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Blessed are the peacemakers

 

Mission co-workers persevere in troubled world

By Kathy Melvin | Presbyterians Today

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Very rarely, though, do we stop and think of who these men and women are, let alone the challenges that they face, as they work to bring peace to the most turbulent places around the world. Presbyterians Today takes a look at today’s peacemakers.

Stories of pain from South Sudan

Joseph (second from right) lost his prized goats when he was forced to flee South Sudan. These children participated in a trauma-healing workshop with mission co-worker Nancy Smith-Mather, pictured here. Courtesy of Nancy Smith-Mather

Mission co-workers Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather accompany global partners in several refugee camps, offering spiritual support and trauma healing to those displaced by the violence in South Sudan. As parents of three young children, the couple find the stories of pain told by the children particularly difficult to hear.

Nancy Smith-Mather talks about Joseph, 10 years old but not much bigger than her 5-year-old son. Participating in her workshop at Bidi Bidi refugee camp, in Uganda where many South Sudanese were displaced, Joseph became teary-eyed as he talked about leaving behind his most prized possessions, three goats that he had carefully cared for and loved. Many others have experienced far worse — watching parents and other relatives die, houses and crops being burned and women being sexually assaulted.

The children yearn for school, church and playing with friends. The adults want to go back home, raise their children, grow food and live in peace.

A peace agreement signed in June 2018 remains fragile. The South Sudanese are hopeful but cautious in believing this will be a lasting peace. Under the threat of international sanctions, President Salva Kiir signed a peace agreement with rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar in August 2015. Machar returned to Juba, the South Sudanese capital, in April 2016 and was sworn in as vice president.

Mission co-workers Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather have conducted trauma-healing workshops for displaced South Sudanese living in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda, one of the largest in the world. Courtesy of Shelvis Smith-Mather

Just three months later, violence broke out again between the two factions. Both sides blame the other for violating the cease-fire.

In March 2016, the United Nations estimated that more than 50,000 people had been killed in the ongoing civil war, but in September 2018, a State Department-funded study estimated the number at 382,000.

This new estimate put the proportionate number of deaths on par with the civil war in Syria, where more than 500,000 are estimated to have died in a significantly larger population.

In the final session of a trauma-healing workshop at Bidi Bidi, the children were asked to think about their dreams and what their happy lives might look like.

In a testimony to newfound hope, Joseph, the little boy who had cried over the loss of his beloved goats, was enthusiastic.

“I want to work hard to finish school, make money and buy more goats and then I want to become a teacher,” he said.

Before departing, Nancy Smith-Mather told the children that they were part of something much larger.

PC(USA) partner RECONCILE International and representatives from the United Nations, recently met with five clans in Douncy County, Gok state, South Sudan, to end hostilities and begin the process of reconciliation. The deaths perpetrated by both sides number in the tens of thousands. Courtesy of RECONCILE International

“Each of you has a unique purpose in the body. God allows me to play the role of a messenger, to carry stories from one part of the church to another. I will tell churches in the U.S. about you, about a group of children who have gone through many difficulties, yet they are helping each other to heal, and allowing God to give them hope. Your testimonies will inspire the followers of Christ in my country to listen to each other and to help each other heal,” she said.

Although South Sudan is considered one of the most dangerous places on earth, it is just one of many. Despite the danger, Presbyterian mission co-workers around the world work with global partners to foster peace and healing.

“To build peace and advocate for justice to achieve that peace are what we work for daily. Our partners are the actors and protagonists of those efforts, and many of our mission co-workers, through their prayers and actions, are humble and silent accompaniers,” said Jose Luis Casal, director of World Mission.

Beliefs turn into action

Mission co-worker Sarah Henken serves as a peace initiative promoter with the Presbyterian Church of Colombia and as the site coordinator for the Young Adult Volunteer program in Colombia. Her deep concern for injustices began in grade school. She clearly remembers spending her allowance in second and third grade on books about slavery in the U.S. and about victims of the Holocaust.

“My time with the Young Adult Volunteer program introduced me to the history of government repression and dictatorship in Argentina and Uruguay. I remember visiting with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and learning the power of their commitment to stand up and be seen refusing to accept the injustice they had suffered,” Henken said. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is an association of Argentine mothers whose children disappeared during the state terrorism of the military dictatorship, between 1976 and 1983.

 “Working with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship taught me to understand myself as a practitioner of nonviolent action,” Henken said. “I began to see myself as part of a deep and tenacious tradition in our church. It was an invitation to continual self-reflection and growth, and to put my beliefs into concrete action.”

Henken has been involved in Colombia’s peace process since she moved there five years ago. A peace agreement signed in 2016 ended the 50-year armed conflict between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In 2017, FARC members surrendered thousands of weapons and began the process of assimilating into civilian life. The process now is focused on the former FARC guerrillas’ making restitution to victims and forging a path without weapons.

“My friend and colleague the Rev. Diego Higuita spoke in a public ceremony of reconciliation and restitution last July in his hometown of Dabeiba. At the ceremony, a former commander of FARC asked forgiveness from a woman named Yolanda Pinto, the director of Colombia’s victim reparations program and a victim herself, whose husband was killed by FARC,” she said.

More than 900 victims of the conflict attended the ceremony and received long-awaited compensation from the government. But the path to peace is rarely a smooth one.

Henken was “excited, energized and encouraged” by the ceremony, but within hours received a copy of a letter being circulated by right-wing militias naming

Mission co-worker Sarah Henken participates in a communion service at a church in Bolivia. Courtesy of Chenoa Stock

individuals and organizations, including close allies of the Presbyterian Church in Colombia, who were being threatened because of their work for peace and reconciliation. Assassinations of human-rights workers and community leaders who are working toward justice and land rights have increased since the peace agreement was signed in 2016.

“But what else can we do but continue to follow the path of peace and work for reconciliation?” Henken said. “It’s a bit like walking a labyrinth: The path may seem to carry us where we don’t want to go, but if we continue to follow, it will take us where we need to be.”

Inspiring role models

On the other side of the world, in South Korea, mission co-workers Hyeyoung Lee and Kurt Esslinger live among those hoping for reconciliation of the Korean peninsula. As one of his duties there, Esslinger also works with the National Council of Churches in Korea and its Reconciliation and Unification Department, which maintains a relationship with the Korean Christian Federation of North Korea and advocates for respectful and peaceful reconciliation. The couple, and many others, have been inspired by the work of David Suh, who grew up in northern Korea when the peninsula was one nation. Suh’s father was a pastor of a church near the border of Korea and China, and he regularly spoke out against the Japanese authorities until Japan surrendered to the Allies on Aug. 15, 1945, effectively ending World War II. The U.S. and the Soviet Union then decided in a meeting without Korean representation to divide the peninsula into two zones, with the Soviets occupying northern Korea and the U.S. occupying southern Korea, which eventually became separate nations.

Suh’s father continued speaking out — this time against North Korea. After the Korean War broke out in 1950, Suh’s father was executed by North Korean authorities. After finding his father’s body on the side of a river, Suh wanted revenge against his North Korean enemies. He fled to South Korea and joined the navy.

After the armistice, he was given the opportunity to study in the U.S., and his path led him to study theology.

“He also joined the civil rights movement in the U.S. and heard Martin Luther King Jr. preach about love for those who oppress you and God’s power to transform hate into love,” Esslinger said. “This challenged his constant desire for revenge, and he began to question whether he could harbor such hate and still truly live as a Christian.”

After earning his Ph.D., Suh returned to South Korea and joined the democratization movement in resistance to the South Korean dictatorship and found himself speaking out against South Korean authority, just as his father had spoken out against North Korea and Japan.

“Dr. Suh’s story provides an invaluable example of God transforming revenge through reconciliation,” said Esslinger. “Through God’s reconciliation I believe we can transform our conflicts around the world into opportunities for compassion, relationships and peace.”

In the summer of 2017, Esslinger was appointed director of the Ecumenical Forum for Korea (EFK) at a meeting in Geneva. That forum was created to help perpetuate the same type of meetings between North and South Korean churches that Suh participated in when he had his moment of transformation.

“So I am now carrying on that legacy of maintaining a relationship with the Korean Christian Federation in North Korea,” Esslinger said. “The EFK is excited about the progress being made in the inter-Korean summits, and they hope the most recent meeting between President Moon and Chairman Kim in Pyongyang will restart the negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, encouraging the U.S. to follow their lead in corresponding actions that build trust rather than forcing change through unilateral coercion.”

Called to the Middle East

Untold numbers of books, articles and documentaries have chronicled the struggle for peace in the Middle East. Mission co-workers Victor and Sara Makari live amid the struggle daily. They have served as PC(USA) regional liaisons for ecumenical and interfaith partnerships in Israel, Palestine and Jordan since 2014, under joint appointment by the Common Global Ministries Board of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) with the Diyar Consortium.

The Diyar Consortium is an ecumenically oriented organization initiated by the Christmas Lutheran Church of Bethlehem. Diyar implements contextual and holistic programs that support the civic, cultural, educational, physical, psychosocial and spiritual well-being of the people of Palestine.

Victor Makari serves as a regional consultant for the consortium’s Religion and State Program. That program examines the relationship between religion and governments in the Arab world and how a dominant religious majority’s views, prejudices and doctrine infringe on the rights of religious minorities, women and youth. Sara Makari edits English-language publications produced by the Diyar Consortium. She also frequently offers the ministry of hospitality in the couple’s home.

The couple’s roots run deep in the Middle East. Both spent their formative years in the region, and their experience set them on a path toward mission service.

A native of Egypt, Victor Makari says his sense of call came early in life.

“My vocation to mission was awakened through the study of Scripture pointing to the use of the word ‘go’ as a key word in the vocabulary of Christ and throughout the New Testament,” he said.

 Following years of theological studies, he was ordained by the Synod of the Nile of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt as a minister of mission to the United States. He carried that commission through 25 years of pastoral ministry then 20 years on the World Mission staff of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). His Ph.D. in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies gave him an in-depth understanding of the region and helped him engage in the Church’s mission of partnership, reconciliation and peacemaking.

Sara Makari grew up in Lebanon and Egypt, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries Kenneth and Ethel Bailey. She learned the joys and challenges of cross-cultural mission, developed a deep love of Middle Eastern people and became fluent in Arabic. Those experiences, she says, prepared her to follow God’s call to Israel/Palestine.

For decades the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has promoted a just peace in the Middle East. The Church pursues peace in the region acting in solidarity with the Palestinian Christian community and partner churches across the Middle East. A key goal of the PC(USA)’s ongoing work in Middle East peacemaking is to support efforts to end the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

The occupation, with its multilayered implications and consequences — political, economic, social, religious and ethnic — has contributed to a large exodus of Christians from Palestine. In 1920, about a tenth of the population of historic Palestine was Christian, but now estimates place the Christian population at around 1.2 percent.

“That leaves us with the question of the role and the purpose of our being here,” said Victor Makari. “We are constantly reminded of our Christian vocation as peacemakers. We believe this is best expressed primarily through ‘critical presence.’ Our faith requires us always to listen to the genuine concerns of Palestinians and Israelis. An active faith demands that we accompany our Christians in witness to the love of God of all people and to practice that love ourselves, even when it is challenging to do so. And, as the Spirit gives occasion and utterance, to ‘speak the truth in love’.”

The Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb retired two years ago after 30 years as pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, where the Makaris often worship. Raheb continues in ministry as president of Dar al-Kalima University College, which he founded in 2006. In his book Bethlehem Besieged, he wrote: “At times, when we feel as if the world must be coming to an end . . . our only hopeful vision is to go out . . . and plant olive trees. If we don’t plant any trees today, there will be nothing tomorrow. But if we plant a tree today, there will be shade for our children to play in. There will be oil to heal the wounds, and there will be olive branches to wave when peace arrives.”

Kathy Melvin is director of Mission Communications for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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