hope.” – Zeinab Hussein, Lebanon

“I came here to plant peace. I planted you all in my heart.” – Zeinab Hussein, Lebanon

“Sometimes all we can do is make ourselves forgivable.” – Will Loewen, Alberta

“Telling, listening, hearing,incorporating, sharing.” – Richard Wagamese, Ojibway author (trainer)

“I never know who will hear my voice. But if I keep silent then no one will hear me.” – Richard Wagamese

“We build the road and the road builds us.” – Sarvodaya

“Peace-building happens in the setting of the impossible.” – Jarem Sawatsky, Canadian Mennonite University (trainer)

“We are designed to heal. The whole world is designed to heal. You can go anywhere in the world and find violence and disgusting things that people do to each other. But there are always pockets of love and healing in the midst of the violence. Always. It is the impulse to move toward the other with love and healing.” – Jarem Sawatsky

“I eat life not with a spoon, but with a spade.” – Jackie Karau, Kenya

“My world has become smaller, but my house has become bigger” –  Fhuti Mnisi, South Africa

By Abe Janzen, MCC Alberta executive director

“Planting Peace changed my life,”said Bolin Laing, a young social worker from Cambodia. She talked about going home, having decided to forgive two people who, to this date, she had not been able to forgive.

Planting Peace 1At our two-week training, we learned that planting peace is about forgiveness, about advocating for others, about structural change, about standing in the middle, between the sides that cannot talk to each other to resolve their violence. It is about many realities that confound and enable the opportunities we all have–in our families, communities, countries, cultures— to help resolve conflict and, at times, to prevent it.

But more than anything, planting peace is about stories.  It is about any and all of us stepping into the story of our neighbour, and not only telling that story, but telling it as our own. Over a period of two weeks, we were challenged and nudged into each others’ stories, sometimes deliberately, and sometimes inadvertently, as part of a daily process of engagement. This was not an easy run–this is hard work.  But Planting Peace became a story in itself–a story about the redemption of a circle of about 25 people from around the world, all in different ways discovering some way to take this learning back to their (our) own worlds.  And most of us would say what Fhuti Mnisi from South Africa said on the final day review: “My world has become smaller, and my house has become bigger.”

A great cloud of witnesses

Why was I crying, I wondered? Why were the tears streaming down my cheeks on May 8, as I participated in a powerful worship service celebrating and commemorating forty years of ecumenical work for social justice in Canada?

WWA-40th-HeaderThe worship service culminated a day of events hosted by KAIROS, an ecumenical coalition formed in 2001 from ten inter-church coalitions birthed in the 1970s. Those coalitions had emerged to address a wide range of issues – from corporate social responsibility, to economic justice, to refugee rights, to disarmament, to Apartheid– and to do so in partnership with peoples struggling under the weight of war, oppression and injustice. The economic realities of the late 1990s meant that so many coalitions could no longer be sustained; hence, the creation of KAIROS.

During the course of a full day, we heard from some of the people who had been central to the work of these coalitions. They shared stories of discouragement and triumph.

Marjorie Ross spoke of efforts to help end Apartheid in South Africa. She told of the seeming hopelessness of the situation, and then the sudden and unexpected breakthrough ending the Apartheid regime. “Keep on working,” she urged, “even when all seems hopeless.”

John Dillon recalled the struggle which supported Dene efforts to prevent a Mackenzie Valley pipeline from being built. He reminded us that forty years ago, Indigenous people called on Canadians to practice a “conserver” rather than a “consumer” ethics. The pipeline was not built, but the call for an ethic of conservation is as necessary as ever.

We heard others describe efforts to sponsor refugees fleeing the Pinochet regime in Chile, to un-mask the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and to resist Canadian participation in war against Iraq.

Jennifer Henry and Joe Mihevc share reflections on forty years of ecumenical witness for social justice.

Jennifer Henry and Joe Mihevc share reflections on forty years of ecumenical witness for social justice.  Photo credit Erin Green, CCC.

Sue Wilson reminded the group that the heritage of hope and action bequeathed to KAIROS by the predecessor coalitions is mostly about relationships – relationships that transform us and make us attentive to God’s work in the world. She reminded present-day justice-seekers that KAIROS’ heritage marries prophetic and political energy with a contemplative heart.

Perhaps most poignant of all were the words of Mohawk leader Marlene Brant-Castellano, longtime professor of Native Studies at Trent University. “I believe in resurrection,” she declared, describing  the struggle of Indigenous people to rise from the devastation of colonialism.

She reminded us that that coalitions appear, disappear, and reappear with new names, but they emerge from the same heart – a heart of ancient wisdom, and an ethical core of care for the other. A resurrection future for Indigenous people – as for all people – lies in the building of communities founded on that ethical value of care.

The worship service later that evening wove together a traditional Anishinaabe welcome, scripture, music, prayer, reflection, stories, a procession of banners, and a roll call, naming those saints who have already passed on.  It was a rich tapestry of memory and hope.

I know why I was crying at the evening worship service. I was crying because my own heart was filled with gratitude for the great cloud of witnesses which inspired — and continues to inspire — faithful action for justice. Thank-you to those who carried the torch of social justice, dignity, and freedom for so many years, Thank-you to those who take it up now. Thank-you, thank-you.

Esther Epp-Tiessen is public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office.

On becoming an advocate

Years ago, when my husband and I were young MCC service workers in the Philippines, we visited Jose and Lita (names changed) in prison.   A married couple, the two Catholic lay leaders had been detained for their efforts to organize communities against the corrupt and violent dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos.

We had already visited a number of prisons and knew, as we arrived at the facility where Jose and Lita were held, that we would likely find them in decrepit surroundings – with inadequate food, crowded and harsh accommodations, and abusive treatment.

How surprised we were to find the couple in their own comfortable dwelling within the prison compound.

We asked them about their situation – so different from the prisoners we could see behind bars across the courtyard.  They explained, “It’s because Amnesty has taken up our cause.”

Amnesty International, the respected human rights organization, had indeed identified Jose and Lita as prisoners of conscience. It had urged its supporters to write Filipino officials, demanding the couple receive fair and decent treatment as they awaited trial. People had responded, and letters from around the world had made Lita and Jose’s prison stay much more comfortable than it might have been. Those letters also possibly played a role in the dismissal of charges against the couple later on.

This experience, among others, convinced me of the importance of calling authorities to account when their actions cause harm and injustice. It persuaded me of the importance of addressing systems which oppress. In other words, it converted me to the ministry of advocacy.

CandleThat experience, so many years ago, was transformative. It continues to inform my perspective on MCC’s ministry of service to those in need. I remain convinced that advocacy, undertaken in a spirit of Christian love, is an essential part of MCC’s mission. It is as important as donating money, volunteering in a thrift shop, or knotting a comforter.

In many situations, letters and other means of communication will not make such a sudden and dramatic difference as they did in the case of Jose and Lita.  Oftentimes, the work of advocacy is painstakingly slow, with few immediate results. Yet, advocacy remains an essential means of witness and service, with and on behalf of those who suffer, in keeping with the biblical call to seek justice.

What are the things that have called you to become an advocate? Is it a similar experience or encounter? A story? A new understanding of scripture? A compelling argument? Or, conversely, what are the things that keep you from becoming an advocate?

As public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada, my job is to help people become advocates. I welcome your thoughts on how I and my colleagues can best do this. Please send your comments to estherepp-tiessen@mennonitecc.ca.

Esther Epp-Tiessen is public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada and its Ottawa Office.

Prayer for the Korean Peninsula

by Kathi Suderman, MCC Representative for North East Asia

God who knows all history,
hear our prayer;
For an identity shaped by the shame of occupation,
hear our prayer;
For a land still cringing from the rape of a war waged more than six decades ago,
hear our prayer;
For bodies that toiled to rebuild and recover,
hear our prayer;
For the painful separation of sisters and brothers,
hear our prayer;
For stubborn governments unable to hear one another and negotiate,
hear our prayer;
For those that deny responsibility,
hear our prayer;
For an entire world that continues to provoke and live with hate,
hear our prayer;
For the voices that call for and take steps towards peace and reconciliation;
hear our prayer.
Grant us your church a renewed vision;
hear our prayer.

Brief Context:

Arch of Reunification, Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The Korean Peninsula has at times in history been ruled by Korean dynasties and at other times by the Japanese as well as the Chinese.   In more recent history, it’s existed as a divided country.

At the end of World War II, the Allies divided Korea into two countries separated at the 38th parallel.  Analysts refer to this point as the start of tensions that continue to this day, with the former USSR lending support to the northern part of the country to become a communist state and the U.S. supporting the southern part of the country in its anti-communist efforts.  The Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) were formally established in 1948.  Both sides desired to reunify Korea but on their own terms, resulting in war on the peninsula from 1950-1953.  The war is known as “The Forgotten War” by Americans, as the “6-2-5 Upheaval” by South Koreans (referring to the date the war began, June 25 in 1950), as the “Fatherland Liberation War” by North Koreans, and as the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea” by China, which stepped in to assist the North during the war.

Kathi Suderman with friends

Kathi Suderman with friends.

In 1953 peace negotiations resulted in the formation of a Demilitarized Zone between the two countries as well as an armistice agreement made between the UN command (led by the U.S.) and North Korea and the People’s Republic of China.  South Korea was not part of the agreement and to this day a peace treaty has not been signed.  Agreements made in the armistice agreement, namely to keep the peninsula nuclear-free, to eliminate foreign troops from the peninsula, and to sign a peace treaty within three months of signing, have been violated by one or the other or in some cases both sides of the conflict, creating tensions that have ebbed and flowed time and time again.  Though the Chinese did withdraw troops almost immediately, the U.S. to this day maintains a military presence in South Korea, with roughly 28,000 troops stationed.  The U.S. introduced nuclear weapons to the south, but later removed them when a non-nuclear pact was signed by the two Koreas.  In subsequent years the north has developed nuclear capabilities, contrary to the pact and subsequent agreements, as a response to the U.S.’s continued support of the south and in fear of perceived threat.  Annual South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises conducted each year in the disputed waters off the coast of North Korea continue to incite responses from North Korea.  This year, which marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice agreement, has been no exception.