Remembering the saints

All Saints Day is a Christian celebration in honour of the saints that have gone before, known or unknown. In many cultures and traditions across the world, families and friends gather to remember the “great cloud of witnesses who surround us”. Here in the Ottawa Office, we are sharing some of the saints and inspirations in our own lives, people who have encouraged us to continue in our work of advocacy and seeking justice.  As you read our examples, we invite you to also take a moment to reflect and honour those in your own life who have also inspired you.

The Saints that connect faith with justice

I grew up in the church, while also growing up in a family passionate about politics and advocacy. But I’d never connected these two spheres – faith and politics – until watching a movie (a Disney TV movie, of all things!) on the real-life story of Ruby Bridges.

The message in Ruby’s story was clear: Christ calls us to work for justice, and it’s a vocation inseparable from the call to love others.

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges

In 1960 at age 6, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Ruby became the first African American in New Orleans to participate in efforts to desegregate public schools. The reaction was swift and terrible. Every day for a year Ruby walked through a hate-filled mob of parents, children and community members, yelling degrading slurs, and even death threats.

Yet amidst the horror, Ruby’s reaction moved me beyond words. Instead of lashing out, she prayed for the mob, even as they degraded her dignity. Ruby and her family were committed to their fight for justice, as evidenced by their persistence and boldness, but this was combined with such humility and a choice to love when faced with hate.

Ruby’s example has left a permanent mark on my life in helping to frame my own vocation. The Christian vocation of justice is about confronting injustice clearly and without hesitation. Yet, in these confrontations, we must also reflect Christ’s humility and love, even in the face of hate.

Ruby’s brave actions led to the desegregation of all public schools in New Orleans, starting the following year.

-Rebekah Sear, Policy Analyst

“She didn’t die, she multiplied”

Berta Caceres was a Lenca Indigenous woman from Honduras who dedicated her life to stopping large scale invasive development in the Lenca territories of Honduras. She was the co-founder and coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). Berta won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, for “a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam” at the Río Gualcarque in Honduras.

Berta Caceres

“In defense of life, we resist.”

On March 2, 2016, hired assassins with connections to private security companies connected with protecting the dam project killed Berta Caceres. Those responsible have not yet faced justice.

Berta’s assassination is one of many, as Latin America is currently the most dangerous region in the world to be an environmental defender, yet because of her international recognition, Berta’s death has helped push this issue into the spotlight.  Many people refer to Berta as someone who did not die, but rather multiplied, like a seed being planted.

I remember Berta and I also remember all of the brave, ordinary people around the world who daily put their lives in harm’s way to protect the world we live in. I also remember that Berta’s work was not simply about protecting one river, but challenging the way society functions, through the lens of environmental protections.  As Berta said, “We should then build a society that is capable of co-existing in a just manner, in a dignified manner, and in a way that protects life.”

-Anna Vogt, Director

Quiet saints

There is a picture on the shelf behind my desk of two people whom I often think of on All Saints Day, though neither one would have wanted to be called a saint.

I met Margaret and Siegfried Janzen while doing an MCC service assignment in Petitcodiac, NB. Siegfried was pastor of the local Mennonite Church and Margaret was the pastor’s wife and so much more.

During the second world war Siegfried served as a conscientious objector, but afterwards both Margaret and Siegried served with MCC in Europe. Initially, they distributed food and clothing to refugees, but later directed the processing of over 10,000 refugees fleeing from repatriation to the Soviet Union. They even set up a hospital to help people pass the medical requirements to enter Canada.

Siegfried and Margaret Janzen, Petitcodiac NB

Siegfried and Margaret Janzen

After returning to Canada and raising a family, they retired to New Brunswick and Siegfried began pastoring and prison chaplaincy at the age of 65. For almost 20 years Siegfried visited inmates at Dorchester Penitentiary at least once a week to lead Bible studies and offer mediation and conflict resolution classes. Margaret baked cookies for ‘the boys’, visited inmates, provided a safe refuge for parolees and a permanent home for the wife of an inmate.

Siegfried was also instrumental in the development of a Peace Centre for the Greater Moncton Area.

I remember Margaret and Siegfried as quiet peacemakers and advocates, and while they have both passed away I try to keep their example before me each day.

-Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant

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The Global Compact – Part 2: Canada’s role and MCC’s advocacy asks

Over the last year, MCC UN Office staff, Kati Garrison (Program and Advocacy Associate) and Abby Hershberger (Program Assistant), have been following the process of drafting the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) document (see Part 1 in this blog series). Both attended GCM negotiations to ensure to establish a connection between the high-level processes in New York with national governments, including the Canadian Mission, and MCC’s on the ground programs.

Throughout the GCM drafting process, Canada positioned itself at the forefront of the effort to create a framework that is beneficial to all. The MCC UN Office was pleased that many of Canada’s interventions addressed the importance of intersecting gender sensitive language in the GCM document. This contributed to a final draft that recognizes the additional challenges that women face when migrating. Many women and their children face obstacles when trying to confirm their nationality in a country of destination, which can leave them stateless and unable to access essential services. The finished text incorporates suggestions to remedying these challenges including, “ensuring that women and men can equally confer their nationality to children born in another state’s territory, especially in situations where a child would otherwise be stateless” (Objective 4e).

However, as we anticipate the installment of the GCM at the upcoming summit in Morocco in December, it is critical to keep momentum going behind member states like Canada and making the move from high level negotiations to practical steps. December’s summit will be more than just formalizing the GCM, as member states have been asked to submit proposals for specific actions to help put the principles of the compact in motion.

Leona and Bekah on Hill with Kati Garrison and Abby Hershberger from UN Office (2)

Abby Hershberger, Kati Garrison, Bekah Sears, Leona Lortie on Parliament Hill, August 2018

For that reason, at the end of August, Kati and Abby, along with MCC’s Ottawa Office staff, Bekah Sears (Policy Analyst) and Leona Lortie (Public Engagement and Advocacy Coordinator) reached out to Canadian Members of Parliament from various parties, to ensure the GCM and its principles were high on the Canadian government’s radar, and that Canada continues being a leader on global migration.

These are our three primary advocacy asks:

  1. Grant migrants access to basic services free from the risk of having their personal information shared with immigration enforcement officials.

Objective 15
The GCM acknowledges a shared responsibility among member states “to ensure that all migrants, regardless of their migration status, can exercise rights through safe access to basic services.”        

  1. Uphold the human right of non-refoulement.

Objective 21
Non-refoulement is a tenet of international human rights law that prohibits states from returning migrants to situations when there are “substantial grounds for believing that the person would be at risk of irreparable harm upon returning, including persecution, torture, ill-treatment or other serious human rights violations.” The principle remains contentious among some member states who want more control over how they conduct returns.

  1. Include civil society and migrant voices as integral components in implementing the GCM.

Implementation
The text of the GCM is lengthy and detailed, but the way member states implement the commitments will be the true test of the weight of its words. MCC, both the UN and Ottawa offices believe that effective action plans must include multiple actors, including civil society and migrant voices.

Our MCC team had productive and encouraging conversations with each MP office and is optimistic that Canada would indeed vote in favour of the GCM. We look forward to engaging in similar conversation in the month leading up to the GCM adoption in December with other member states and actors on the ground.

– By Abby Hershberger, Program Assistant, MCC United Nations Office

And then there were three: Advocacy within MCC

In 1968 Mennonite Central Committee took the bold step of opening its first advocacy office in Washington DC. In 1975, a second advocacy office was opened in Ottawa to be followed by a third advocacy office in 1991 in New York to relate to the United Nations. The offices initially opened as listening posts, but now monitor and analyze policies, facilitate meetings for MCC staff and encourage constituents to be advocates themselves.

advocacy brochure coverWhile each office is situated in a different context with unique challenges requiring unique strategies, they all share the same primary purpose of advocacy which is about  influencing people, structures, and systems to bring about change that will benefit those living with poverty, violence, injustice and oppression.

So how do three offices in two countries dealing with three different political bodies (the American government, the Canadian government and the United Nations) work together? Common ground can be difficult to find, but not impossible.

Quite often there will be a main theme in common with slightly different approaches for the different audiences or institutions. For example, all three offices work on migration including addressing the root causes; the Washington and Ottawa Offices also work on these issues in relation to refugees and migrants and U.S. and Canadian policy respectively. The UN Office works on migration in the context of global processes and agreements. The Canadian and American governments have different policies around refugees and migrants, so again there is a common theme, but different advocacy approaches and messaging.

Advocacy for Palestine and Israel is another shared area of focus for all three offices with two of the three offices (Ottawa and Washington) hosting campaigns to encourage public engagement and advocacy on issues in the region.

All three offices stay in touch regularly about each other’s work. Staff from the three offices meet in person once a year to better learn about the different contexts and challenges faced by each office and to share common learnings or messaging. A few weeks ago, in late August, MCC Ottawa Office staff hosted colleagues from the other advocacy offices.

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Staff from MCC advocacy offices gathered for meetings in Ottawa Aug. 2018

A recurring topic of conversation around these tables is how to help integrate advocacy into MCC’s relief, development and peacebuilding work. For example, when churches are asked to sponsor refugees, can they also be encouraged to advocate not only for greater openness and better treatment for refugees, but also for more government support of peacebuilding or food security programs in the countries people are fleeing? We also aim to identify steps MCC can ask the Canadian and American governments and the UN to take to work toward sustainable solutions to the root causes forcing people to flee.

When individuals are invited to prepare school kits, can they also be encouraged to advocate for increased development assistance, so more schools can be built and supported in countries receiving these kits?

MCC’s advocacy voice is strengthened by our program experience, so how can staff in the advocacy offices better connect with program staff and partners around the world to be more effective advocates for MCC’s work in the field?

Small though they may be, with only 4-5 staff each, these three MCC offices with advocacy mandates are important to MCC. Engaging civil society and addressing root causes with our governments supports MCC’s work of relief, development, and peacebuilding.

By Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for MCC Ottawa Office 

BUILDING A CITY OF PEACE

by Annalee Giesbrecht

This post was originally published on MCC’s Latin America and Caribbean (LACA) blog on August 1, 2018.

Of the dozen or so people sitting talking together in a Port-au-Prince neighbourhood called Ti Plas Kazo, only two of them were born here. The rest come from all over the Haiti, some from other areas of the capital but most from the provinces: as far away as Cap-Haitien on Haiti’s northern coast and Jérémie on its far southwestern tip. Although Haiti is only the size of Maryland, its rugged geography and limited infrastructure make these relatively small distances seem vast.

I’m here visiting JUPED (Jeunes unis pour le protection de l’environnement et le developpement, or Youth United for the Protection of the Environment and Development), a longstanding MCC partner working in the areas of human rights, peace, and advocacy, who started a community justice pilot project in Ti Plas Kazo two years ago. As the JUPED staff team recounts the history of the area, I see they’re describing a hyper-local version of the migration patterns and community tensions seen throughout Latin America and around the world.

A place of refuge and opportunity

Ti Plas Kazo is on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince and used to be a semi-rural area where residents lived off agricultural labor, much like those in the countryside. But over the years, as rates of urbanization and internal migration have increased, Ti Plas Kazo has changed. Cycles of political instability, natural disasters, and grinding rural poverty have driven people from rural areas into the cities throughout the country, and especially into the capital. According the World Bank, Haiti’s urban population has more than doubled since 2000, and as of 2014, 74% of urban residents were living in slum conditions.

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Jean Milou Mercidieu. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

Jean Milou Mercidieu, JUPED’s administrator, is originally from the city of Cayes on Haiti’s south coast. He notes that there have been three major waves of migration to Ti Plas Kazo. The first was in the 1980s, the last days of the Duvalier dictatorship, when a government housing project connected to a nearby factory attracted large numbers of workers and their families. After Duvalier was ousted from power in 1986, a period of chaos and political violence swept Haiti as power alternated between military juntas and liberation-theologian-turned-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Many believed they could escape persecution in largely overlooked quarters of the capital like Ti Plas Kazo.

Most recently, after a massive earthquake shattered large swaths of Port-au-Prince in 2010, Ti Plas Kazo became home to several camps for people displaced by the quake. Many of those displaced people are still in Ti Plas Kazo today, whether in the camps–some of which have now become neighborhoods in their own right–or in the few remaining makeshift shelters left over from unofficial settlements.

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Eight years after the earthquake that destroyed much of Port-au-Prince, both official IDP camps and improvised shelters, like this one in a public square in Ti Plas Kazo, remain. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

Whether fleeing violence across borders or moving to the city in search of a better life, displaced people often find themselves moving from one difficult situation to another. Although Ti Plas Kazo has been spared the worst consequences of natural disasters and political violence, it remains a poor neighborhood. Access to jobs and housing is limited. To accommodate new residents, and make a bit of money, some residents crowd into a portion of their homes so they can rent the rest: JUPED staff identified conflict between landlords and tenants as a common source of community tension. Over time and successive waves of new residents, many of whom aren’t planning to stay for long, the fabric of the community has become frayed.

Access to conflict resolution

Unfortunately, a widespread lack of government resources means that, when conflicts arise, the justice system is ill-equipped to handle them. Police are often undertrained and arbitrary arrests are common, lawyers are expensive, judges are overburdened, and the prison system, at 4.5x over capacity, is the most overcrowded in the world.

“Our justice system is weak, and it is sick,” says JUPED director Jean Junior Val emphatically. “Even if I’m the person who’s in the right, if you have more money, you’re the one who gets justice.”

Faced with a vulnerable, transient population and a weak and inefficient justice system, JUPED, with MCC support, launched a community-based restorative justice platform called Ti Platfòm Lapè, (Little Platforms of Peace) in 2017. The peace platforms are composed of pastors, teachers, market women, and other community members who have been trained in mediation skills and who meet every fifteen days to hear and resolve cases of conflict and violence in the community. In addition to peacefully resolving cases, JUPED monitors the rates of conflict and violence in the area and holds events to raise community awareness of human rights, conflict, violence, and peace.

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JUPED staff and members of the Ti Platfom Lape outside the JUPED office in Ti Plas Kazo. The banner reads “Conflict is vital, but violence is mortal.” MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

Win-win

Alex Pierre is originally from the city of Cap-Haitien on Haiti’s northern coast. He came to the Ti Platfòm Lapè with a problem that was related, as so many problems in Haiti are, to land and residency: he and his family were struggling to split up an inheritance left to them by their grandparents.

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Jean Milou Mercidieu. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

After the peace platform helped Pierre and his family come up with a solution for dividing the land, which he credits with saving his family relationships, Pierre himself became a member so he could help others benefit from mediation too. Now, he’s helping to manage a delicate case brought to JUPED by a man who has been ordered by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to pay child support on his child from a previous relationship. He’s now married to a different woman and has children with her; news of his first child and his attendant financial obligations had come as a shock to her.

“It’s really difficult, but not uncommon,” he says. “We’re working together to see how we can move things forward.”

Of course, not every case can be resolved at the Ti Platfòm Lapè. Cases of elevated violence, such as sexual assault, need to be referred to the justice system, and when these cases arise, platform members accompany victims through the legal process, or help connect them with other organizations that can assist them. However, the vast majority of cases heard by the peace platform over the previous year have been successfully resolved through mediation.

“Mediation has one objective in all scenarios,” says Mercidieu, “and that’s for both parties to come out on top. Win-win.” This expression, ‘win-win,’ comes up throughout our discussion: the goal of the Ti Platfòm Lapè is to arrive at a solution that is not only acceptable, but positive, for all involved.

“Justice divides people—it says to one person ‘you’re guilty,’ and to the other person, ‘you’re in the right.’ That’s why we work in mediation. We want people to be able to live together.”

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Everyday life on the main thoroughfare running through Ti Plas Kazo. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

While developing community cohesion is a long process, the JUPED team are starting to see a difference. Residents know they have an effective and affordable means of seeking resolution when conflict arises. Over the course of two pilot projects, over 1,228 conflicts were brought before the Ti Platfòm Lapè, and 88% of them saw both parties come to a mutual and peaceful agreement: win-win. 53 mediators—people like Alex Pierre—have been trained, and in turn have provided training on basic conflict resolution to 1,180 community members. The peace platforms have been so successful that, even after the end of MCC’s project, they have continued meeting and resolving cases.

The JUPED team believes that this work will ultimately strengthen Haiti’s justice system, because when ordinary citizens know their rights, they become empowered to advocate for themselves and seek out the justice they know they deserve.

“Maybe it will take 5 or 10 or 20 years, but Haiti can change,” says Val. “Haitians can change it. We believe that.”

Annalee Giesbrecht is the MCC Haiti Advocacy and Communications Co-ordinator.

Supporting Advocacy through Service and Humility

This post is comprised of excerpts from “Learning to lead through relationship: Developing leadership skills that mirror Anabaptist values of service grounded in listening and learning,” by Marla Pierson Lester, published on June 29, 2018 in A Common Place.

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As a participant in MCC’s Seed program, Albin Sanchez of La Cumbre, Valle de Cauca, Colombia, supported the work of MCC partner Sembrandopaz in Libertad from 2016 to 2018. Sembrandopaz, an organization that promotes peace, justice, reconciliation and holistic development, works with communities in projects to empower youth and promote sustainable agriculture and supports communities as they advocate for justice and peace.

Around the world, MCC partners with local organizations, communities and churches in projects that empower and equip people to work for change for themselves and their neighbours.

MCC’s Seed program brings together teams of young adults, ages 20 to 30, from around the world to live in local communities and serve with churches or MCC partners such as Sembrandopaz for two years.

Building the skills of others, along with listening and reflecting individually and as a group, are cornerstones of the program.

In a world where tangible tasks and goal-setting are prized, Seed asks young people to enter a community with as few expectations as possible — to not assume they know what is best for the community or even what is most needed — and to spend the first few weeks investing intense effort in listening, learning and building relationships with local people.

As Albin Sanchez returned to his Mennonite Brethren church and community of La Cumbre, Colombia, after serving in the Seed program for two years, he carried with him lessons from this time — from how to treat others with deep respect to seeing how people maintain hope even in the face of steep challenges.

“Thinking in a spiritual way, I can see Jesus in the people — a humble, simple Jesus that can relate to anybody,” he says. “Even though I’m from the outside, they welcomed me as a son. I see Jesus reflected in this warmth.”

Like other MCC assignments that include living in a community or with a host family, service in Seed is holistic — encompassing aspects of life far beyond a job description.

Sembrandopaz is an organization that promotes peace, justice, reconciliation and holistic development, works with communities in projects to empower youth and promote sustainable agriculture, and supports communities as they advocate for justice and peace.