Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A War and Peace Report from Africa

[This is a reflection on my experience in Africa that I will give at Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace on June 6. Your feedback would be much appreciated.]

When we think of Africa, we are apt to think of war and violence, and for good reason: during the past twenty or so years, the death toll on the African continent has been horrendous. Around 5 million people were killed in the Congo during its various civil wars since 1990. Two million were slaughtered in Sudan’s civil wars. Over 200,000 were killed in Liberia and another 200,000 in Sierra Leone. Over a million people have perished through genocide in Darfu, Rwanda, Burundi and elsewhere. Most of those murdered have been women and children, and countless women have been raped and worse, infected with HIV. Hundreds of thousands more have been tortured and mutilated. Countlesss millions have lost their homes, their spouses, and their children and are deeply traumatized. Because of war and violence, millions of Africans have become displaced persons, living in refugee camps. War is one of the major causes of homelessness and poverty in Africa, just as it is in the United States.

In addition to wars, thousands have been killed in mob violence or “lynchings.” This violence is the legacy of a colonial period in which millions of Africans were murdered, exploited, and enslaved by European powers. Africa is a deeply wounded continent in need of healing.1

What is not widely known about Africa are the inspiring stories of its peacemakers. Nine Africans have received the Nobel Peace Prize since 1960. The first was Albert Luthuli who was elected president of the African National Congress (ANC), which at the time was an umbrella organization that led opposition to the white minority government in South Africa. Luthuli was awarded the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize his role in the nonviolent struggle against aparteid. He was not only the first African, he was also the first person from outside Europe and the Americas to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Since then, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Kofi Anan, UN General Secretary; Nelson Mandela and Frederick de Kerk of South Africa (1993); Anwar Sadat (1993); Desmond Tutu (1984); Mohammed El Baradei (2005), the UN weapons inspector; and Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan founder of the Green Belt movement, and a fearless advocate for democracy and women’s rights. In 2011 the Nobel Prize Committee decided that the Nobel Peace Prize should be divided in three equal parts between three African women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karmanfor their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” The Committee noted: “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”

Today I want to lift up those brave women and men in Africa who are working for peace and justice, many of whom are unsung heroes.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the women of Liberia. I had never even heard their story until I saw the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” This powerful film, which was produced by Walt Disney’s grand daughter, dramatically depicts the amazing work that the women of Liberia did to overcome the brutal dictator Charles Taylor and the equally vicious warlords who opposed him. Using the power of prayer and nonviolence in creative ways, Christian and Muslim women united and not only helped oust these war-crazed men, they also helped reintegrate into society the young boys who had become child soldiers and committed atrocities at their behest. Liberia can now boast that its leader, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, is the first democratically elected woman president of an African country. And what a remarkable woman! Johnson is not only a Harvard-educated economist, she is also a United Methodist!

You've probably heard that the infamous Charles Taylor, the brutal dictator they ousted, was recently given a 50 year sentence by the International Court of Justice for his involvement in the Sierra Leone's blood diamond war. It's good news that the rule of law is prevailing over the rule of so-called Big Men.

When I went to Kenya for the World Conference of Friends last month, I had the opportunity to connect with heroes of peacemaking who have not received the acknowledgement they deserve. I should add that Kenya has the largest concentration of Quakers of any country in the world. There are over 140,000 Quakers in Kenya, far more than in all of North and South America combined!

When I was driven through Nairobi, I was shown some trees planted by Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan woman who won the Nobel Prize for her work as founder of the “Green Belt” movement. Although I didn’t meet her personally—she died of cancer a year ago —I felt her presence among the strong women leaders I met in Kenya, and in the beautiful trees I saw in Nairobi and elsewhere that testify to her work. I also read her memoir, aptly title “Unbowed,” and was deeply impressed by her keen intelligence and the courage she showed in the face of unbelievable odds. I'm sure she'd be pleased to learn that the new constitution of Kenya grants women more rights than ever before, including one third of the seats in the Parliament. This is cause for rejoicing! (See

I'd like to conclude this reflection by sharing briefly about what Quakers are doing in Kenya to promote peace. Prior to the World Conference of Friends I took part in a Quaker peace tour in Turbo, a city in western Kenya where a lot of violence took place after the election in 2007. There Kenyan Quakers have trained over 10,000 people in a program called “Alternatives to Violence.” This program teaches conflict resolution skills and has proven very effective when used in high schools and prisons here in the US. Kenyan Quakers are also teaching community organizing, transformative mediation, and trauma healing. Other Quakers are training to be observers during the upcoming election. During the previous election, Quakers were deeply involved in helping to calm things down after violence erupted. This time the Quakers are being proactive and hope to prevent violence before it gets out of hand. Let's pray these efforts are successful. (See

I met two Kenyan religious leaders, Pastor Wilson and Imam Issa, who are models of interfaith peacemaking. They live in Turbo, a city of 200,000 inhabitants, where there are only 400 Muslims. When the post-election violence broke out five years ago, Muslim homes and stores were burned, and the Muslim community had to take refuge in the local mosque and police station. Wilson, the pastor of the local Quaker church, reached out to Imam Issa and invited Muslims to take part in an Interfaith Peace Task Force. “The Quakers were the only Christians who welcomed us,” explained Imam Issa. He was so grateful he took nonviolence training and is now teaching it to his people. He hopes to reach out to Muslim youth are most prone to violence.

These are baby steps towards peace, but they can make a big difference over time. As Fatma Reda once observed, “Peace is achieved one person at a time, through a series of friendship.”

The work that is going on in Kenya and other parts of Africa to end the cycles of violence could have far-reaching consequences. My hope is that just as India became a model of nonviolent resistance in the 1930s and 1940s, Africa could become a model for nonviolent social change in the 21st century. The women of Libera and the Quakers of Kenya have shown us the way. Let's pray that the African peace movement grows, and let's do what we can to support it.

1 1983-2002: Sudanese civil war (2 million)
1988-2004: Somalia's civil war (550,000)
1989-: Liberian civil war (220,000)
1989-: Uganda vs Lord's Resistance Army (30,000)
1991-97: Congo's civil war (800,000)
1991-2000: Sierra Leone's civil war (200,000)
1993-97: Congo Brazzaville's civil war (100,000)
1993-2005: Burundi's civil war (200,000)
1994: Rwanda's civil war (900,000)
1998-: Congo/Zaire's war - Rwanda and Uganda vs Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia (3.8 million)
1998-2000: Ethiopia-Eritrea war (75,000)
2002-: Cote d'Ivoire's civil war (1,000)
2003-09: Sudan vs JEM/Darfur (300,000)
2004-: Sudan vs SPLM & Eritrea (?)
2004-: Yemen vs Shiite Muslims (?)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Celebrating my birthday and the first anniversary of my marriage proposal to Jill

How quickly the year has flown by since Jill and I first met, had our whirlwind courtship, and then were married and honeymooned in Hawaii! This past week I celebrated my 63rd birthday, which also happens to be the day I proposed to Jill a year ago. We celebrated by going to the herb garden of the Getty Villa in Malibu, where I made my proposal, and reenacting this magic moment. Then we drove off to Paradise Cove for a romantic walk (and dance) by the beach. God is good, life is beautiful, and I am grateful!

Jill and I have had an amazingly busy, challenging and fulfilling year, as we set up house together, learned how to be a couple, traveled to the east coast, Germany as well as to conferences, and finished up Jill’s revised version of her book, Making Housing Happen: Faith-Based Affordable Homes.

I've just returned from a three-week trip to Kenya, where I attended the World Conference of Friends, an event that brought together 850 Quakers from around the world. At this historic gathering, which takes place every 25 years, I shared my book Quakers and the Interfaith Movement and made many new Friends. It was my first trip to Africa and I loved it. (Jill visited Kenya in 1988).

 In a mini pre-conference stint to western Kenya I learned more about Quaker peace-making efforts. Quakers are training Kenyans in Alternatives to Violence (AVP), community organizing, trauma healing, and transformative mediation—skills that will help them to resolve their conflicts nonviolently. Quakers are also training to serve as monitors during the next Kenyan election, hoping that they can help reduce tension and violence. (1,200 Kenyans were killed during the past election, and over 200,000 displaced.) I was pleased to learn that after the last cycle of violence in Turbo, a city of 200,000 residents, the Quaker Church was the only Christian group to reach out in friendship to Muslim neighbors whose homes and businesses had been destroyed. As a result, leaders in this tiny, beleaguered Muslim community are enthusiastically taking training in nonviolence. (One of the Muslim leaders told us “for Muslims, Jesus is the most beloved prophet.”)

 After the conference, I went on a Quaker-sponsored safari to Lake Nakuru (home of the pink flamingoes) and then to Amboseli (on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro) where herds of elephants roam along with lions, giraffes, cheetahs, hippos, rhinos, impalas, baboons, etc. I visited a Maasai village, where I took part in a jumping contest (this white guy can't jump but I sure had fun trying), and then I stayed in the home of a Quaker family in Nairobi, where I felt as if I were part of the family. What a blessing it is to travel among Friends, sharing spiritual insights and witnessing to God’s grace and love!

 While I was away, Jill was busy going to conferences, continued recruiting churches to become host to homeless families for San Gabriel Valley Family Promise (, connecting with friends and giving workshops. The day after I left for Kenya, Jill drove to Sacramento for Housing CA, a statewide affordable housing convention. This was both inspiring and sobering, as she was able to connect with people across the state determined to find ways to house our most vulnerable citizens despite funding cuts at every level. San Gabriel Valley Family Promise opened its doors in November 2011 and to date has graduated three homeless families who are now employed and living in housing that they can afford (one family has seven kids!). The contagious love these families receive from congregations plays a significant part in their rapid reentry jobs and housing. Jill had a blast reconnecting with many old and new friends sharing with them about married life. Her new friend Martha and our neighbor Kathy had a never to-be-forgotten evening on the town.

Several months ago, Martha had been scoping out our neighborhood for a documentary she was making. When she saw Jill in the yard, she stopped to and shared how much she loved our “Faith Park”—a drinking fountain, park bench and hammock for those passing by. When she mentioned that she and her husband had recently purchased a home around the corner through Pasadena’s affordable home program, Jill informed her of book on faith based affordable housing. Martha stayed up all night reading it and has now become an advocate. She and her husband attended a workshop that Jill did while I was in Kenya for the La Paz Conference sponsored by local churches, Fuller and APU. Two minutes before the workshop was to begin, Jill realized she had left the PowerPoint presentation at home! Martha’s grabbed Jill and held her tight and prayed and God answered! Despite Jill’s blunder it went abundantly well. One gal from a ministry in Orange County shared how the workshop made the whole conference worth her effort to come and gave clarity in her next steps to help house the chronically homeless.

In the past month, we have had two fundraisers for Family Promise. Martha designed a fabulous Master’s Pageant reenactment of the Lord’s Supper and two weeks later we had “Empty Bowls,” where we made $12,000! We gathered up 480 designer bowls donated from some famous local potters. Local restaurants filled the bowls with donated soup. At our host church in Sierra Madre, we sold the filled bowls for $25 and broke bread and enjoyed live music. Jill’s churches disbanded service that day become servers. The money helps to support the full time social worker who helps our homeless families find jobs and housing.

In the past month, 18 churches in the city of Alhambra, which has been inhospitable to allow churches to host homeless families, have now collaborated to seek to move the city to embrace this urgent need.

In addition to our ministry, we’ve enjoyed spending time with friends and family. In April Jill went to visit her mom, who had a big art show at her home in Shell Beach. We are looking forward to visiting her on Mother’s Day. She is amazing mom as well as a delightful artist for whom I am deeply grateful.