“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.


A prayer for peace in the Middle East

This prayer was written by Steve Plenert, peace program coordinator for MCC Manitoba.  Through the month of August, MCC Manitoba has organized weekly gatherings for staff and constituents to pray for peace with justice in the Middle East.  This prayer was written for use on August 29, 2014.

Volunteers wearing MCC and Al Najd Development Forum vests deliver mattresses to families who opened their homes to other Gazans displaced by the Israel-Hamas conflict. MCC provided $35,000 of bedding and related supplies that were distributed through partner organization Al Najd in late July. (Photo courtesy of Al Najd Development Forum)

Volunteers wearing MCC and Al Najd Development Forum vests deliver mattresses to families who opened their homes to other Gazans displaced by the Israel-Hamas conflict. MCC provided $35,000 of bedding and related supplies that were distributed through partner organization Al Najd in late July. (Photo courtesy of Al Najd Development Forum)

Lord God,

We pray to you for peace in this day.  We give you thanks for life, for love, for hope and for goodness.  And we give you thanks for peace.  Sometimes it feels that peace is elusive both within our hearts and in the world.  We ask that we might know and understand your peace and your way of peace.  We pray that our world – your world – would experience true peace in the ways incarnated in Christ and in ways that reflect your coming Kingdom. Forgive our doubts, our faintness of heart, and our complicity with structures of violence. Guide us and all the earth into the ways of peace.

O God, we give you thanks for the ceasefire in Gaza. We grieve the deaths of Palestinian civilians, especially children, even while we mourn the loss of all human life and are grateful that the bombs have stopped.**  We pray that the blockade of Gaza will end. We pray, O God, that against all odds and predictions, this ceasefire would lead to a lasting truce with the conditions for true justice and reconciliation for Israelis and Palestinians, Christians, Muslims and Jews.  We pray that as children of Abraham we would all learn to see each other as a blessing to all nations.

Our hearts remain troubled with the plight of the Yazidi people of Iraq. We pray for mercy, kindness and justice for them and for all. We pray that the Yazidi would experience alleviation of their distress. O God, the fruits of your Spirit are needed in every region, in every corner of this world.  We pray that we would live by these fruits and be known by them also.

O Lord, for many of us these situations are distant and do not impact our day to day lives.  For those living in many parts of the Middle East the impacts are much more tangible.

For those who have lost homes – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have lost family members – we pray to you, O God.
For those whose lives and potential have been lost to their communities – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have killed in the name of their religion – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have killed in the name of the state – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have ordered killings – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have killed because they saw no alternative – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have sought to bring peace in the Middle East – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have labored to heal those injured and traumatized – we pray to you, O God.
For those who provide humanitarian assistance to those in need — we pray to you, O God
For those who negotiate ceasefires – we pray to you, O God.
For those whose lives are indirectly impacted by these conflicts – we pray to you O God.

We pray for the healing of the nations, for the healing of our own souls and for the healing of people in the Middle East.  Lord have mercy on your children.  Listen to your children praying.  Amen.


** As of August 28, 2014, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the  Occupied Palestinian Territory  noted the following: “Palestinian fatality toll is 2,104, of whom 1,462 have been identified as civilians, including 495 children, according to preliminary assessments… As of August 20,  10,224 Palestinians, including 3,106 children and 1,970 women and 368 elderly, have been injured. The cumulative Israeli fatality toll is 69, of whom at least four were civilians, including one child, in addition to one foreign national killed in Israel.”