May 2012


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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Twenty SOP Alumni Added to ICF Network

Bruce Van Voorhis

More than 14 weeks after it began on Feb. 1 the 2012 School of Peace (SOP) conducted by Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF) on the campus of Visthar in Bangalore, India, concluded on May 14. With 20 participants completing the program—the largest number since its inception in 2006—the number of SOP alumni in the ICF network has now expanded to 88 people from 16 countries.

The SOP participants and students from the Visthar Community
College (VCC) take part in an activity together to expand one’s
personal circle of friends.

The SOP participants this year were from four faith backgrounds—Buddhism, Christianity, indigenous spirituality and Islam—and 12 countries—Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, Canada, England, Papua in Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste, the United States and Vietnam. It is the first time that a participant from Timor-Leste has attended SOP as well as the first time that anyone from outside of the Asian region has taken part in SOP with two Native American women from Canada and the United States and a staff member of a local YMCA in England, who participated in the two-week SOP in July last year in Bangladesh, joining this year’s SOP in Bangalore.

As in past years, SOP was divided into three modules of approximately one month each, focusing this year on the self, the other and community; conflict and the violence of development; and, lastly, skills for transformation.

In the first module, an emphasis was placed on becoming aware of the multiple identities that each person has and the ways in which specific facets of each participant’s identity may create prejudices and biases against those with different identities, potentially leading to such forms of violence as labeling, discrimination and exploitation. The participants also reflected upon parts of their own identity, such as their faith, gender, ethnicity, political views, etc., that may lead others to discriminate against them or seek to exploit them. Through this reflective process, the participants came to understand how identity can be a source of conflict if it is not recognized and relationships are not transformed. Overall, the focus of the first module was on the transformation of oneself.

The second module, however, moved from this starting point of looking more deeply at oneself and one’s relationships with others and concentrated on the socio-economic, political and cultural forces shaping one’s local community, nation and today’s world. Particular attention was paid to the violence that can be engendered through the so-called development process and the contribution that the policies and prescriptions of such international economic institutions as the World Bank (WB), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organization (WTO) can make to the misery of people, their communities and their nation. Discussion was also directed at the issue of poverty and how different forms of violence that it produces creates hardships for people. It was noted moreover that poverty is not just an inadequate amount of money and material goods but is also a lack of options, free time to rest, etc., and in especially more economically affluent societies can include a shallow spiritual life. In short, the transformation of society was the thrust of this module of SOP.

The last module of the program was devoted to presenting a variety of skills that the participants can use for working toward transformation. Structural or social analysis was offered as a way to identify the root causes of conflict, violence and injustice in a particular context and to ascertain where transformation may be possible. Building relationships with a marginalized community and working with the members of it to create alternative structures that can result in more participation for them in the socio-economic and political decision-making process was put forward as one strategy for social change. In addition, the participants learned how to utilize different forms of art for education and advocacy.

A field visit to Hyderabad allowed the SOP participants to learn
about communal violence between the Hindu and Muslim
communities in the city and how an NGO in Hyderabad, the
Henry Martyn Institute (HMI), works to bring people from
both faith communities together to overcome their mistrust
and live more peacefully together.

Field visits were also a part of each module to bring the participants face to face with the realities of India’s marginalized communities and the country’s issues and provided an opportunity to relate the classroom discussions to the lives and experiences of people in India. During this year’s SOP, the participants visited Dalits, or Untouchables, in the state of Tami Nadu, tribal people in the state of Kerala and met groups responding to communal violence in Hyderabad and child labor and child marriages in Koppal District in the state of Karnataka.

Incorporated into the three modules were inputs from various resource people about faith and justpeace. Khamid Anick Khamim Tohari, a 2007 SOP alumni from Indonesia, gave an overview of Islam and the various complex currents of belief within his faith today while Sriprakash Mayasandra of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in India offered his views about Christianity regarding the message of the Bible toward conflict, violence and development. Two of the 2012 SOP participants—Erica Littlewolf, a Native American from the United States, and Mariam Leah Faith Sainnawp of the First Nations of Canada—shared with their SOP colleagues their indigenous spirituality and its connections between the Creator, people and the land.

As SOP approached its final days, the Festival of Justpeace, or Bhoomi Habba (Celebration of the Earth) as it was called this year, was held on May 5 to celebrate the struggle of people in India and around the world for their rights and dignity as human beings. The SOP participants contributed to this event by creating art installations, posters and other forms of art to depict the problems of their people and communities as well as by preparing food to share their culture. A variety of issues were conveyed by others through dolls, music, dance, street theater and films. Two representatives from the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) in Hanoi told about the effects of dioxin produced by Dow Chemical and other companies that were sprayed over their country as well as Cambodia and Laos by the U.S. military during the years of war with America and how the fourth generation of people are now suffering from the effects of this toxic chemical.

At the conclusion of SOP as they looked back at their experience in India, many of the SOP participants cited gaining a deeper understanding of reality through structural analysis and using art to creatively share the experiences and issues of people and of their communities as two of the highlights of the program. In their closing reflections, many of the participants remarked how they had gained confidence in themselves, how they had come to respect others with different identities, how they had learned from each other and, in general, how they appreciated 14 weeks to learn, experience, think and reflect.

Mohalidin Suga from the Philippines said that he is now “thinking globally and not just locally.”

“I can now attach issues in Asia to people here,” added Littlewolf. “My community of compassion has increased.”

“I came to India with my heart,” Littlewolf continues. “Structural analysis made my brain kick in. The knowledge would be worth nothing though without the relationships.”

When he arrived at SOP, Ny Pholley said he was full of questions: Who am I? What do I do and for what? As he leaves SOP, he said that what he has learned in India has helped him find what he should do for his community in Cambodia in order to prevent conflict before it happens, that he has gone from “small thinking to big thinking.”

Sainnawp said that her views of education have changed.

“I don’t think as highly about education as before,” she says. “It’s more important now to learn from other people and their wisdom.”

Rachel Dyne, a staff member of a local YMCA in England, concurs.

“I have learned more about the real world,” she notes, “than through all my academic education.”

As for Subarna Poli Drong from Bangladesh, she says that the program’s emphasis on transformation is important to her and her work.

“We cannot bring change alone,” she remarks. “If we want to bring change, we need to cooperate with each other.”

She also values what she learned about stereotypes, biases, labeling and prejudice.

“I know that I have stereotypes, biases, labeling and also prejudice in my mind,” she explains. “I can’t ignore this. It is interesting that behind these things we have some causes—maybe some fear, injustice experience and superior-minded attitude—but if I am aware about them and I know what are my stereotypes, what are my biases and what is my prejudice, then I can stop what I am doing, or I can do different things. But if I don’t know about myself, how can I change? This is a big question!”