In my last post, I wrote about my challenges as an American at an international peace conference. My American identity labors in the pursuit of peace, negotiating the illnesses of my country with my drive to live out of its history.
But I wasn’t the only one challenged by this conference. Most of the young adults I befriended had their own trials and tribulations to work through. In this space, I offer up three stories and my own reflection as witness.
One of the stewards was a young Orthodox woman from Damascus, Syria. Mary was one of the first stewards I met upon arrival in Jamaica. Since I recently returned from the Middle East and had been following the news of the region closely, I had all sorts of questions for her. “What are your views on the violence in your country? How is the violence impacting you? What is really going on?”
Mary is anything but shy and my questions opened up a flood gate of opinion. “First,” she said (not in exact words, but from my memory), “Your media is lying. The rebels are actually Islamic extremists who if they get their way will cleanse my country of Christians and enforce strict social codes on all of us, especially women.”
“But we hear something very different from sources we consider reliable.” I challenged. “Even Al-Jazeera and the BBC are reporting that student rebels are trying to bring about an Arab Spring like what happened in Egypt.”
“No.” Mary responded. “The rebels are Islamic extremists who threaten the secular nature of my government. The Christians are in danger if these people win. We were here first, before the Muslims. We Christians have a right to this land. We have a right to live peacefully in our country; peacefully with our Muslim neighbors. Syria has protected our rights so far. My government is a good one. The rebels are wrong.”
Throughout the IEPC, Mary raised her voice to challenge the media influenced information that all of us consumed about her country. She urged us not to forget what was happening to Christians in the Middle East, whether in Syria, Egypt or Palestine. Her story, and even consequently her difficulty returning home after the IEPC made me ask questions of truth, of media, and of narrative. While the events of the last week have made me even more confused about what is happening in Syria I can say “Stay safe my dear friend, we are all praying for you and your country.”
My friend Miriam is a beautiful, compassionate Canadian with whom I processed many moments of frustration and confusion. She came in late to the steward’s program so many of us did not get to know her very well till the conference was underway. The time I got to spend with Miriam was priceless and I can’t wait to visit her in Toronto and work with her on ecumenical projects in the future.
Unfortunately many people at the IEPC did not get to know Miriam as I did. Confined most of the time to her wheel chair, Miriam has Cerebral Palsy (CP), a condition that impedes her speech and limits her movement. Several powerful people in my life also have CP and I feel incredibly blessed to have grown up with a least a minimal awareness of disability and accessibility challenges. I feel sorry for those at the conference too embarrassed or too afraid to approach Miriam for they missed an opportunity for deep friendship with my dear friend.
Miriam taught me several important lessons throughout the gathering, the least of which was that my awareness of accessibility challenges needed to be raised quite a bit. One night, when the IEPC gathered in downtown Kingston for an open-air concert, the stewards who were off duty decided to walk across the street for ice-cream. This was the first time I had gotten the chance to spend significant time with Miriam and when the others stepped off the curb, I stayed back to continue our conversation. Our friends would get us ice-cream and return shortly.
While we were waiting, a well meaning IEPC volunteer approached us and without acknowledging Miriam asked me if I, or whoever was monitoring her (motioning to Miriam) had arranged departure transportation for the conclusion of the IEPC—which was several days off. Shocked that someone could use such language as “monitoring” and disregard the humanity of my dear friend, I closed my eyes, breathed and tried to get a grip on what was happening. Miriam and I deflected the question replying that we would take care of it later and the women left.
“Does that happen to you often?” I asked Miriam. “How do you feel when people do that!?” Miriam replied compassionately “I’d get angry if someone did that to me at home, but here, it’s too difficult to challenge every person that behaves that way. I just feel sorry for them but I have to let it go and try to not let it bother me.” “You’re a better person than me.” I replied to Miriam with a coy smile, because I was the one trying not to let anger get the best of me.
Two hours were carved out of the schedule, between steward meetings, meals, and job assignments, to foster a space where youth could discuss the Ecumenical Call to Just Peace (ECJP). The ECJP was the central document of the IEPC and the plenary and workshop sessions were geared to its discussion and the development of response.
The youth discussion was a disappointing session, not because the facilitators didn’t try incredibly hard, but because of a series of factors slowly contributed to its downfall.
First, a large portion of the time was eaten up by presentations by older participants. One German man lectured on Germany’s response and distributed such response in a full-color multi-page document which was translated in German and English. A man from Colombia slept through the meeting until it was his turn to deliver a three sentence call for our youth input and then left before we could give it to him. And towards the end, in the midst of other confusion, an older American woman stole an opportunity to elaborate extensively on her international organization. Was this a youth discussion?
Then, there was the fact that few of the youth/young-adult delegates and stewards had actually read the ECJP. The cultural differences regarding oral and written traditions was clearly apparent as most of the Westerners had studied both the ECJP and its study document, while the participants from the Global South had not even heard about the document prior to the IEPC.
And lastly, ignorance of the WCC youth networks, ignorance of availability of resources in particular regions, and ignorance of the work of other youth in the room bred an environment of perceived injustice. Some regions felt cheated, felt unprepared, felt silenced because they had not had the access or the ability to respond to the documents in the ways that had been presented to us. Our ignorance clearly contributed to confusion and anger. We weren’t part of the Decade to Overcome Violence but we were its future. What responsibility did the WCC, the IEPC, and our individual faith communities have in educating, supporting, and empowering us to move the decade further?