24.09.07 17:23 Il y a: 4 yrs

Living Letters delegation to the US finds seeds of peace growing where violence and sorrow flourished


The visit to the United States by a Living Letters team as part of the WCC's Decade to Overcome Violence included a stop in Pennsylvania where they met with Mennonites and Amish, who have a long tradition of non-violence. Picture: At the Mennonite Central Committee centre, where carpets, quilts and comforters are made and relief supplies shipped abroad.
©Jerry Hames /WCC

By Jerry Hames (*)


From the farms and rolling hills of Pennsylvania's serene Amish countryside where five young schoolgirls were killed a year ago, to an immersion into the inner-city violence of Philadelphia, a World Council of Churches Living Letters delegation learned first-hand of the profound tragedy that can suddenly impact everyday life. But they also saw "rays of light" where forgiveness and reconciliation are helping to create a more humane society.


Members of the team, on a nine-day visit in September to meet with US church and community leaders in several cities, include a South African ecumenical leader, a public health specialist from Lebanon, a Brazilian ecumenist and a human rights lawyer from Pakistan. At each place they visit they talk about the violence experienced in their own countries and listen to stories of those who work for peace and justice in the United States.


The visit of the four-member team, called "Living Letters," is part of an initiative by the World Council of Churches (WCC) to mobilize churches around the world to seek peaceful alternatives to violence. The WCC's Decade to Overcome Violence will culminate with an International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in 2011.


Experiencing Christian hospitality over lunch in a Amish farmhouse near Paradise, Pennsylvania, the delegation talked with an Amish deacon and learned in graphic detail how, a year ago, a dairy truck driver with no apparent history of violence barricaded himself in a one-room Amish schoolhouse and, after releasing all of the boys, shot 10 schoolgirls, five of whom died, before killing himself. One of the girls still lives on life support.


Many people around the world, grief-stricken by the news of the shooting among people who traditionally have stood for non-violence and peace, responded with more than $4 million in aid to help pay for hospital costs and counseling expenses for all the families affected. Within days, members of the Amish community called upon the widow and children of the killer, offering forgiveness and financial assistance for the family.


"We took this forgiveness and reconciliation as a huge lesson," Dr Marcelo Schneider from Porto Alegre, Brazil, told the Amish leader. He added that in his home country, people would rather "look for revenge, for more blood to be shed", believing that this was necessary for the benefit of Brazilian society.

"I come from a violent part of the world and when I read of the details, I was touched by the way the Amish reacted. It was inspirational," said Lina Moukheiber of Beirut, Lebanon, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church (Patriarchate of Antioch).


"It was something that challenged people's imagination," agreed the Rev. Hansulrich Gerber, the World Council of Churches coordinator of the Decade to Overcome Violence. "We talk about forgiveness, but our [countries'] national systems of punishment and persecuting offenders don't generally make room for forgiveness."


The deacon, who in the Amish tradition asked that his photograph not be taken nor his name published, said Amish reaction to the tragedy included the same questions other Christians have had at such moments. "We asked, ‘Why did God let this happen?'"


Both Amish men said the Amish struggle to live up to the expectations of others. "We are not a perfect people," said the host. The deacon added: "We just hope we can live up to the way people think we are."


In Paradise, Pennsylvania, "we found the meaning of following Christ to the last consequence," Schneider wrote later in a blog (i.e. a personal journal) he publishes on the Internet. Commenting on the public's reactions to the forgiveness of the shooter, Schneider quoted the Amish deacon: "Isn't that what Jesus has told us to do all of the time?"


Inner city peace building


A few hours later the team was at White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia, where they learnt about the church's community programmes aimed at reducing violence in this city, which has the highest homicide rate in the country. The following day they breakfasted with about forty African American church and civic leaders who are working daily to make the city's streets safer.


"If there ever was a time in the history of the world when peace should be the focus, this is the time," said Mayor John Street. "Forty percent of all homicides happen as a result of arguments that a few years ago might have resulted in fistfights. In this community today you can look at another person wrong - and find yourself in a fight for your life."


Addressing the WCC team and the city's black religious leaders, Street called for the transformation of hearts and minds. Without full participation by the churches that cannot happen, he said. "I don't want to take anything away from our police department, but you can't achieve peace by policing. People need a spiritual transplant so they will experience peace in their life and won't feel a need to lash out."


Rev. Marguerite Handy, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, spoke about a neighborhood interfaith movement which recently began an anti-violence initiative to mobilize congregations and faith organizations to end the city's epidemic wave of violence. She also described how the community is in a fight to reclaim street corners "owned" by drug dealers.


The WCC presented "Blessed are the Peacemakers" awards to four Philadelphia citizens for their efforts to overcome violence, including one of the city's former mayors, Wilson Goode, for his leadership in a programme that provides a "big brother" or "big sister" for children who have a parent in prison, and Julia Chinn, who established a boxing club for street boys after her son was killed. The awards were given on behalf of the WCC's Decade to Overcome Violence.


Earlier in the week the Living Letters team traveled to Nyack, New York, for the annual peace conference of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). The oldest and largest interfaith peace and justice organization in the United States, FOR is well known for its legacy of nonviolence activism, civil and human rights work and opposition to war.


"We want to salute and commend you in your work for peacemaking," said the Rev. Edwin Makue, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, at the FOR Festival of Peace. "Your wonderful commitment to building peace and justice is an inspiration to us."


The Living Letters team said they appreciated the opportunity to speak with "everyday citizens," particularly families with young children. "In a world expanding as rapidly as ours, we are moved by the personal connections that emerge in these ordinary conversations," said Mark Johnson, FOR's executive director. "Our hopes and fears are the same."


WCC program executive for the US Rev. Deborah DeWinter presented a WCC "Blessed are the Peacemakers" award to FOR "for inspiring, courageous and faithful efforts to build a just and more peaceful world."


(*) Jerry Hames is a religion journalist who has worked for 40 years for Canadian and American church publications. He recently retired as editor of the national publication of the Episcopal Church in the United States.



A feature story on the first part of the Living Letters visit to the US


Living Letters blog on the DOV website


The itinerary of the Living Letters team, 15 to 23 September 2007 (pdf, 59 KB)