Voices of the Peacebuilders, Part 1: Women as Peacebuilders

This is the first of a two-part series called the Voices of the Peacebuilders, on the importance of magnifying the voices of individuals and organizations working at the grassroots, within communities. Very often these voices are overlooked or excluded from high-level policy tables when it comes to resolving conflict and building peace around the world.

In October, I was in my hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick where I gave two public lectures at the University of New Brunswick. This two-part series will outline points from each lecture and provide a video link. The first, held on October 16 and hosted by the Faculty of Education, was entitled: “From the Grassroots to the Negotiating Tables: The Case for Women as Peacebuilders.”

Women are so often excluded from the high-level peace negotiating tables and their efforts for peace are largely ignored in the mainstream news, despite making up half of the population, and often bearing the brunt of conflict. Yet this has not stopped women from being innovators and champions for peace within their communities, including within MCC’s partners.

We must bring these voices to the table and make the case for women as innovators and leaders, working for peace, from the grassroots to the negotiating table.

Join me on a brief world tour to see snapshots of some of this work, and let me introduce you to some of these women peacebuilders, from Colombia to Nigeria and from South Sudan to Palestine and Israel.

Mampujan Colombia: Weaving history and speaking peace

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A quilt depicting the forced displacement of 2000. MCC Colombia’s office in Bogota.

On Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, meet the Women Weavers of Dreams and Flavors, a group of women from the small Afro-Colombian community of Mampujan. In 2000 this entire community was forcibly displaced, as part of Colombia’s 50+ years armed conflict, leaving the community traumatized.  In response, MCC’s partner, Sembrandopaz, together with the community, developed a healing project in which women, working together, sewed quilts, depicting the story of their displacement. As the women stitched, they shared their hurts, and, in doing so, they not only found healing, but a passion to work for justice.

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Women Weavers of Dreams and Flavours of Peace of Mampuján win a national peace prize in Colombia, 2015. Photo, Anna Vogt, thellamadiaries.com

The women then decided to create a series of quilts, depicting the entire history of their community, including ancestors arriving on slave ships, independence, forced displacement, and dreams for the future. They have shared these quilts with other Colombian communities who have also undergone trauma in the armed conflict, and the women of Mampujan have received national and international recognition for these efforts. Much work remains, but the women of Mampujan have led the way in a movement for healing, peace and justice. Read more about Mampujan’s story here.

Jos, Nigeria: Inter-faith bridgebuilding for a common goal of peace

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Amina Ahmed (second from the right) with MCC staff (left to right) Charles Kwuelum (MCC Washington, D.C.), Kati Garrison (MCC UN) and Bekah Sears (MCC Ottawa) on a 2016 visit to Jos, Nigeria. Photo, Ben Weisbrod.

In Jos, Nigeria we meet Amina Ahmed, a local leader in interfaith peacebuilding, and an avid supporter of MCC partner Emergency Preparedness Response Team (EPRT), a joint Christian and Muslim organization responding to crises by addressing conflict at its roots. Because Jos is on the dividing line, of sorts, between the Christian South and Muslim North in Nigeria, it has often been at the epicenter of multiple acute outbursts of violence between Christians and Muslims, creating deep animosity. Yet Amina, along with others, are seeking to change these dynamics and bring people together in peace.

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Amina Ahmed, director of a women’s peace organization, leads a nonviolence training supported by MCC in Jos, Nigeria, 2015. MCC photo, Dave Klassen.

But Amina was not always a leader in these efforts. As a Muslim, Amina was traumatized by violence carried out by Christians against Muslims, including her brother’s murder in 2001. For months she felt deep rage and fear, wanting revenge, seeking out groups planning violent attacks against Christians. But, at her father’s urging, Amina attended an interfaith peace workshop. Seeing both Muslims and Christians working together for peace, Amina’s heart was transformed. Since then she has become a champion for peace across religious or ethnic divides in Nigeria. Read more about Amina’s story here.

Rumbek, South Sudan: “The weak become strong”

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Loreto Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution, Rumbek, South Sudan, 2017. Photo, Candacia Greeman.

On to Rumbek, South Sudan, where leadership in peacebuilding comes from a group perceived as the “weakest” in society, i.e. girls and young women. South Sudan has been engulfed in civil war since 2013, displacing millions and civilians are often the deliberate targets of violence. But there are also deep cycles of violence and oppression within communities, particularly targeting girls. This includes early forced marriage, deeply tied to the importance of cattle ownership. Male relatives force girls into marriage to reclaim the cattle debt the girls’ fathers would have accumulated for their own marriage dowries.

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Loreto Peace Club members, Rumbek, South Sudan, 2017. Photo, Candacia Greeman

At the Loreto Girls Secondary School in Rumbek, MCC supports peace clubs aimed at fostering inter-personal conflict resolution skills, in the recognition that lasting peace begins at the community level. Peace club members then initiated community-based trauma healing and reconciliation groups, within the wider community called Listening Circles: safe spaces to share trauma and grievances, while fostering reconciliation. An MCC worker describes these young women as “a source of hope for South Sudan, and a reason to hope in South Sudan.” Read more about Loreto peace clubs here.

Nazareth, Palestine and Israel: Stitching reconciliation and standing up for human rights

The final stop takes us to a church basement in Nazareth with Violette Khoury, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and the director of MCC partner Sabeel’s Nazareth office. Palestinian citizens of Israel make up 21% of the population of the country. Although Palestinians are citizens, Violette describes state laws which discriminate against them with respect to land and housing rights, education rights, cultural and language rights and more. But most of all, Violette laments both deteriorating relations in between Christian and Muslim Palestinians in Nazareth, as well as a dominant narrative that denies the history and roots of the Palestinian people in the region.

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Violette Khoury shows traditional Palestinian embroidery to MCC visitors from Canada. Khoury is the director of Sabeel Nazareth, the Nazareth office of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, an MCC partner that provides a theological and spiritual resource for the Palestinian church. Violette leads a program that brings together local people, particularly women, of different faith traditions, to share and preserve their common Palestinian heritage with activities like embroidery. (MCC photo/Elizabeth Kessler)

In response, Violette started a project for local women, both Christians and Muslims and even Jewish Israelis, to learn ancient stitching techniques that were once commonplace in Nazareth. In this project Violette hopes to bring unity and reconciliation, all while reclaiming the history of the Palestinian people in the region. She says, “There is denial of us being a people and having a heritage. But we do exist; we have roots; we are here!” In addition, by inviting Jewish Israelis she hopes to extend reconciliation efforts and cross barriers that seem insurmountable. Read more of the context in which Violette works here.

Conclusion: Will we follow their lead?

On November 1, 2017, after many consultations and civil society and parliamentary input, the Canadian government launched its second Canadian National Action Plan (C-NAP) on implementing the UN’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. This is hopeful news.

The first objective of the CNAP – one which our Ottawa Office staff will be watching closely– calls for the “increase of meaningful participation of women, women’s organizations and networks in conflict prevention, conflict resolution and post-conflict state-building.”

In the meantime, in addition to monitoring governmental action on women and peacebuilding, our task is clear. We continue learning, telling the stories, spreading the word, and standing in solidarity with these and other peacebuilders around the world, making the case for women peacebuilders, from the grassroots all the way to the negotiating tables.

Watch the full lecture here 

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Dr. Ottilia Chareka (Photo St FX University) This lecture, the 6th Annual Dr. Ottilia Chareka Memorial Lecture in Education and Social Justice was given in her honour. Tragically, Ottilia was killed in 2011. Ottilia was a long-time friend of mine (Rebekah) and I was both humbled and honoured to help carry on her legacy.

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the MCC Ottawa Office

The weak made strong – girls as agents of peace in South Sudan

By Candacia Greeman of South Sudan who is working as a teacher/teacher mentor with MCC at the Loreto Girls Secondary School. Candacia shares a powerful story of hope in advance of Africa Day on Thursday, May 25.  She also supplied the photographs.

It can be hard to have hope for South Sudan, and even harder to have hope in South Sudan. Daily news reports featuring the world’s newest country are filled with words like famine, civil war, rape and genocide. But that is not the whole story. In the midst of the political and economic turmoil facing the country, pockets of hope exist.

At the Loreto Girls Secondary School (LGSS) in Rumbek, a rural region in South Sudan, MCC is helping young women to promote peace in their communities through the Loreto Peace Club.  This is one of many peace clubs across Africa supported by MCC, and is based on the girls’ experience with the Peace Club Handbook produced by MCC Zambia.

These girls represent one of the most vulnerable populations in South Sudan. They are at-risk for early/forced marriage and pregnancy in a country where a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to complete primary school. As the situation in the country deteriorates, these girls are more likely to be forced into marriage to improve the family’s economic condition through their dowries. In spite of these daunting odds, they are actively working for peace while pursuing a secondary education.

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Some sources of conflict/trauma in my community are misunderstanding, revenge [killings], elopement of girls and tribalism. [Through peace club activities] I have learned about how to stay together, how to be generous, forgiveness and reconciliation. During this term, my brother and sister [who are older than me] quarreled at home and they even swore not to forgive each other. My sister decided to run away so I started with her, telling her the importance of forgiveness. Then I did the same with my brother. They listened and now they have forgiven each other. –  Elizabeth, LGSS student

While at school, the girls receive training in peace building, conflict resolution and trauma healing. Using this knowledge, they facilitate outreach events to the local community with a focus on women and children, groups that are usually excluded from decision-making during conflict. The peace club hosts an annual Peace Day celebration for local primary school children, an event filled with sports, dancing and music. For older students and adults, a solemn evening Peace Concert is held to reflect on the lives of those lost to conflict and to encourage discussions on peace in the community. The club also facilitates cultural presentations for the community that use drama, poetry, song and dance to explore topics such as revenge killings and blood feuds and forgiveness.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

When someone was killed and it was not we who were responsible but our houses were burnt, I was there all alone. I am the only person in my family, everyone is dead except for my brother who takes care of me. [Through Listening Circles] I have learned how to open up. If you have stress, whatever has happened to you will not go away. Now that I have come here, for a while, the stress has gone away. It is forgotten. I also learned how to approach someone if I have stress, how to share. It [Listening Circles] has given me hope that somebody somewhere cares for me to invite me to come to this. It will help me to survive. After it [the burning of the homes] happened, the school gave us food but now they also give us help for our heads. – Mary, local woman from Rumbek

After a workshop on trauma healing in 2016, the Loreto Peace Club members were inspired to share the strategies they had learned with other members of the community. In response to an incident of inter-communal conflict, the club started Listening Circles,a rapid response trauma support resource. Listening Circles were held to help local women who had been forced to burn their own homes by armed groups, and to provide grief support for primary school children after the loss of their schoolmates. They comprise groups of 5-20 participants with 2-3 facilitators depending on the age and/or gender of the participants. Participants form a circle or semi-circle and are guided through a range of activities focused on trauma healing for 45-120 minutes.

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With the knowledge I gained in the [trauma healing] training, I was able to help in conflict resolutions. For example, during my holidays, I was assigned as peace mobilizer in which I approached and talked to some elders about the long conflict between two clans of Pan-aguong and Pan-awur in Cueibet. With the knowledge I have gained I was able to convince the elders and the youth and now they are living in peace. What I was telling them were the dangers of revenge killing and dangers of conflict .I detailed to them until they all understood the fruit of living in peace. This was in January 2017.  – Jennifer, Loreto Peace Club member

The Loreto Peace Club members are selected for membership based on an interest in peace making or prior involvement in conflict at the school. During their participation in the club, many girls report on their personal growth and their efforts at peace building not only at school but in their home communities as well. Driven by the credo, Peace begins with me, the Loreto Peace Club members exemplify the strength and resilience of the South Sudanese people.

They are a source of hope for South Sudan, and a reason to hope in South Sudan.

Loreto Peace Club members

Loreto Peace Club members

Everyone has something to offer

This week’s guest writer is Mark Tymm. A former intern in the Ottawa Office, Mark is currently working with MCC in Chad.

“What do you think, Paul?” I asked, looking at my supervisor during my internship with the MCC Ottawa Office in the fall of 2013. “How do I need to grow to better address issues of peace and justice? How do I live a life of more intentional discipleship?”

“Well, you’d benefit from some more grassroots or international experience… You’re passionate, but grassroots experience is invaluable,” was his response.

Over three years later, I find myself in N’Djamena, Chad, a hot and dry country in central Africa surrounded by Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Nigeria. I came to Chad first with SALT, a one-year MCC program for young adults focused on Serving And Learning Together. Since completing the program, I have continued with MCC in Chad as a Service Worker, specifically working with our long term partner Ethics Peace and Justice (EPJ). EPJ’s work is centered predominantly on hosting interfaith workshops on conflict transformation across the country.

My time in Africa so far has certainly been eye-opening, challenging, filled with great friendships, perspective-changing moments, and life-giving experiences. One of these rich times was the recent All Africa Peace Exchange.

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Participants in the All Africa Peace Exchange. MCC photo by Mark Tymm

Following on the success of an exchange of education specialists in 2015, MCC decided to coordinate a summit of peace practitioners in 2017. This summit took place in Johannesburg, South Africa in January of this year.

Over thirty delegates from fourteen MCC programs across the continent, as well as visiting guests from MCC Ontario and US offices, came together to talk about our peacebuilding efforts. Participants brought a breadth of perspectives and peacebuilding experiences from contexts as diverse as Burkina Faso and Mozambique, from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe.

One of the presenters at the summit was Issa Ebombolo from Zambia, currently completing graduate studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. Issa is the brains behind Peace Clubs, an MCC-funded project that teaches peacebuilding skills to children and youth. The Peace Clubs program began in Zambia but has since spread to South Africa, Burundi, Nigeria and pilot projects are being developed elsewhere, such as Chad.

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Participants from Mozambique, Zambia, Ethiopia and Ontario discuss the challenges of peace work in interfaith contexts.  MCC photo by Mark Tymm

My new friend shared his wisdom and insight with the group of peace practitioners. Issa encouraged us in our work with grassroots initiatives, rather than asking, “What do you need?” to reframe the question as, “What do you have?” Rather than demanding, “What needs to be done?” he urged us to ask, “What are you already doing?”

Be it life experience, time, energy, knowledge of the current context, or a wealth of cultural wisdom, Issa pointed out the depth of resources African peoples possess, resources which are often ignored. “No one under the sun has nothing; everyone has something to offer in any circumstances, including those we think have nothing.”

What a refreshing reminder for those who seek to create spaces of wholeness, peace and justice!

I have often struggled to identify exactly how a white middle class guy in his mid-twenties can possible contribute to building peace in Chad. Issa’s words also encouraged me to look at what I have to offer.

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MCC staff and partners listen to a presentation on contemporary issues in intercultural partnership in peacebuilding. MCC photo by Mark Tymm

Peacebuilders, it seems by nature, are people of high ideals. I know for myself personally, I am driven by the hope that one day injustice will be eliminated, equality and fullness will envelope our societies, and shalom will form the foundation for life. It is also important to remember that despite the messy reality of here-and-now, Jesus’ kingdom of justice, peace and good news also exists in a “now-yet-not-yet” kind of manifestation.

Peacebuilding rooted in faith was an important topic at the summit. We discussed MCC’s position of working with the existing local church, rather than establishing new churches. Alain Epp Weaver, director of strategic planning for MCC, noted that MCC’s work “is not focused on planting new churches, but [such churches] have emerged from MCC presence and the desire of MCC workers to share through their lives the gospel of God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ.”

One of the most exciting outcomes of the summit was the formation of an MCC Africa Peace Network, a formal space for MCC staff to discuss and meet on a regular basis. Though we haven’t met yet, seeing this group of peace practitioners commit to ongoing collaboration and to encouraging and supporting each other’s efforts is an inspiration.

The pursuit of peace continues to be a driving motivator for MCC workers across Africa, and collaboration between programs will no doubt be a good move. Echoed frequently across the continent is a proverb, the origins of which seem to have been lost from the annals of history:

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

Together we continue towards peace. On the journey, everyone has something to offer.

Building peace and hope one girl at a time

After being engulfed in over 20 years of bloody civil war between the north and the south, South Sudan gained independence in 2011, only for brutal and complex internal conflict to erupt again in late 2013. Often portrayed by the media as an “ethnic conflict,” South Sudan’s civil war connects acutely to politics and power issues and the constant shifting of alliances between groups, all coupled with a very heavily armed civilian population.

So far, an estimated two million people have been internally displaced by conflict, while all sides have been accused of gross human rights violations and attacks against civilians across the country. Reports from the United Nations  and other groups  describe the horrific sexual violence committed specifically against women and girls.

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Bekah (bottom R) poses with other MCC staff and members of Organization of Non-Violence and Development (ONAD) in Juba, South Sudan.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Even beyond armed conflict and sexual violence, the challenges for girls at the community level are many. Recently, as part of a small delegation from MCC offices in North America, I was able to visit programs and partners in South Sudan. In the town of Rumbek, northwest of Juba, we talked extensively about these challenges..

One of the biggest challenges facing girls, in addition to armed conflict, is early and forced marriage. Girls as young as 12 or 13 are forced into marriages often with pressure from family members, especially uncles and other male relatives. In this region of South Sudan, cattle farming is central to the local economy and practice, including marriage dowries. When a young man wants to get married he often has to borrow cattle from his older brothers and uncles to pay the bride price. Once this young man and his wife begin to have daughters of their own, his older brothers may apply intense pressure and even physical force – kidnapping girls from their parents’ houses – to have the daughters marry as soon as possible, in order to regain the cattle price.

In addition, for most families, education for boys is highly favoured over that of girls. The girls who actually start primary school are much less likely to finish, let alone start secondary school. Many are forced to drop out due to early marriage, or their brothers are given preference over the cost of school fees in secondary school. In a context where education as a whole makes up less than 1% of the national budget, these factors only further hinder girls from shaping their own lives and futures.

In a bold move ten years ago, the council of chiefs and leaders in the Rumbek area expressed a strong desire to develop a secondary school for girls. An Irish organization, Loreto, was invited to begin working with community leaders to help develop the Loreto Girls Secondary School. MCC has since joined to support this initiative.

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Students take a break from their classes at Loreto Girls Secondary School, Rumbek, South Sudan.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Starting off small, Loreto has quickly become a highly sought-after program for girls from around the country. This year, over 200 girls have applied for the 65-70 open spaces, which are awarded based on academic ability, regional diversity, and level of risk facing applicants. The school also serves as a safe space for girls and young women. Girls who feel they are in danger of a forced marriage, or their home region is caught up in violence, are permitted to remain on campus year round rather than return home for three months when school is not in session.

The school also emphasizes opportunity – encouraging students to dream big and think about their future. MCC supports after-school clubs in science, engineering and technology, where students experiment with various technologies, such as computer tablets, while working to improve math and science skills.

In addition, peace clubs are a key element of the school curriculum, providing a safe place for students to deal with personal issues, as well as learn conflict resolution skills that can be applied in their relationships with other students as well as with their families and communities.  Participation in peace clubs also gives the students, and anyone interacting with them, be it teachers or their friends and family, a vision for achieving peace in their country.

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Students prepare to participate in a debate.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Loreto monitors its alumni and has seen impressive results. In recent years over 40% of graduates have gone directly on to university, in South Sudan and other countries throughout the region. Many others continue into other training or transition into work.

A major highlight for our group was a drama and poetry performance. Here the students expressed their hopes for peace in South Sudan, and also their hopes to be valued for who they are – young women who are proud of themselves and their heritage. With smiles and laughter they demonstrated a keen knowledge of the unique challenges they face, but also the determination to press on.

One can easily get lost in the complexities of conflict in South Sudan, especially the challenges faced by women and girls. But hope and peace often emerge from the ground up, one girl at a time.

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office of MCC.

PiecebyPeace

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.