This essay is part of the Vocation of Peacemaking series where we asked members and friends of BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz to write brief essays on their peacemaking work. The Vocation of Peacemaking stories come from students, activists, teachers, parents, pastors, lay people, and retirees who work for peace in their jobs, their communities, their families, their volunteer time, and their neighborhoods in a wide variety of ways. Each story is a wonderful reminder that there are as many ways to live a life of peace as there are people, and that we can act for peace in real and important ways wherever we find ourselves.
We will be publishing the stories one at a time over the next few weeks and then compiling them into an Issue Monograph. The monograph will be available as a free download from the BPFNA website. Volumes I and II are already available.
Keep checking the Vocation of Peacemaking webpage for more!
The lesson I learned was that it was easier to reconcile the non-Christian tribal chiefs in the jungles of Africa than those who call themselves Christian brothers and sisters in North America.
I compare my vocation as a peacemaker like the call of prophet Jeremiah (read 1: 4-10). I am honored and humbled by your invitation to share my journey of leadership in peacemaking in many stages of my life in many countries like Angola, Congo, India, Britain, Canada, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia and others. It seems that I have always been called upon to make peace everywhere I have lived. I didn’t go around looking for conflicts, but they found me and people felt eager to ask me for advice or a word of wisdom.
In my childhood I grew up in a Bakongo Tribe mega-Village. A mega-village of more than 1,000 people was required by the Portuguese colonial power to have designated local officials included including a village chief and a peace council made up of members from several clans. A chief or council member was to be a wise, honest, neutral, big hearted and godly man. Clan chiefs avoided bringing small conflicts to the village council in order to protect the reputation of their clan. In the same way mega-villages avoided calling the police in order to protect the reputation of their village. My grandpa was a trusted village chief who acted as a judge and mediated of conflicts among the people (youth, couples, clans etc). When a conflict was identified or a crime was committed in the village (there was no police system), the council dealt with the issue until an acceptable solution was found.
I left the village at the age of 13 to enter the British Baptist Boarding School, but all my childhood I observed the proceedings of this village court almost every week. During my boarding school years, my British teachers told me that I showed leadership. They presumed that it was the result of their program. But deep in my heart I believed that I learned those peacemaking qualities from my grandpa, the village chief. As a young teacher, I faced the challenges of mediating conflicts between students in the rural primary schools where I worked with a local school council composed of parents from different tribes. These older people admired my wisdom as I was only in my twenties, but I knew where my wisdom came from. Later I became an advocate for these parents when they faced injustices from the local administrator. We were able to approach these conflicts in a peaceful way.
While working as a refugee leader and a hospital chaplain and Assistant Coordinator in relief services for over 60,000 Angolan refugees, I acted as a mediator between the Congolese and the Angolans and between nurses and doctors. And above all I advocated for the voiceless 50% of Angolan refugee patients in that hospital. It was hard for me being part of the staff, but I felt that advocating for their respect and fair treatment in order to restore their dignity was my duty. When I became the General Secretary for the Angolan Christian Churches in exile, my peacemaking role took another level. We had seven different denominations among the refugees. To put them under one umbrella was not easy. Conflicts over food, money, and other commodities broke almost every week even among Christians. (I was like Moses with the Israelites in the desert).
My peacemaking ministry in Canada was first during the time I pastored two small Baptist congregations which didn’t get along for many years. I was able to mediate many times and finally persuaded them to work together which resulted in growth in numbers in both churches and also in unity, love, peace and harmony. After retirement I joined a church closer to my home, but when that congregation split in front of my eyes, I was involved in mediation again. The lesson I learned was that it was easier to reconcile the non-Christian tribal chiefs in the jungles of Africa than those who call themselves Christian brothers and sisters in North America. The reason was simple, both sides think they are right, perfect, more spiritual than others, and they have Bible verses to justify their unforgiving spirits.
The second component of my peacemaking in Canada was during my time as a prison chaplain. It didn’t take long to discover that there was hatred between inmates and guards and between black and white inmates and sometimes between guards of different schedules. I felt like I was back at the war front in Africa. But by God’s grace I was glad to hear inmates and guards say that my presence there brought peace. In matter of fact it was during that time I did a research on the subjects of conflict transformation which helped me to deal with internal prison conflicts. I spent a great deal of time to read several essays and books which helped my vision of peacemaking to extend beyond the prison walls to outside in the community and the world. Also it was in my chaplain’s office I drafted my first official peacemaking project, which I presented to both the Angolan government and the rebels in the middle of the war, the so called “National Fellowship for the Reconciliation of Angola.” It took me ten years of waiting before the Lord opened the door for me to return to my homeland and put into practice what I wrote in that document.
However, since God writes straight in crooked lines, during that waiting period I was appointed by the Canadian Baptist Ministries to work as a missionary in the East Congo. As a result many lessons I prepared for Angola were first used in the Congo, Rwanda and Kenya. This was followed by ministry in the refugee camps in Goma after the genocide in Rwanda. The success of this peacemaking ministry was due to our planning and God’s guidance as follows: First we trained the pastors we found in the camps who knew the language and the culture of their people. Then we trained the refugee leaders themselves. Due to the work of informers, the news of our ministry of peace and reconciliation reached inside Rwanda. So we were invited to enter that country even when the borders were officially closed. Peacemaking in the camps included starting training centers for youth. Boys were trained in carpentry and Girls in tailoring and crocheting. Products were sold to NGOs, and the money was used to build chapels and organize schools.
On my first retirement, I was appointed Peace and Reconciliation Consultant by Canadian Baptist Ministries. In this capacity I was able to visit the 40,000 Angolan refugees in camps in Zambia. We trained their leaders on Peace-building and Conflict Management. With the protection of the Canadian Government and the support of Canadian Baptists, I went to South Africa to meet a Burundian chief rebel, and I succeeded at convincing him to return to the UN-sponsored peace talks. The result was the end of the Burundi civil war and the successful integration of the rebels into the Government.
My first association with the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America was at PEACE CAMP 2002 held at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada. I was invited by the local committee to lead a Workshop on “Two Methods of Peace-building and Reconciliation” (African approach- Case of Bakongo Tribes of Angola compared with Christian approach of Forgiveness and Reconciliation). I enjoyed the experience of worship, prayers and the fellowship with so many peace loving brothers and sisters from all over North America. I also became a member of the BPFNA that year.
After the 27 years, the civil war in Angola has ended. I became again very active in this ministry. I returned to Zambia to train and prepare the refugees emotionally and spiritually as they planned to return to their homeland after 25 years in exile. I was inside Angola three years later to meet them at the welcoming centers. Then I made repeated visits to Angola preparing the people on the government side to learn how to welcome them back. In order to accomplish those tasks I had undertaken 10 peace missions into Angola, working with the local churches and NGOs in their civic education program and training peace promoters. In these undertakings I worked at a national and trans-denominational level, contributing to the national reconstruction of my country of birth. Here in Canada I still respond to invitations to lead workshops on conflict transformation and peacemaking.
During my second retirement, I was invited to join the Board of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (now BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz), where I served with joy for three years. I was unable to continue due to the poor health of my wife, as I became the only caregiver for her. I count it as a privilege to have served on that board with so many peace lovers and in prayers we are still serving together in many ways in the ministry of peace rooted in justice.
My vocation as a peacemaker has been the core of my life. I have served in many countries over many decades, and still I feel that the wisdom that has guided me is rooted in the lessons I learned watching my grandpa guide our village in Angola.
Joao Samuel Matwawana is a former member of the BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz board of directors. More (but not all!) of his extensive peacemaking biography is contained in the essay above. If you want to learn more, he is the subject of the biographical book “Wars are Never Enough” written by his long time friend Dr. John Keith, PHD, and available from Ridge Books, 2005.