September 11, 2019: fifty or so people gathered at the Church Center of the United Nations in the name of peace. Waterspirit’s Blair Nelsen and Jean-Marie Donohue were among the religiously-affiliated attendees longing to see clear paths toward establishing cultures of peace. Sponsored by the Maryknoll Sisters and other partners, “Be Peace: Pathways Toward a Culture of Peace” demonstrated that the way forward is still fraught. However, this gathering of the hard-working and the well-intentioned gave us hope about what is being done right now.
Criss-crossing the conference were affirmations of the need for personal transformation; a culture of peace is untenable without embodying peace. Personal transformations of consciousness are key. However, these personal transformations become self-defeating when they are used for self-aggrandizement. Obliteration of the little ego of the self in the service of justice for all is a precondition for a lasting culture of peace. These dual fronts of prayer and action — of personal and structural transformation — resonate with the mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and its ministry, Waterspirit.
The Maryknoll Sisters Kenya Peace Team discussed the importance of conversation in effecting social change. They told an impressive story of dialogue’s power to resolve tensions between ethnic groups. Presenter Sia Temu was particularly emphatic about the peacemaking power of creating safe spaces for open, honest conversation between 10–12 people over the course of 6 months. They experienced success in facilitating groups wherein all participants shared their reflections on an article at each group meeting, allotting five minutes for each participant to share uninterruptedly before opening space for response. Many participants particularly related the importance of two minutes of contemplative silence at the end of each group meeting. We couldn’t help but note the similarities between this group sharing structure and that of Waterspirit’s upcoming climate anxiety support group, which we hope bodes well for the endeavor.
Pax Christi International, represented by Judy Coode, reported on the Catholic Church’s increasing dedication to nonviolence and just peace. She steered us toward the website nonviolencejustpeace.net, where a wealth of materials about nonviolence in the Catholic tradition are available. This nonviolence is neither passive nor naive, she emphasized. Rather, nonviolence is integral for human development and in care for creation. She recommended the book Choosing Peace (Marie Dennis, ed., 2019) and an upcoming conference on “Just Peacemaking for Nonviolence” at Seton Hall University (September 30-October 1). Ms. Coode did not shy away from acknowledging the church’s complicity in destroying cultures of peace in the past. This discomfort with a complex legacy can become the fuel for present and future action, adding urgency to the work we do.
Perhaps the most moving testimony came from Chief Dwaine Perry of the Ramapough-Lunaape Nation. His culture, as well as many indigenous cultures throughout the world, is a culture of peace that has been historically belittled, corrupted, and attacked. He welcomed the conference participants to the Ramapaugh-Lunaape land upon which the UN sits, before explaining the crucial role his tribe played in the events that led to the creation of the United States. He presented his tribe’s lifeway as an ecology of selves: earth is a living being wherein the human self and nature are one, in harmony with the Greater Mystery. All life deserves respect because they are all gifts from the creator, who made everything with his thoughts. His remarkable resilience shone through in the two prophecies he gifted to the listeners — one Native American, one from a gathering of indigenous leaders in the Himalayas — both of which indicated that a new time of sharing the earth community is at hand. He charged the audience with two main tasks: to practice kindness, and to buy stock. “War has always been based on economics,” he affirmed, so one important way to put prayer for peace into action is to buy stock in destructive businesses in order to change their practices from the inside.
We must prepare for the peace we want to see, both within ourselves and in society. Gatherings of a community of peaceworkers, such this one, can reach a place of openness, honesty, and hope that mirrors the kind of connections that a culture of peace will require of us.