Peace in process … at home and abroad

Peace in process … at home and abroad

We’ve all been there. Someone gets rid of those old vases that hold the silk flowers beside the altar, and it’s on for young and old. There’s a mediation of sorts, but only after half the Ladies Fellowship stop speaking to one another.

No-one really listens, in any case. There’s a faction who’ve been plotting for years to replace those vases — it’s perfectly plain.

“It’s strange,” muses Charissa Suli, Cross Cultural Consultant with Uniting Mission and Education.

“Conflict arises over all sorts of issues but many of the features are the same no matter where you find them. Recently I attended Peace Workshops in Mindanao, run by UnitingWorld’s Young Ambassadors for Peace (YAP). I discovered that there are many things about creating peace that apply no matter what causes the problem in the first place.”

The “cause of the problem” in Mindanao is complex. One of three main island groups making up the Philippines archipelago, it’s a lush and fertile area.

Mindanao’s people however, are deeply impoverished by a long running guerrilla-style war that has claimed 160,000 lives to date. The conflict is fuelled by poor governance, exploitation of cultural communities and massive poverty, but at its core is the quest for justice and independence for the Muslim majority who have lived on the island for centuries.

It’s a far cry from a stoush over whether or not the church hall should be used by the playgroup. But, according to Charissa, the heart of conflict doesn’t appear to change much from one location to another.

“Conflict can start from something quite small,” she says. “When you peel back what people are arguing about, you realise at the heart there’s often a misinterpretation, or a wrong-doing that hasn’t been forgiven. At any rate, people have come to a point where they can’t move forward. Someone has power, someone else is marginalised, and no is talking.”

Sound familiar?

The universality of conflict, its causes and resolution is one of the reasons Charissa and her colleagues travelled to Mindanao in the first place.

Seeking a model of reconciliation that really worked on the ground, they looked to UnitingWorld’s Joy Balazo, founder of Young Ambassadors for Peace (YAP). UnitingWorld’s YAP projects operate in Ambon, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Burma, and North-East India, tackling deeply entrenched prejudices.

“The workshops help people let go of the ideas they have about each other, ideas that hold them back,” says Joy. “I think this is part of what Jesus — the ultimate peacemaker — modelled when he challenged our thinking about one another.

“This is when change becomes possible. This is when communities can start to move forward and build something new and lasting, something that makes a real difference to their circumstances.”

Peace in action

Here in Australia, peace can be a subtle commodity but in Mindanao it’s often the stark difference between misery and a chance at a decent life. In Josefina, the changes brought about by the Peace Workshops are tangible: some of the world’s poorest people, the Subanen, will soon be growing their own food, raising their own livestock, and will have access to land that has been denied them for years.

In a unique partnership between UnitingWorld’s Relief and Development arm, YAP and a new local peace initiative, PCAI, a plot of land has been dedicated to the raising of livestock and organic vegetables. It’s known as the integrated Peace and Development Project.

Significant individuals are playing their part in the process. After participating in a workshop, Marvie, a prominent local educator, decided to devote her family’s organic farming expertise to the venture.

Local police, too, are more understanding of the needs of their community and are excited about their role as peacemakers. Traditionally they have clashed with some sectors of the community, but now better understand the causes of the conflict and the role they can play in addressing it.

“I think the reason you see change happening is because people from very different parts of society have actually taken the time to sit down together to genuinely listen,” suggests Charissa. “How often does that really happen?

“Funnily enough, a large part of the program is actually spent playing games together. I will never forget Joy saying to us all, ‘Let your inner child come out.’ Sounds a bit simplistic, but I think that’s what makes the difference.”

Charissa makes the observation that something vital happens to the power dynamic between groups when people genuinely let their guard down. The well-worn roles of victim and victor are laid aside, and people are simply allowed to be people, with stories to tell about the way that conflict affects them. In that context, real progress can be made.

“We had six days together in Josefina, and much of it was about developing relationships without agendas,” Charissa says. “It really takes time for people to put aside their status so that they can genuinely hear where other people are coming from. We deal with conflict in the Australian church that can be quite serious, and sometimes it’s amplified by multicultural misunderstandings. We need a model of conflict resolution that really works.”

And back at home …

Buoyed by the success of the workshops in Josefina, the Assembly National Director for Multicultural and Cross Cultural Mission, the Rev. Dr Tony Floyd, and the Cross Cultural Consultant for Uniting Mission and Education intend to trial a Conflict Resolution Workshop in Sydney.

Participants will be lay people, ministers and young people and the workshop will be facilitated by UnitingWorld’s Peter Keegan.

“My first thought was that we might need to change the program quite a lot for the Australian context,” Charissa confesses. “But, on reflection, I actually think that playing the games and reflecting on them together is exactly what’s required. We need that intense preparation to break down the power barriers between us.

“Otherwise the ‘talking’ and the ‘listening’ is totally predictable, and the outcomes are fixed. The success of the YAP program lies in the unexpected outcomes that arise when the rules are changed.”

Starting with individuals, and no matter what is at stake, the process of peace transforms all communities. What is required is an open heart and a willingness to change.

For more information on UnitingWorld’s Peacemaking work in Mindanao go to the UnitingWorld website.



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