logo

Repairing the Torn Places:

Conflict Transformation training in Liberia

Print

July 28, 2012 | Evelyn Hanneman

Repairing the Torn Places:

This is the group that “graduated” from the two day training at Mt. Galilee Baptist Church in Careysburg, facilitated in part by Virgil Nelson (back left) and Evelyn Hanneman (back on the right). Two members of the Liberian National Army from a nearby base, one of them the chaplain, were present for the training.

After 14-hours on the plane, I landed in Liberia. Along with my co-facilitator Virgil Nelson and his wife, Lynn, I was prepared to lead several 2-day Conflict Transformation (CT) trainings with Baptist pastors and lay leaders. I was not prepared for the heat and the noise that greeted us as we walked out of the airport in Monrovia. Or for the traffic that roared and beeped around us as we made our way to Careysburg, a town north of Monrovia, capital of Liberia.

There we caught up with Rev. Jimmy Diggs, our host for the two weeks. Jimmy has been the BPFNA contact in Liberia since Dan Buttry met him in 1997 during the first BPFNA trip to that nation. With a full-time job as director of the Humanitarian Values section of the Liberian Red Cross, Jimmy also pastors Mt. Galilee Baptist Church in Careysburg and is head of the Liberian Baptist Peace Fellowship he founded.

Concerned about the potential for violence during the upcoming October 11th national elections, Jimmy wanted more Liberians trained in CT and nonviolence skills to help keep things peaceful during this emotional time. Sixteen candidates were in the race for the presidency. One of them, a former rebel army leader, was threatening violence if he didn’t win, having lost the previous election in 2005. Political parties were hiring young people to don their t-shirts and march in their demonstrations.

Pastors in Liberia frequently do not receive regular pay, and the amount might be less than $100US a month. Because of high inflation, one US dollar equals $72 Liberian dollars. Knowing that many pastors hold a second job, we were pleased at the number who attended the trainings. Over 140 clergy and lay leaders from nearly 30 churches participated in one of the four trainings offered during our 2-week stay.

Conflict Transformation training helps people look at conflict as an opportunity for growth and change – the Holy Ground around the burning bush. Just as Moses fled conflict in Egypt to hide out tending sheep, so we often flee from conflict rather than look for the Holy Ground and the tasks of healing we are called to as peacemakers.

In each of the four trainings, the list under “Conflict” grew long as words such as fear, danger, and avoid were added. Following the Bible study on Moses and the burning bush, where conflict is recognized as an opportunity for God to do something good, the words “Holy Ground” are written over “Conflict” and all the negatives are seen in a new light.

The game Big Wind Blows revealed that people living in rural areas experienced greater loss than those in the city during the 14-year civil war. Rushing across the circle to find a new chair when a statement was true for them, participants in the Careysburg and Bomi County trainings revealed that many had spent time in refugee camps in neighboring countries, lost family members, and had property destroyed.

One woman revealed in a small group that her family did not have the funds to go to a refugee camp when the rebel army invaded their area. She fled into the forest with her husband, children and many of their neighbors. Unable to find food, her husband decided that they needed to risk leaving the forest, and led the group out under a white flag. No shots were fired, but little food was found since the rebel army had ransacked their homes and fields. During the fighting, her home was destroyed, family members were killed, and she lost an unborn baby. Now a teacher, she is pleased that her three children are doing well in school.

In unpacking the dynamics of conflict, we focused on mainstream and margins: those in the mainstream have the power to control while those on the margins seldom have a voice. Quiet reflection brought to the surface the feelings of being marginalized: powerless, useless, without rights, frustrated, angry, betrayed, humiliated, rejected, defeated, dissatisfied, over looked, demonized, rejected, deceived. Further reflection brought up feelings toward those in the mainstream: clueless, dangerous, thoughtless, wicked, powerful, arrogant, undemocratic, nasty, dictators, cannibals, unfeeling, selfish, greedy, abusive. With a bit of urging, they expressed what they wanted to say to those in the mainstream: Listen to me, you are abusing power, you are wicked, you lack human feelings, you need to understand, you have taken my rights, I’m a human being!

The bad news of this exercise is that we all are part of the mainstream at some point, and those in the margins are looking at us and thinking those negative things on the list. The good news is that the growing edges are found on the margins and we can use our new awareness to learn from those there.

The three-person “sculpture” helps participants understand power dynamics. Virgil Nelson “interviews” those in the various positions to see how they feel and what they would like to do to make changes.

The Power Structure brought this lesson home as a group of three people enacted the power game. One person on the floor, the second with his/her foot on their back, the third on a chair having the second in a strangle hold. The questions fly: How are you feeling (“not good” comes from the bottom; “fine” from the top). Is there anything you would like to change (“remove the strangling arm” comes from the middle; “remove the foot” comes from the bottom; “I’m fine” comes from the top). Who is the mainstream? Who is the margin? Who has the ability to take action?

Sophie, in the middle (both mainstream and margin), decides to take the risk and removes her foot, feeling good about helping the person on the floor even though the strangle hold continues. Another group is unable to move: “You told me to strangle him/put my foot there so I have to do it.” Cheers for taking initiative; concern for those who are unable to do so.

The story of Rizpah (II Samuel 21) tells how those on the margin can address the mainstream, even without having any direct connection. We discover that not many know how this was played out in Liberia when women sat in the fish market dressed in white with signs calling for peace as then-President Charles Taylor drove by every day. Their persistence brought the rebels and the government to the peace table – and kept them there until a peace treaty was signed. (See the movie Pray the Devil Back to Hell to learn about this nonviolent action.)

Looking at Matthew 5:39-41 through the lens of understanding the injustices facing the margins during Jesus’ time, gives new meaning to “turn the other cheek” and “go the second mile.” Eyes light up and laughter fills the room as Virgil takes off his “cloak” as I “sue him in court” – and then continues undressing to give me his “coat as well.” Injustices abound in Liberia; the lessons of Jesus’ Third Way are not lost on those on these margins. (See Jesus and Nonviolence: The Third Way by Walter Wink for more on these verses.)

An awareness of the importance of helping victims of traumatizing events move to being survivors and then thrivers, learned from Rob Voyle at Peace Camp this summer, brought new meaning to the “Victim” and “Aggressor” Cycles. Victims who remain feeling like victims are more likely to commit acts of aggression in retaliation for the harm done to them. And aggressors start off feeling victimized by something in their lives. The “Breaking Free” possibility comes only when victims are able to acknowledge and mourn their losses. The goal is to be able to look back on the traumatizing event without feeling the emotions, but with an awareness of lessons learned about one’s strength and ability to survive.

The visualization of where one’s past, present and future are located spatially around you, left Virgil and myself with concern for a peaceful future for Liberians. Many in our workshops indicated that their past is behind them, largely inaccessible. Quick forgiveness was evident throughout various activities, not allowing time to process feelings and work through emotions. We urged the church leaders present to find ways for their people to share, in safe settings, their stories of harm done during the war so the emotions might surface, and tears bring healing and wholeness.

Liberia's History

Located along the coast in West Africa, Liberia, "land of the free," was founded by free African-Americans and freed slaves from the United States in 1820. An initial group of 86 immigrants, who came to be called Americo-Liberians, established a settlement in Christopolis (now Monrovia, named after U.S. President James Monroe) on February 6, 1820.

Thousands of freed American slaves and free African-Americans arrived during the following years, leading to the formation of more settlements and culminating in a declaration of independence of the Republic of Liberia on July 26, 1847. The drive to resettle freed slaves in Africa was promoted by the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization of white clergymen, abolitionists, and slave owners founded in 1816 by Robert Finley, a Presbyterian minister. Between 1821 and 1867 the ACS resettled some 10,000 African-Americans and several thousand Africans from interdicted slave ships; it governed the Commonwealth of Liberia until independence in 1847.

In Liberia's early years, the Americo-Liberian settlers periodically encountered stiff and sometimes violent opposition from indigenous Africans (the 16 tribes who were living in the land), who were excluded from citizenship in the new Republic until 1904. There is still a division with Liberian society between those who are descendants of the freed slaves and the indigenous people. Liberian president, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, has had to make it clear that, even though her skin is light, it is because her father was white and not because she is related to the Americo-Liberian settlers.

With an area slightly larger than Ohio, the population is about 4 million, English is the official language, 58% are Christians and 12% Muslim, 58% are literate, and life expectancy is 58 years.

A 14-year civil war devastated the economy and infrastructure of Liberia. Most of the country still does not have running water or electricity, eight years after the end of the war.

It is Jimmy’s hope that a plan for focusing on nonviolence during the elections will come out of these trainings. With our encouragement, those attending the first training in Careysburg developed a Campaign for Nonviolence, with a pledge: “I will not commit violence before, during or after the elections” and a symbol, something white worn around the wrist or pinned to clothing.

When Virgil, Lynn and I met with the general secretary of the Liberian Council of Churches, we are pleased to learn that the LCC already has a plan of Prayers and Fasting for Peace, developed with the Muslim community. The Muslims will pray and fast for peace the Wednesday through Friday before the Tuesday elections and the Christians will pray and fast Saturday through Monday. We present the Campaign for Nonviolence, and he promises to take it to his board the next day where it was voted an official LCC project.

Two workshops were held at Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia. Founded in 1822, Providence’s first pastor was Lott Carey, a name we were familiar with from Sunday School lessons. Meeting in the old sanctuary with the windows and doors open to catch the occasional breeze, I felt surrounded by centuries of Baptists who worked for better lives for the people of God in that place. The pastors and lay leaders meet for two days and the youth leaders come on Saturday. All are eager to learn new ways to unpack conflict and use the opportunities it offers for a peaceful existence for Liberians. Wounded by war, they join their forbearers in seeking peace.

St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Bomi County lacks both generator and bathroom. But the room is full, with some people walking up to four hours to get to the training and women bringing their remarkably well-behaved babies and toddlers. In a majority Muslim county, pastors spoke of their inability to be heard from the margins, to contact their representative, a Muslim woman. Learning that they had good relationships with the local imams, Virgil helps them develop a plan to use those contacts to facilitate a meeting so that their concerns could be heard and raised in the Liberian legislature.

Rev. Richard Johnson, the Baptist Convention’s “area minister” for Bomi County, which has a high illiteracy rate and few seminary-trained pastors, is working with the Liberian Baptist Seminary to develop a mobile seminary for the area, which is split in two by a river. Despite little income from pastoring a small church in Brewerville or his area minister work, Pastor Johnson’s dedication to and concern for his people was inspiring, and his quick grasp of the tenets of Conflict Transformation bodes well for the future of CT work in this poor, rural area – and throughout Liberia.

This trip was funded through the Gavel Memorial World Peace Fund. Evelyn Hanneman is Operations Coordinator for the BPFNA.



Peacemaker Fair Trade Project Meet Our Members Donate to BPFNA Buy Resources