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Conflict Transformation Training in Liberia


September 16, 2011 | bpfna

created September 16, 2011
updated September 26, 2011

BPFNA Operations Coordinator Evelyn Hanneman and members Lynn and Virgil Nelson are in Liberia to facilitate two weeks of Conflict Transformation trainings ahead of the October national elections there. What follows are Evelyn's observations and reflections, updated as she has opportunity during the trip.

15 Sep 2011 | Atlanta, Georgia USA

I write this from the Atlanta airport, waiting for a flight to Monrovia, Liberia. There, I will be leading conflict transformation trainings, meeting with the media, preaching in local churches, and, perhaps, meeting Liberia’s Vice President, who happens to be a Baptist deacon.

During a BPFNA-Friendship Tour to Liberia in 1996, the participants met Rev. Jimmy Diggs, the Baptist pastor of a church near Monrovia. Through this connection, the BPFNA has continued a relationship with Baptists in Liberia. This included leading conflict transformation training workshops for over 125 participants, facilitating the founding of the Liberian Baptist Peace Fellowship and the re-organization of Christians United for Peace, and funding their follow-up projects in grassroots conciliation and nonviolence training over the years. We provided funds for Jimmy to attend the peace talks where he was among the religious leaders who kept the leaders of the various factions at the table to do the hard work of “waging peace.”

My colleague, LeDayne Polaski, and I met Jimmy when he attended the 2009 Global Baptist Peace Fellowship in Rome. Earlier this year, Jimmy contacted us to see if we would do conflict transformation trainings in Liberia prior to their elections in October. These will be the second national elections since the end of their 14-year civil war that left approximately 250,000 people dead and devastated the country's economy. A 2003 peace accord led to the democratic elections in 2005. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president. She is a Harvard-trained economist in a country that has few means of raising funds because of an unemployment rate of 85%.

I am traveling with Virgil and Lynn Nelson, BPFNA members and former American Baptist missionaries to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Virgil and I attended a two-week training in conflict transformation held by Dan Buttry in 2010. We look forward to using these skills in this new setting.

Since many of the Baptist pastors in Liberia are not seminary trained and have little access to religious resources, we are bringing books on conflict transformation and non-violence as well as Bibles.

We’ll be sending reports throughout our trip when we have internet connections.

19 Sep 2011 | Careysburg, Liberia

We arrived in Liberia Friday afternoon, landing two hours late due to engine problems before leaving Atlanta. Our host, Jimmy Diggs, pastor of Mt. Galilee Baptist Church in Careysburg, sent his son to pick us up since he was doing a funeral for a 19-year-old boy from his church who had died in a car accident. The drive from Monrovia to Careysburg took over an hour, much of it over roads with major potholes, and lots of cars, motorcycles and pedestrians.

After meeting with the grieving family, many of who had come from the U.S., we headed over to the guesthouse where we spent the evening. Since it was located on a large farm, we had a wonderful walk up the hill past the catfish pond, the hen house, brooding house, duck pond, school, and donkeys, to the restaurant next to the swimming pool for breakfast the next morning.

We learned that a number of families own farms that supply the needs of their guesthouse, conference center and restaurant.  We moved into a second such facility Saturday afternoon.

A trip into Monrovia brought us into the last vestiges of the gathering to support the kick-off of the election campaign for the current president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. There are 29 people running for president in the October 11 elections and each will be holding such a demonstration. Jimmy pointed out to us that many of the same people will be back in different t-shirts to “support” the other candidates. Buying a crowd is common here in Liberia, as it is in other places around the world.

What was to be a quick trip back to Careysburg ended up taking over 4 hours, with three of them being stuck in traffic. We put the time to good use and wrote our sermon for the morning. Virgil and I preached on Sunday at Mt. Galilee Baptist Church, using as our text the verses from Psalm 85, “Truth and Mercy and Justice and Peace will kiss.”  The local radio station, owned by the mayor, sent two reporters to tape the service and interview us, which was played on the air later that day.

Monday was the first of our three two-day workshops on conflict transformation, this one held in Careysburg. Torrential rains led to a slow start but eventually over a dozen people gathered to participate in exercises and discussions about Conflict as Holy Ground, Mainstream and Margins, how people react to trauma with different reactions, the movement from victim to survivor to thriver, and how to break the cycle of violence. Two soldiers from the nearby military based attended including the chaplain, along with area pastors and lay leaders.

Gathering into a semi-circle in the front of the sanctuary in this 155-year-old building, we were reminded that violence has a long history in Liberia by the missing panes of stained glass from the two large windows in the front. Part of the Bible verse as well as some of the main characters have been replaced with clear glass in the “Baptism of Jesus” window.

We also saw hope for the future as little children gathered for their first day at the school Mt. Galilee Baptist Church is starting under the outdoor pavilion next to the sanctuary. With much of the infrastructure of the country destroyed, many children do not attend school and have little hope for a future with a job in a country with 85% unemployment. Each year, another class will be added to the school.

Tuesday we will complete the workshop with a look at conflict styles and ways of understanding power and affecting change in a country ripe for renewed violence as the elections approach.

Wednesday we will be back in Monrovia to meet with political and religious leaders, another radio interview, possible speaking at the seminary, and getting ready for the next workshop at Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia on Thursday and Friday.

24 Sep 2011 | Monrovia, Liberia

It is the sounds.

The crowing of the rooster at dawn, the clucking of the hen and the peeps of her chicks as they wander through the kitchen pecking at the floor, the sizzling of the oil over the charcoal fire as the plantain are added to the pan for breakfast, the ceaseless growl of the generator giving us light and BBC news on the big screen TV, the chatter of the toddlers and cry of the baby.

On the road – the thud of the tires through the mud, the screech of the undercarriage of the car as it hits the bottom of the deep pothole, the constant beeping of the horns demanding the right of way or warning those unseen around the corner of the dirt road of your approach, the roar of the engines of many cars, motorcycles and trucks in disrepair, straining to pull out of the mud, the hole, the rut. And the silence – of the cars and trucks broken down, waiting for someone to stop and help fix the problem – a wait of hours, days, weeks.

In the city – the thuds, screeches, beeping, and roars are intensified as far too many vehicles make their way across the narrow bridge and into the narrow streets of Monrovia where they are added to the radios and the babble of accented English spoken much too fast for my ear to catch

At our workshop – the accented English turns into words, heard over the roar of the traffic and radio, me leaning in to the speaker to hear the words and translate the accents. Others join in to help with the “translation” and a wonderful point is made by a Liberian pastor seeking to learn the language of conflict transformation and nonviolence.  Our second two-day workshop is held at Providence Baptist Church on Broad Street, the first church in the city, founded in 1822. We are in the old sanctuary, a space that allows for the pews to be moved back, chairs moved in to allow us to arrange and rearrange as we move through the day. The windows open, letting in the city sounds, an occasional breeze, and the sun as it moves from one side to the other.

Our actions tell a lot during “Big Wind Blows” as we rush to find new seats in the circle when Virgil calls out, “The Big Wind Blows for all those who spent part of the war in a refugee camp.” In the country, we three from the US were the only ones who didn’t move; in the city only 5 sought a new seat. “The Big Wind Blows for all those who lost family members during the wars.” Again, the country folk had suffered more loss than those in the city.

And then one woman from the country, in a safe group of three, recounts her tale of escaping the army by fleeing into the forest with her family – and another 10,000 people. Starving, her husband calls the people together to leave the forest in search of food. Everyone is afraid of the army outside the forest. He finally leads the way with his family and a white shirt raised, asking for safety. No shots are fired, but little food is found as the army has looted the area. Starvation, violation and fear is her story of the war.

Mainstream and Margin leads to the realization that they are not always on the margins, but are part of the mainstream at various times. Inviting them to express their feelings for those in the mainstream when they are on the margin, one pastor tells me: “In the US, a 3-year-old can tell her parents that she won’t eat dinner; in Liberia, adults don’t speak up for themselves.”

When we turn to Matthew 5:39-41, they learn that Jesus calls us to find the Third Way to address injustices, encouraging them to claim their dignity as children of God.

The Victim and Aggressor Cycles make clear that acts of aggression traumatize people, making them victims who dehumanize the aggressor, develop a narrative of Good versus Evil, and turn into aggressors, causing more trauma. Breaking free from this cycle requires acknowledging the pain, mourning the loss and taking the risk to see the “other” as people with pain and trauma as well.

Difficult ideas in a country where most everyone has experienced trauma from the years of civil war, but those in the workshop are eager to break the cycle of violence in their nation and to take the risk for peace.

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