Love in the time of sanctions

This reflection is written by Jacob Greaser, who recently completed an internship with the MCC U.S.’Washington office, focusing on U.S. foreign policy.  It originally appeared on Third Way Cafe. For information on Canada’s relationship with the DPRK, click here.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea) is probably one of the most mysterious and least visited places in the world for North Americans. Even for many U.S. policymakers, DPRK is often seen through a political cloud of fear and presented as an unknowable and unpredictable enemy. For the U.S. government, the label of “enemy” usually leads to punitive measures such as sanctions. For Christians, the label of “enemy” should mean something quite different.

Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) may seem to be a meaningless phrase in the midst of political complexity, but it is an important perspective that is often missing from U.S. policy. In fact, there are more open avenues for peacebuilding in DPRK than many people realize. DPRK has been placed under increasingly strict sanctions by the U.S., but humanitarian assistance is still permitted and needed. In the recent flurry of policies directed at the DPRK government, it is important not to ignore cries for help from vulnerable citizens inside DPRK.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), one of just a few organizations providing humanitarian aid in DPRK, assists individuals with tuberculosis and provides orphanages with food and other material resources. MCC heeds Christ’s call to address the needs of the most vulnerable in society and believes this applies everywhere, including DPRK. Over 20 years of working in DPRK, MCC has been allowed access to verify that our resources get to those vulnerable people. Through MCC’s commitment to serving vulnerable people everywhere, MCC has the rare opportunity to work and build relationships with people in DPRK.

DPRK

These children at the South Pyongan Kindergarten Orphanage in Pyongsong, DPRK receive soya milk made from soybeans provided by MCC. MCC photo/Rachelyn Ritchie

The picture that is painted of DPRK as a repressive, secretive country often leads people to forget that DPRK allows humanitarian workers and even tourists into parts of the country. By working in DPRK, MCC is able to challenge assumptions that engagement with DPRK is impossible and shows that some level of trust can be built through consistent engagement over 20 years. Even though the relationship between the U.S. and DPRK governments is tense right now, MCC finds hope in the relationships it has built with partners in DPRK and sees relationships on that small scale as one potential path towards a larger dialogue.

MCC’s commitment to vulnerable people looks beyond the political rhetoric to love our enemies. This ultimately opens up spaces for relationship building and ongoing dialogue. While both governments frequently blame the other for escalation and refusing engagement, this destructive cycle of blame denies all possibility of meaningful engagement or understanding. MCC is able to challenge the narrative of DPRK as unreachable through the individual relationships it has built and to provide an example of small scale engagement.

Eventually, small examples of love can open the door for large acts of peace.

 

The awful grace of God: Thoughts on an MCC learning tour to Lebanon

This reflection is written by Jon Nofziger, constituency relations coordinator for MCCBC.  Jon wrote this reflection as he led a group of MCC constituents on a learning tour to Lebanon, where they learned about the Syrian refugee crisis and met with Syrian partners. 

“What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by.  The Life-Light blazed out of darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.”  John 1:4-5 The Message

“He who learns must suffer, and even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” Aeschylus, fifth century BC Greek playwright of tragedies

I liken a learning tour to being enrolled in the College of Life and taking a course in “hard knocks.”  While our group did not endure the same “knocks” as people  we met in Lebanon, one thing is certain: we learned that many who have passed through the crucible of suffering will acknowledge they have found themselves better for the experience—bitter though it may have been. These saints have insights to offer a hurting world.

Syria_PARD Psychosocial S. Leb MCC LT May2016

Syrian refugees, living in Lebanon and receiving psychosocial assistance informal education activities from MCC partner Popular Aid for Relief and Development, pose with members of the learning tour. MCC photo/Scott Campbell

For centuries, skeptics have argued that the presence of evil in this world negates the idea that a good God exists. It is alleged that if an all-powerful God exists, who refuses to put an end to evil and suffering, then certainly God could not be all-good.

But blaming God for current woes in the world is akin to charging Henry Ford with the responsibility for the death of a person killed in a drunk-driving accident.

The argument against the goodness of God, grounded on the basis of earthly evil, assumes there is no logical purpose to be served by God’s toleration of human tragedy.  Yet at the end of the day, we must own up to the fact that we simply are not qualified to judge what God is doing. Our scope of vision is microscopic.

This is one of the lessons the patriarch Job had to learn when, in his suffering, he became very critical of his Maker, questioning the Lord’s wisdom. God gave him an examination to show him how “small” he actually was (Job 38-41); Job was in no position to subject the Almighty to critical analysis.

Rather than question God’s wisdom and purpose, we, like Job, should acknowledge God’s company/communion with human tragedy.

 With our lives, we testify to believe in one of two Gods: either an omnipotent idol that controls and arranges everything, or the God of hope who works alongside us.Dorothee Soelle, German theologian.

While in Lebanon, our group was introduced to the suffering of the church in Syria through our partner, the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC). We met and heard from Father Walid, a Catholic priest from Syria.  He and his volunteer crew of 16 have been distributing material resources from MCC and other NGOs to over 2,000 families in rural areas in the western part of Syria.

Syria Fr Walid

Father Walid and his team assist with the distribution of MCC blankets, September 2015. Photo courtesy of FMEEC.

Father Walid is a quiet, unassuming man. Another MCC partner translated from Arabic to English as Father Walid shared with us details of his work. At one point he stopped, visibly overcome with emotion. He swiveled his chair so his back faced us, taking deep breaths and gathering himself in order to continue. When he was ready to begin again, he said, “The burden is too heavy.”  He also made clear that his primary work is not simply to provide material help. Rather, it is to “bring hope and be with the people.”  When asked what does hope look like, his quick, humble response was simply, “We are Christians aren’t we?”

To be honest, I didn’t fully comprehend the profundity of his reply.  To my western, affluent ears, the words sounded rather fatalistic. Upon return to Canada, I went surfing the web for insight to what Father Walid could have meant by his reply.  I came across some writings of Ivone Gerbara, Brazilian nun/philosopher/liberation theologian who worked alongside Dom Helder Camara (grandfather of liberation theology).  She offers similar sentiment:

 God is our hope because we want to go beyond the terror, violence, and fear that crush us. God is our hope because we often have no visible hope, because the haze of fear that envelops us seems terrifying. God is our hope as the ultimate cry for justice: a no to unjust killing, to arms and armies, and a yes to dignified life. God is our hope in our despair…For this reason, within the mystery of our lives, God is our hope.

When we suffer or share in the suffering of others, our compassion for others deepens. It has been said that the difference between “sympathy” and “empathy” is that in the former instance one “feels with” (i.e., has feelings of tenderness for) those who suffer. One becomes aware there are 1.2 million refugees now living in Lebanon. With “empathy” one almost is able to “get inside” the one who suffers—because the one offering comfort has been there!  For example, we have met Amlah (not real name) and two of her children and she invited us into her current home, a UNHCR-provided tent.

If you choose to enter into other people’s suffering, or to love others, you have to consent in some way to the possible consequences.Ita Ford, Maryknoll sister, murdered in El Salvador 1980.

While our learning tour group has not suffered as those we met during our days in Lebanon, we will share in their suffering.  We will have images, names and faces, not just statistics, because we have been there.  We will be changed people.  There will be consequences. Thanks to the awful grace of God.

Prayer:  May acceptance of our brokenness, of our healing, of our being called to serve, be a sign of our faith in the ongoing goodness of a God who journeys with us– in the power and love to remove any barrier within and among us; in the mystery of the challenge given to each one to make bread and life and beauty available to everyone. Amen.

A prayer for peace in August

by Joanna Hiebert Bergen, peacebuilding and advocacy coordinator for MCC Manitoba. This is one of a series of prayer services for peace that she has written for MCC staff and volunteers. 

During the month of August, MCC Manitoba invites you to join us in prayers for peace. The theme comes from 1 Corinthians 13, with its focus on faith, hope and love.

Faith and hope abide alongside love as a triad, those elements of our spiritual journey that allow for perseverance. We acknowledge a God who lived with us in the person of Jesus, exemplifying all three of these elements. God continues to show up in our world in visible and invisible ways, manifest through encounters with the natural world and with one another, pointing us to faith, hope and love.

As we take time to reflect on the work of peace in a broken world, may there be comfort taken from the verses of 1 Corinthians 13. “And now I will show you the most excellent way…”

Prayer

Amina Ahmed, a Nigerian peacebuilder 5th from the right, leads a group of MCC staff and partners in prayer, Jos, Nigeria, 2014. MCC photo/Dave Klassen

Gathering Reflection:

In what or whom do we place our faith? What pulls us in, hooks us into believing salvation lies in this or that promise? Political personalities, larger than life, demand our attention with promises of something better, retail markets lead us to believe possessions will foster the good life, and even communities of faith can promise a sense of belonging with programs and activity options. Ultimately, a sense of inner peace and security calls for embracing the mystery of God’s presence, both the visible and invisible.

During this summer, our hearts are breaking for those murdered in Paris, Nice, Orlando, Istanbul, Baghdad, Medina… for those who love them, and for all who are suffering atrocities in Syria, in Palestine and Israel, in Central African Republic, in Nigeria, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Myanmar, in inner-city Canada and America, and other places around our nation and world too numerous to name.

In what or in whom do we place our faith?

Reading:

Psalm 116

Context: 

Richard Rohr, Franciscan contemplative, writes the following, Both Jesus’ and Paul’s notion of faith is much better translated as foundational confidence or trust that God cares about what is happening right now.”   The Psalmist trusts that God will deliver him, indeed has delivered him from anguish, distress and sorrow, tears and stumbling–deep-seated emotions that can overwhelm the sense of hope for a more just future. God sees and listens, understands and delivers.

As people of faith, we are called to live into the darkness as people of the light, resting in the goodness of God despite a climate of fear and terror. There are many manifestations of goodness that affirm this faith. Take a few minutes to contemplate where you have experienced God’s caring presence in recent months.

Prayer of the People:

God of surprises,
You call us:
From the narrowness of our own lives to new ways of being with one another,
From the captivities of our culture to creative witness for justice,
From the smallness of our horizons to the bigness of Your vision.

Clear the way in us, your people,
That we might call ourselves and others to freedom and renewed faith.

Jesus, wounded healer,
You call us:
From preoccupation to the daily tasks of peacemaking,
From privilege to pilgrimage,
From insularity to inclusive community.
Help us to overcome our fears of ‘the other’–
To seek understanding and listen with an open heart to stories outside of our own imagining.

Clear the way in us, your people,
That we might call ourselves and others to wholeness and integrity.

Holy, transforming Spirit,
You call us:
From fear to faithfulness,
From clutter to clarity,
From a desire to control to deeper trust.

Clear the way in us, your people,
That we might know the beauty and the power and the danger of the gospel.

 Sending:

Go in faith to be part of
The new creation of human community.
Go in love to take the hand of those who suffer and long for peace.
Go in peace.

Zambia prayer

Participants in an MCC-sponsored peace club in Lusaka, Zambia end their meeting with prayer. MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Support a future for Gaza!

“And this is how we see our future — to be killed by the conflict, to be killed by the closure (blockade), or to be killed by despair.”

These words, spoken by a 15-year-old boy, describe how the desperate situation in Gaza is destroying the hopes and dreams of Gazan youth. The boy shared this message with Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the UN, and Ki-moon shared it with the UN Security Council on July 12.

Gaza 2015 childre

This Gazan family (names withheld for security reasons) received MCC material resources after the 2014 war. MCC photo/Jesse Bergen

Through the months of July and August 2014, a war between Hamas and Israel resulted in massive death and destruction, primarily for Gazans. More than 2100 Palestinians, including 495 children, were killed, as well as 66 Israeli soldiers and 7 civilians. It was the third such war in six years. Two years after the most recent war, Gaza continues to suffer:

  • Of 11,000 homes completely destroyed in 2014, only 10 percent have been rebuilt; 75,000 people are still without a home;[*]
  • 250 schools were damaged or destroyed and many have not been repaired; 400 schools currently run double shifts as a result;
  • Severe electricity and fuel shortages lead to rolling blackouts that can last hours; this seriously hampers pumping systems for water and sanitation;
  • 80 percent of the population is dependent on humanitarian assistance for basic necessities;
  • Unemployment levels are estimated to be 40 percent or more – among the highest in the world;
  • The psychological trauma of successive wars and the stress caused by unemployment have resulted in increased levels of domestic violence and divorce; for children, the impacts are nightmares, bed-wetting, difficulty concentrating and even completing school.
Gaza 2015

Many Gazans continue to live in makeshift shelters like this one. MCC photo/Jesse Bergen

A major reason for the lack of progress in Gaza’s reconstruction is because of the Israeli blockade on Gaza – a blockade on land, sea and air that has been in place for nearly a decade. The blockade has crippled the Gazan economy and isolated the people of Gaza politically and socially. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says that “the closure of Gaza suffocates its people, stifles its economy and impedes reconstruction efforts.” People frequently refer to Gaza as an open air prison with 1.8 million prisoners.

Israel says that the blockade is needed to limit Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli cities and towns, and to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. But critics say that the blockade actually fuels the rocket attacks and increases insecurity for Israelis; moreover, the blockade constitutes a form of collective punishment and a violation of international law.

A specific impediment to Gaza’s recovery is the restrictions placed by the blockade on the entry of basic building materials such as wood, cement, steel bars. The lifting of these restrictions would go a long way to rebuilding homes, even while a full end to the blockade is critical to a long-term solution for Gaza and for Israel.

MCC has joined the Association of International Aid Agencies in calling for action that will lift the Israeli blockade and specifically the restrictions on building materials.  Please join us by viewing this video and signing this petition.

Children constitute half the population of Gaza. Many of them have lived their entire life under the blockade. Please support a future for them.

Open Gaza

* MCC’s response to the 2014 crisis included emergency food assistance, the distribution of essential non-food items, and repair of 70 houses that had been damaged but not completely destroyed.

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

Mango chutney with a side of radical kindness

By Anna Vogt, Context Analyst and Advocacy Support worker for MCC Latin America Caribbean (LACA). This post is part of LACA’s ongoing series on migration and was originally published on Anna’s personal blog. 

Laca 1

Pedro Cano from Centro Bono. Photo/Anna Vogt

I could hardly eat lunch as I frantically scribbled notes. Pedro Cano from Centro Bono, a Jesuit organization on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, has the most numbers in his head of anyone I have ever met. He rattled them off so quickly I was glad of the Spanish to English interpretation, just for the extra seconds to catch up. The numbers added up to a pretty depressing story of xenophobia based migration policies in the Dominican Republic. From January to the end of May of this year, over 3000 Haitians have been deported a month from official border crossing, violating all sorts of international standards. Given the number of unofficial crossings and the number of people who have choose to voluntarily leave, the numbers are probably much higher. (You can meet some of the children and youth now living in limbo here.)

For Pedro, these policies serve as a smoke screen to blame rising inequality and lack of public services on Haitians, not on corruption or government mismanagement of funds. In the van ride back to Port au Prince, our group reflected on how pervasive the narrative of hatred against individuals and groups seems across the Americas, not only in the DR.  Blaming a person is always easier than dealing with structural issues; generating hatred out of fear, however, only contributes to an escalating crisis that leads to spiralling rates of migration.

At the end our of meal in Haiti, Pedro gestured at the table, a mess of fish bones and leftover bowls of broth. “Maybe in the DR people serve the hot sauce on the side instead of directly in the soup, but the food is basically the same. That’s what we have to remember, when we talk about bringing people together, is that we are already sharing life together. Cross the border and it is not even obvious who is from where. Rather, there are mixed families, there are kids that play together, and economies and cultures are already woven together.”

Laca 2

Photo/Anna Vogt

Last week, I ate squash blossom quesadillas in Mexico City and attended more meetings around migration. I sat in a circle with three partner organizations, Frontera de Cristo, Casa de los Amigos and Voces Mesoamericanas, who work and advocate around migration on the northern border, the centre, and the southern border with Guatemala. As we brainstormed how to better work together, we discussed the idea of alternative documentation, not simply of victimization and of violence, but also of radical hospitality, welcome, and the good that migration can bring.

From Douglas Arizona, Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico City, and the border state of Chiapas, people and organizations open up homes and hearts to those passing through, recognizing that because they are human, they also belong. Together, we reflected on how our local realities often cross borders and countries, despite narratives that demand we remain separate. We are all interdependent upon each other. How can we reflect on all the ways that our lives already go far beyond borders?

Laca 3.jpg

The most damaging structures are the ones that rob us of our natural impulse for kindness. These are the systems that cause us to feel helpless and isolated, in the midst of events swirling beyond our control. While we continue to advocate for changes in policies and systems, sometimes the most radical acts we can engage in are kindness and welcome. When we recognize the humanity of those around us and do not allow smoke screen policies to dictate who is worthy, we are participating in a long human tradition of movement and acceptance that has already shaped our world.

Later that evening, Jocabed of Frontera de Cristo and I sat in Coyoacan, sipping on Mexican coffee and sharing stories at the end of a long day of meetings. She told me about a campesino from Chiapas who visited to the northern  border through Frontera’s work with Cafe Justo, for the opening celebration of a coffee shop. Cafe Justo sells fair trade coffee from Chiapas with the premise that when farmers are paid a fair price for their labour, they often don’t migrate. In fact, families are starting to return from the US to Chiapas, because of the  opportunities fair trade coffee provides.  At the border, the farmer stuck his hand out through the bars of the wall, just to feel the air on the other side. Later he shared about how he may not be able to cross, but his coffee, and therefore a part of himself, is constantly making that journey.

Laca 4

Jocabed also told me a parallel story of a man in the US who cuts out the picture of the farmer on each bag of his Cafe Justo coffee and strings them together like a rosary, in order to remember each person as he sips his drink every morning. While I don’t think increased consumption is a solution to global problems, fair prices and the recognition that we are all already connected through the products we consume is an important step that should cause us to demand trade and border justice, and also open our homes.

There is power when we meet face to face, person to person, community to community.

Instead of focusing on what divides us, let’s celebrate what brings us together and the radical acts of welcome that connect us across countries, regions and the globe. In the book, Undoing Border Imperialism, Harsha Walia writes, “Undoing the physical and conceptual orderings of border imperialism requires a fundamental reorientation of ourselves, our movement, and our communities to think and act with intentionality, creativity, militancy, humility, and above all, a deep sense of responsibility and reciprocity.”

As part of a celebration of the trans-local, of cultures and communities that cross borders, I want to share this recipe for mango chutney with you. I learnt it in Haiti, from a Canadian women who worked in Sudan and now runs a lovely Airbnb on the Haitian seaside. The recipe is from the MCC cookbook Extending the Table, comes from Botswana and originally calls for peaches instead of mangos. In both Haiti and Colombia, mangos are much more common than peaches. Adjust accordingly for your local and serve with curry or simply on toast.

Ingredients:

1 onion, grated

1 small apple, grated

1 tps caynee pepper or a minced hot chili

4 large Tommy mangos, peeled and chopped

⅔ cup of sugar

¾ cup of raisins

¾ cup of vinegar

1 tsp salt

3 tsp curry powder

Combine everything together in a heavy saucepan, bring to a boil and then simmer for up to 2 hours, until the consistency of jam. Stir often as mixture tends to stick and savour the wonderful smell filling your home. Eat and enjoy!