Creating calm in anxious times

Presbyterians find ways to ‘pass the peace’

By Mike Givler | Presbyterians Today

Nina Geist of First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage, Alaska, began making origami cranes after being inspired by the story of a young Japanese girl, Sadako Sasaki. Sadako, who died of radiation-induced leukemia in 1955, 10 years after an atomic bomb fell near her home in Hiroshima, had turned origami cranes into an international symbol of peace. Here, Nina displays one of her favorite origami crane mobiles. She sells the cranes to raise money for mission co-workers who serve as peacemakers overseas. Marc Lester

The peace of Christ be with you. And also with you.

On Sunday mornings in congregations across the country, hands are shaken, and the words of Christ’s peace are exchanged with one another. Yet what does it mean to pass the peace of Christ into a world that is often anxious?

These days, unrest comes in many shapes and sizes — and so do the attempts by Presbyterians to quell such situations. From something as simple as using a peace-related hashtag on social media to fill others with hope to volunteering at a food bank or a soup kitchen to ease the anxiousness of hunger, these actions can help spread positive and encouraging energy in neighborhoods.

For Nina Geist, it doesn’t take much to bring peace to others. All the 10-year-old from Anchorage, Alaska, needs is a small piece of colorful paper.

For the past year, Nina, of First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage, has been creating origami cranes. She plans to sell them at her church’s holiday gift market this year. The market supports local and global missions. The money Nina makes will be sent to PC(USA) mission co-workers Ryan and Alethia White, who are working to bring peace to the lives of Iranian immigrants and refugees in Germany.

Each crane takes roughly three minutes to create, and Nina has made “a couple of hundred” cranes to date, including one from Advent 2018 that still hangs on the pulpit at First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage.

Last year was the first time that she sold the cranes at the gift market, but she also makes custom-colored ones for friends and church members throughout the year. She sells some cranes individually, but most are part of a mobile that has multiple cranes attached. So far, Nina has sent $300 to the Whites in Germany.

“Nina’s action to make cranes and sell them to support the ministry in Berlin was very inspiring,” said Ryan White, “especially as we think about how to talk with our own daughters about the importance of being a peacemaker and helping support initiatives in our communities and around the world.”

Let peace begin with me

Nina got the idea of making the origami cranes after she had attended a play about a young Japanese girl, Sadako Sasaki, who contracted leukemia stemming from radiation poisoning related to the World War II bombing in Hiroshima.

Nina Geist discovered that creating origami cranes gave her a sense of peace. Each crane takes all of three minutes to make. Geist says she has made hundreds so far. Marc Lester

Confined to a hospital, the 12-year-old began folding origami cranes in hopes of reaching 1,000, since legend had it that the folder of this many cranes would be granted a wish. One story says that Sadako completed only two-thirds of her goal, so her friends finished the task for her and placed all 1,000 cranes in Sadako’s casket. That spirit of community togetherness stuck with Nina, her parents say.

Then in late November 2018, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake hit south central Alaska, causing Nina’s elementary school to close for a week as the building was inspected for damage. Having just heard Sadako’s story and been taught how to fold origami cranes at a church Advent party, Nina decided to create the cranes and sell them at the church’s holiday gift market.

Folding the cranes “was a calming activity that I could do inside since it was too icy to play outside,” Nina said.

As Nina found peace in making the cranes, she also thought about the significance of the peace candle that was lit on the church’s Advent wreath. It was then that she decided the money raised from selling the cranes would help those seeking to bring peace into the world.

“It was especially meaningful that she thought of this action during a time when her community was recovering from a significant earthquake,” said Nina’s father, Marcus Geist. “As we were praying for the community of Anchorage, she was making cranes to sell them for the mission work in Berlin. It’s an example of the connection with communities across the globe and the importance of sharing stories of faith and action with one another.”

Finding peace amid discourse

Making origami cranes to help others and promote peace is one way of calming anxiety.

But when it comes to creating peace amid disagreements, folded paper can only go so far. What’s needed then is the ability to listen intently and talk honestly.

Those conversations, says the Rev. Dr. Jeff Japinga, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area in Eagan, Minnesota, bring about a question: How are we the same as or different from the world around us when it comes to our interactions with other people?

“We all care about issues of justice, we all care how people are treated, we all care when we see abuse of power. Is our voice called to be any different than the world around us? Are there times when we can look at, especially in our congregations, some of those issues that come to divide us, separate us or put us at odds with each other?” he asked.

This past summer, Japinga gave a workshop at the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ Synod School in Storm Lake, Iowa, called “The Problem You Can’t Solve,” where he focused on polarization and how a middle ground can be achieved.

“One particular way of looking at what we often call a problem to be solved is rather than looking at it as a problem, ask if there are benefits of both sides of the issue,” Japinga said, adding, “Can we invite ourselves to go deeper into both the positives and negatives of an issue that will help us maximize the positives of both sides and minimize the negatives?”

An example of such a situation is when a congregation struggles with whether to keep hold of its traditions or change for the good of the community, he says. This is a perfect setting, he said, to consider both/and instead of either/or.

“There are some issues where we just have to choose. But on some of the hard questions that we face in church today, there are more and better ways than just seeing who has the loudest voice and letting the loudest voice win,” said Japinga. “There are ways we can do this together that don’t dismiss people, but in fact invite a larger number into the conversation.”

A reminder in the church that the more people are allowed to be heard and their thoughts are validated, the more peaceful difficult discussions can be.

‘Great Peacemakers’

While Japinga laid out some of the groundwork for peaceful discussions among congregations, having the right leadership to be able to calmly go about this process is also key.

Members of First Presbyterian Church of Spartanburg, S.C., recently discussed the book “Great Peacemakers: True Stories from Around the World” and discovered peacemakers can be ordinary folks. Courtesy of First Presbyterian Church of Spartanburg, S.C.

That’s why about 30 people at First Presbyterian Church of Spartanburg, South Carolina, took time to come together and read the book “Great Peacemakers: True Stories from Around the World” by Ken Beller and Heather Chase, where they learned about the different styles and personalities of people who made peace a priority in their lives.

“One of the things this book did was to open your eyes to the fact that a peacemaker is often a very normal, humble, even a poor person — not necessarily the rich and the powerful or a political dynamo,” said Tom McDaniel, a member of First Presbyterian who led the book study with his wife, Nan. “These are real, average people who find themselves in a world where they are willing to do something to make this a better world in terms of peace.”

The book study began in the spring with such topics as “Choosing Nonviolence,” “Living Peace,” “Honoring Diversity” and “Valuing All Life.” It concluded this fall with a chapter on “Caring for the Planet” — something McDaniel never thought about when thinking about creating peace in today’s world.

“Peacemaking is an extremely broad notion,” McDaniel said. “When you can talk about peace from a standpoint of the animals and the environment, as well as social or political issues, it just shows you so many dimensions of peacemaking that you normally don’t think of.”

The McDaniels, both former educators, have been leading the adult book study at First Presbyterian of Spartanburg for a decade and have chosen a wide variety of subjects, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s “Book of Confessions.” But when it came to peace, they felt like they were being led toward this subject — and they are glad they heeded the nudge.

“God is behind the very instinct that so many peacemakers have responded to,” McDaniel said. “They see the challenges that God puts before us. If all of these people from all over the world, many from very common beginnings, can contribute to making God’s world ‘on earth as it is in heaven,’ then we ourselves in our time and place can do the same thing.”

Mural, mural on the wall

As people came together at First Presbyterian Church of Spartanburg to study the characteristics of being a peacemaker, others have gathered at Second Congregational UCC/First Presbyterian Church of Rockford, Illinois, to draw and paint about it.

The church, known as SecondFirst, is partnering with community mural artist Tia Richardson and Rockford residents to paint a 1,000-square-foot mural on the outside wall of the church gymnasium.

“Inside, the gym hosts events that draw every type of Rockford person. Now let’s put that spirit on the wall outside to inspire generations to come,” the senior pastor, the Rev. Rebecca White Newgren, wrote in a note to the congregation earlier this year to kickstart the fundraising for the $30,000 needed for this project of community peace.

Rockford has been plagued for many years with high crime rates, and so when Milwaukee artist Richardson, known for her artwork that brings communities together, became known to the church’s pastor, an idea was sparked: Why not invite Richardson to create a peace mural for the people in Rockford?

“Tia’s process is to bring people from the community together and have them dream of a future that they want to see,” White Newgren said.

White Newgren explained that what Richardson does is compile drawings from people in a community to create an inspiration for what theme the mural will reflect. Then the artist sketches the mural using those ideas. After the mural is designed, the community returns to paint the work of art through a color-by-number type of system.

White Newgren said 60–100 people in the Rockford community created the original drawings that formed Richardson’s inspiration, and as many as 300 actually put the paint on the mural. The corrugated metal panels made it possible for the mural to be transported throughout Rockford.

“We tried to gather as many different types of people as we could from different walks of life,” White Newgren said. The panels have even made their way into schools and nursing homes to be painted, she added.

The positioning of the mural outside the church’s gym isn’t a coincidence, as SecondFirst holds several events in and around the gymnasium to help foster peace among its neighbors.

“We are in a community that really struggles with poverty, segregation and violence,” White Newgren said. “We’ve been doing pop-up dinners in the parking lot with white tablecloths and china just to say we’re claiming this space for peace and good. We are also opening up the gym overnight during the winter months so that no one dies in the cold.”

White Newgren says she has seen a slight bump in attendance at SecondFirst since the idea of a mural was publicized early this year. And while that’s a nice benefit, she says it’s not the ultimate goal. Healing a community and creating peace amid difficulties is.

“We really hope that this mural, and all of the dreaming of a future with hope, joy and peace that went into it, changes our community,” she said. At press time, SecondFirst was close to achieving all of the funding needed to complete the mural.

Mike Givler is the communications coordinator for the Synod of the Trinity in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.

Peace begins with YOU

Ways to center yourself

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson

Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me …

This song, often sung during the holiday season, is a reminder that peace in this world truly does begin with each one of us. How we act or react to situations says a lot about our fears and our faith. But how does one create that peace within?

The Rev. Cheryl Colt, an ordained PC(USA) minister for more than 25 years, has spent the past decade working as a licensed clinical mental health counselor for the Adirondack Samaritan Counseling Center in Hudson Falls, New York. Colt has noticed a marked increase in the level of anxiety in her clients in recent years. Colt credits the advent of social media and the incessant news cycle with this increased anxiety.

“We do need to be informed, but there is a limit to what we can process,” she said. “I tell many people I see to turn off the news.”

The same goes for social media, Colt adds.

“Social media can affect people in two ways. Either one gets depressed because they see the lives of others on social media as better than theirs. Or, it can feed into one’s negativity as people who are negative will find one another and fuel the negativity,” she said.

So how does one find peace? It starts by recognizing that the peace you seek will be different from someone else’s picture of peace.

“Peace means different things to different people,” Colt said. “For some it’s the absence of war, for others peace is about living in harmony, and for others peace means family relationships are healed.”

Whatever one’s definition of peace is, Colt says that peace is not about shutting out the chaos. It’s about finding calm in the chaos.

Presbyterians Today asked Colt for some tips to share on how to create that peace within.

  • Remember to breathe. Most people react quickly to something. Taking time to breathe helps a person regain composure and think clearly. “When you breathe, you then begin to realize you can’t solve all the problems of the world,” said Colt.
  • Listen carefully and objectively. Colt advises people to listen to others and their opinions but not to take everything personally. “Many times, it is not about you,” she said.
  • Pick one problem to work on solving. Choose one thing you are passionate about, says Colt. If you are passionate about dismantling racism, get involved. If it’s the environment, then get active in that. “Sometimes the problems in the world are overwhelming, but we can’t do everything, so pick one thing to work on,” Colt said, adding that being proactive can restore lost hope.
  • To find peace, set boundaries. “No one has to be available to others 24 /7,” Colt said.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.

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