Editor’s note: With global migration on the rise and cultural polarization increasing, there is a pressing need for peace among neighbors and nations. In this six-part series, “Lutheran legacy of peacemaking,” we’re exploring Lutheran contributions to the Christian tradition of peacemaking. The series will culminate in the September issue in conjunction with the International Day of Peace (Sept. 21).
In areas that have known conflict, building and sustaining peace is an intentional daily practice. Today, Lutherans in Liberia, Zimbabwe, South Sudan and Colombia lead the way in moving people beyond conflict toward reconciliation.
Liberia: Accountability and forgiveness
When Liberia’s 15-year civil conflict ended in 2003, the women who aided its conclusion didn’t “go back to cooking and baking and being mothers again,” said Leymah Gbowee, a member of the Lutheran Church in Liberia who was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for peace-building work.
Instead, she and other Women in Peacebuilding Network leaders educated women about the peace agreement signed by the government and rebel leaders. The knowledge equipped them to monitor the agreement’s implementation and document violations, and intervene with actions of peace and reconciliation, Gbowee told attendees at an ELCA event in 2004. The women also invited former combatants back to their communities, even those who had killed their friends and family. It wasn’t easy, Gbowee said, but for the love of the one God that united Christian and Muslim Liberian women, they did it.
While political and economic challenges continue, Liberians have not taken up arms against one another since.
Zimbabwe: Equipping Christians
After politically motivated violence during the 2008 elections, Zimbabwean church leaders faced an uncomfortable truth: while churches routinely aided victims of the violence, they did little to prevent it. Determined to reclaim a prophetic role in peacemaking, they launched the Ecumenical Church Leaders Forum. Led by retired bishop Ambrose Moyo of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe, the group’s lay and clergy leaders offer intensive peacemaking workshops, whose graduates form and lead committees around the country.
Now 88 local committees are in place, trained in conflict prevention, management, resolution and peace building. Each brings together “representatives of the different political parties, traditional leaders, youth, women, business representatives and others from the security sectors,” Moyo said. “If we are to build peace, it has to include the participation of all stakeholders whether we like them or not.”
Together, members learn and use dispute resolution skills rooted in their cultural and religious practices. They also become “the local early warning mechanism to ensure authorities respond swiftly before violence occurs,” he said.
“If we are to build peace, it has to include the participation of all stakeholders whether we like them or not.”
Strengthening community cohesion and resilience through development is another aim. Committees have built secondary schools, roads and bridges, health clinics and more.
“Give the people peace and they will amaze you what they can do with their own resources,” Moyo said.
Colombia: Peace after conflict
A 2016 peace agreement between the government and a guerilla group in Colombia is slowly resolving more than 50 years of conflict that killed 600,000 and displaced nearly 1 of every 10 Colombians.
“Give the people peace and they will amaze you what they can do with their own resources.”
The House of Reconciliation and Peace Education in Medellín is assisting. Founded in 2017 by Emmaus Lutheran Church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Colombia, the organization teaches people in the Comuna 13 neighborhood to resolve conflicts peacefully. “Our vision is not only to preach the gospel but to live the gospel in our community,” said John Hernandez, pastor of Emmaus. “The gospel gives us a special language to talk not only about peace but also reconciliation.”
Last year, the house hosted a multi-session certificate program on peace and reconciliation for 25 students from the neighborhood, faith communities and other organizations. Students committed to replicate at least some of what they learned in their contexts.
In the house’s theater group, youth use performance to process experiences and heal from trauma. This year the group will perform an adaptation of the biblical story of the feeding of the 5,000 throughout the neighborhood and for the national church’s education gathering.
They hope to send a message “that we can abandon the presumption of scarcity and begin to trust in the abundance of resources around us,” Hernandez said.
S. Sudan: Seeing one another as human
When people fleeing regional violence in South Sudan arrive in the capital, Juba, they find themselves neighbors to people from the “other side” of the conflict between the Dinka and the Nuer ethnic groups. That’s why building peace and preventing conflict underpins every ministry of the Lutheran Center in Juba.
Opened in November 2017 through a partnership between the Evangelical Lutheran Church Africa Mission in South Sudan, the Episcopal Church of Sudan and South Sudan and the ELCA, the center offers worship, education, health care and healing for people of different ethnicities and religions.
“Juba is the only place in the country where everyone lives safely with diversity,” said Benyam Kassahun, ELCA program director for East and Southern Africa. Mawien Ariik, an ELCA missionary born in South Sudan, preaches to 1,200 or so worshipers from various ethnic backgrounds, many of whom live in a nearby U.N. refugee camp. Another ELCA missionary from South Sudan, Wal Reat, serves other refugee camps across South Sudan and its bordering countries.
During the week, the center gives teenagers a quiet space to do homework and gain computer skills. Forty-six women are learning to sew. Medical staff deliver babies, repair fistulas and treat maladies at the clinic.
Since it’s always possible disagreements within the government could spill over to the community, the church seeks to build hope for the future. “If there’s no hope, if people don’t see tomorrow as something positive, they go into fighting, pick up firearms or somebody can come and take them away and draft them to fight,” Kassahun said.
“One group, one tribe alone, cannot build the country. Unless Sudanese can look into each other’s eyes and see one another as human beings, the other person will be an enemy at all times.”
(Gifts to Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA helped fund the construction of the Lutheran Center in Juba, South Sudan. Learn more.)
Next: In September, in conjunction with the International Day of Peace on Sept. 21, Lutheran World Federation General Secretary Martin Junge in this series’ final entry will explore what it means for Lutherans to be committed to peace today.