A prayer for peace for Syria

Every September MCC provides a Peace Sunday Packet to Anabaptist-Mennonite congregations across Canada to assist them in marking Peace Sunday. This year’s packet consists of a collection of prayers for peace, submitted by MCC workers and partner organizations around the world. In anticipation of the International Day of Peace on Sept. 21, we share one of the prayers as our blog post this week. The full Peace Sunday Packet is available here.

War has been raging in Syria since 2011. Over 13.5 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, with 6.3 million internally displaced. Additionally, 5.5 million Syrian refugees have fled the country for safety in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Indiscriminate violence and airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians, with an estimated 400,000 people killed since the start of the conflict. MCC has been providing food assistance, blankets, hygiene and relief kits, cash vouchers and training for social cohesion and inter-faith dialogue to local Syrian partners throughout the war.

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This prayer, shared with MCC in 2015, is from the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). Founded in 1974, MECC is a fellowship of Evangelical/Protestant, Oriental Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Catholic Church families. MCC has partnered with MECC in Syria for many years.

Prayer:

God of life,
Who cares for all creation and calls us to justice and peace,
May our security not come from arms, but from respect.
May our force not be of violence, but of love.
May our wealth not be in money, but in sharing.
May our path not be of ambition, but of justice.
May our victory not be from vengeance, but in forgiveness.
May our unity not be in the quest of power, but in vulnerable witness to do your will.
Open and confident, may we defend the dignity of all creation, sharing today and forever the bread of solidarity, justice and peace.
This we ask in the name of Jesus, your holy Son, our brother, who, as a victim of our violence, even from the heights of the cross, gave forgiveness to us all.
Amen

Welcome as a prelude to peace in Colombia

Alix Lozano is a Colombian  Pastor and Theologian and the Co-founder of the Ecumenical
Women’s Group of Peace-Builders (GemPaz). This piece was originally published on the MCC LACA Advocacy blog on June 21, 2017. This reflection is taken from the Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia worship packet.

All people at different stages and different moments of life seek spaces of welcome, healing spaces, spaces of acceptance, inclusion, and transformation. Political violence, delinquency, invisibility, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and poverty are some of the sources of stress, isolation, and trauma present in the realities of the Colombian people.

At this time, Colombia is experiencing a peace process, where the reintegration of ex-combatants in civil society is fiat accompli. The role of spaces, circles, and groups as instruments of the welcoming and transforming love of God is very pertinent, both in times of peace and in times of peace-building. We remember the biblical text of 2 Corinthians 1:4 which says: He consoles us in our suffering that we may console those who suffer, giving them the same comfort that he has give us.

Hospitality is an essential practice and value in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, as a lifestyle and as teaching. Hospitality, understood as unconditional welcome of the most needy, is an act of unconditional love.

In fact, throughout the New Testament, much emphasis is given to the Greek concept of philoxenia, defined as love of the stranger. Philoxenia is more than just tolerating the other, without loving her or him; it is desiring his or her good. Xenos, which means “strange” as well as “stranger,” refers to the foreigner, the immigrant, and the exiled. It can be attributed to any human being who is a stranger, who needs welcoming in a strange land. This word is also the root of the term Xenophobia, which means rejection of the stranger, the foreigner. In diverse parables and teachings of Jesus, one finds reference to the responsibility to welcome others and offer them a home.

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Gathering of Colombian peacebuilders; Photo credit, Anna Vogt

In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus is on the road and is received in a home, the home of his friends. He rests and is served and welcomed. He takes advantage of the friendly atmosphere to teach with love. The women, Martha and Mary, have a special moment with the Teacher which gives us much to reflect on. In that home, Mary and Martha experience conviction and special strength.

Martha and Mary each have a distinctive way of welcoming and showing hospitality to Jesus. Martha does this through her concrete responsibilities as lady of the house, from the starting point of what is “normal,” that is, the norms of hospitality and welcome; she is a symbol of those in society who believe that everything is solved by fulfilling one’s duty. Thus the criteria for judging the behavior of others is simply to determine whether or not they have done their duty.

Mary also fulfills the custom of welcome and hospitality, but she does it in a very different way, with a novel attitude born from her heart. She is attentive to the presence of the other, in this case Jesus, by sitting by his side, listening to him, and offering him a personal relationship; but she does this outside of the social norm, what is legal or cultural. In doing so, Mary chooses “the better way,” breaking with tradition. She acts from what is human, from what is closeness, from what is a posture of listening and seeing the needs of the other, which were also her own needs.

It is important to note that Jesus does not judge Martha, as sometimes is believed, but rather invites her to see, hear, and listen for new ways of relating – a welcome that humanizes, where BEING is more important than DOING.

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Gathering of Colombian peacebuilders; Photo credit, Anna Vogt

The call of the Spirit, the Ruah, is to be welcomed, to give welcome, and to offer peace to people who come from different spaces as a prelude to the path of reconciliation in Colombia, which has taken on this peace process, where government and guerrillas have decided to put an end to the armed conflict.

PRAYER FOR PEACE

God of life,
God of hope,
God of justice,
God of peace,
Our voices today unite in one cry,
A cry born from the depths of the heart
Of a humanity and creation wounded by war
That asks you to accompany our history
And knock down barriers that separate us so
that
Dialogues may come about that take us to
peace.

God of life,
God of hope,
God of justice,
Our hands, our emotions
And all that we are
Unites in one dream of love
To walk with all those
Who suffer in our world and who,
Through processes of
Resistance, create peace.
Come Lord, fill us with your strength and
Carry us in your arms when
Our feet can no longer walk.
Come Lord.

– Inter-faith Dialogue for Peace, Peacebuilders in Prayer Liturgy.

We invite you and your congregation to join in with MCC partner organization, Justapaz, in celebrating Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia this summer. A packet of resource and worship materials is available here.

This post is also available in Spanish

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.

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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.

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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.

From Canada to Reunion Island: Finding common ground through faith and compassion

This week’s writer is Cora Siebert, advocacy research intern for the Ottawa Office. Cora is a graduate of the University of Guelph in political studies. 

Over the past year I spent seven months living and working on a small island in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mauritius, La Réunion or Reunion Island. Now I’m sure you’re either wondering why you’ve never heard of this place before, or you’re having flashbacks to the major news story of Malaysian Flight 370, found on Reunion Island this past June. Even with this momentary claim to fame, Reunion Island really should be timelessly well known: because it’s amazing.

Takamaka Mountains. Photo by Cora Siebert.

Takamaka Mountains. Photo by Cora Siebert.

Yes, it’s amazing because it’s a tropical island with beautiful beaches, incredible mountains and tasty food fusions. But in my opinion, what makes it most amazing is the unique blend of people it holds. With a population of 840,000 there is a great deal of diversity within an island roughly half the size of Prince Edward Island. Ethnically, Reunion is a mix of people from African, Indian, European and Chinese origin who identify with a variety of different religions including Catholicism, Hinduism and Islam.

In such a small and isolated place like Reunion, I was not surprised by the great importance people placed in religion. I was, however, amazed by the sense of shared identity among people in Reunion Island no matter which religion they identified with. Some people practiced multiple religions, for example by attending services at both a church and a mosque. At the high school I worked at, one of my students told me that she had started to practice Hinduism as a personal choice, even though the rest of her family was Muslim. Most people were very open to talking about their religion and were interested to know about my beliefs.

Kavadi. Photo by Cora Siebert.

Kavadi. Photo by Cora Siebert.

On Reunion Island people were constantly celebrating some religious holiday, whether it be Easter or the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. While I was there I attended Kavadi, a Hindu celebration of sacrifice, which involved a huge procession of different ceremonial rituals of offering. With a multitude of different celebrations and customs practiced, there was a sense that everyone did these things from a common starting point–faith. Religion wasn’t what divided people into separate communities, faith was what drew people of various religions together. I was told the reason behind its name, “La Réunion”, was to celebrate the coming together of many different peoples.

I thought about this shared bond of faith when I came across an article in the Globe and Mail in early September. The article identifies communities of different faiths from across Canada, creating partnerships in order to sponsor Syrian refugees. Mennonite Central Committee has partnered with the Islamic Family and Social Services Association in Edmonton, so far reconnecting 32 Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Turkey and Egypt to relatives in the city. This number will surpass 150 by the end of the year. Likewise, a United Church in Perth Road Village, Ontario was looking to sponsor a refugee family, but had a hard time fundraising with a congregation of only 50 people. After partnering with 21 churches, as well as the Islamic Society of Kingston, they were able to bring a refugee family to Canada — relatives of someone from the Islamic Society.

To me, the Globe and Mail article demonstrates the positive impact of people seeking to focus on common goals they share with others, instead of letting differences leave them to work in isolation. As Canadians, we tend to pride ourselves in being a multicultural society, which we are. Yet I think it’s easy to find ourselves living our day to day lives in more of a divided fashion than we give ourselves credit for. Canada’s metaphor of a cultural mosaic may lead us into living within the social and religious lines that have already been drawn for us. We’ve become accustomed to attending certain social gatherings or being members of associations in which we have commonalties with others. And we may not recognize the commonalities we have with those outside our regular routines.

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A cross atop of Le Grand Bénare. Photo by Cora Siebert

These joint efforts to assist refugees demonstrate that compassion for others is another virtue all religions share. The notion that we should treat others as we would like to be treated is something agreed upon by peoples of numerous religious and ethnic backgrounds. And as we find ourselves living within a world which can appear to be plagued with violence and hatred between religions, this shared ideal of showing compassion to others should not be forgotten. If you haven’t heard of Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion, launched in 2008, I highly recommend checking out her website or TED talk. Armstrong is a British author, known for her writing on the commonalities among religions. In her writing she calls for people to recognize compassion as a dynamic force in an ever so polarized world.

I think the Globe and Mail article portrays real-life examples of Armstrong’s idea of positive action brought about through the shared ideal of compassion. The joint projects to help refugees shine an encouraging light on ways in which we as Canadians have and should continue to reach out to those of other religions. Faith was what caused communities I found in Reunion Island to celebrate and worship together. Likewise, a common desire to help those in need is helping to build bridges between religious groups in Canada. Faith and compassion are principles shared by billions of people around the globe. I think that’s something to recognize, celebrate, and build on.

Faith on the Hill: A former MCC Ottawa Office intern reflects on God and government

Previously published in Mennonite Brethren Herald (January 2013)

If you were to turn on the television today and catch a clip on Canadian political debate, you would likely see a disheartening display of partisanship, negativity, and false speech. It might come as no surprise, then, that almost 40 percent of Canadians decided not to vote in our last federal election. Why bother? In the same vein, as Christians, we may wonder, “Is this really a government that’s been ‘established by God’?” (Romans 13:1).veiwpoints-author

This fall, I spent four months working in Ottawa as MCC’s advocacy research intern. Despite being what I would call a politically engaged person (I did my undergrad in political science), I often found myself asking these same questions.

Government footage on television and in the news usually comes from a session called Question Period, held once a day when the House of Commons is sitting. Picture this: about 300 adults shouting at each other, calling each other names, and pounding their fists on tables. Or, as some call it: “political debate.” It’s meant to give opposition parties a chance to hold the government accountable; whether this is actually accomplished is up for debate. In a recent study published by Samara Canada, one MP was quoted as saying that Question Period is “the greatest embarrassment, and one of the reasons politicians are frowned upon.” Another described it as “kids in a sandbox.”

As the MCC Ottawa Office intern, I had several opportunities to observe this political “sandbox” live from the House of Commons’ public gallery. After attending these sessions, I was often left feeling total despair about the place of God in our political system.

Unexpectedly, however, God transformed these moments of despair. On one occasion, exiting the gallery into one of the House’s many long, stone-walled hallways, I was met with a flood of tinted light – a sunset streaming through the stained glass windows at the end of the hall. In that moment, God was telling me once again: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).

Viewpoint-imageThis moment is what veteran Christian newspaper reporter Lloyd Mackey might call “finding God in an unexpected place.” Now semi-retired, Mackey has had an extensive writing career, much of which has been focused on the intersections between politics and Christian faith. As we sat down together for coffee one morning, he told me that his life in Ottawa has been about not merely reporting the news, but looking for God in places where we might not expect to
find him.

During my internship with MCC, I have seen partisan politics override thoughtful decision making; important issues ignored by the majority of politicians; and political culture thirsting for scandals, corruption, and the next big gaffe.

But just like beams of light streaming through stained glass windows, there have also been rays of hope: MPs from all parties joining together, determined to find solutions to poverty; a senator sharing his Christian faith in front of hundreds of citizens; an MCC worker testifying before a Senate committee about the true nature of loving one’s neighbour. Through these moments, I have come to know God better, and learned to see him even in the most unexpected places.

By Casey van Wensem, former Advocacy Research Intern, MCC Ottawa Office