PEACE in Action

Small Callings: My Journey Back to Peacemaking

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Building a Culture of Peace
Small Callings
My Journey Back to Peacemaking

Peace work is the most practical of pursuits. It is not naïve to think we can change the world. The problem with that phrase is that we define our terms loosely: change is not synonymous with fix. If we think we can fix the world, we are indeed foolish, but it is not naïve to think we can change the world. On the contrary, it is naïve to think we could possibly be in the world and not change it. Everything we do changes the world a little bit, and the small changes matter. The real question, then, is `which changes will we make?'

I went to high school in the 1980's when Mutually Assured Destruction was taken by many to be sane and practical foreign policy. From the perspective of a teenager, it didn't look that way at all. I was pretty confident that my life would end in a mushroom cloud, and that it would happen long before now. Happily, I was wrong, though history shows that I came extremely close to being right, and the current debate about the New START treaty shows the lingering influence of Cold War politics.

Thankfully, as I was growing up, grim commentaries on the evening news were not the only voices I heard. My mother and her friends were involved in women's rights and peace issues, and my father, a Presbyterian pastor, spoke out against US intervention in Central America, a move that was not popular with many of his parishioners. These issues concerned me deeply, too, which made me a little odd in my suburban high school in southwest Virginia, where most students were more concerned about generating enthusiasm for our team at football games.

At college it was easier to find friends to talk with about such things. In 1986 I entered James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Though JMU was hardly a hotbed of political consciousness, I did find some kindred spirits there. I majored in Psychology, but I developed a keen interest in mediation and alternative conflict resolution. I volunteered at the Community Mediation Center as an intern in order to learn more, and I took the few conflict resolution classes that were available on campus.

Mediation was a burgeoning field at that time, and I became passionate about promoting and practicing it. It was tremendously empowering to find that there were effective tools and well-developed methods that could enable people to work through conflict in ways that were much less destructive than litigation and violence, our two most popular choices. And these methods were teachable! How different would the world be if they were broadly disseminated? The idea of working to promote mediation had the smell of a calling to me.

In those same years, though, another world was also opening up to me. I had been playing guitar— primarily in my bedroom with the door closed— since I was about 15. In college, some friends encouraged me to share a few songs at an open mike in town, and I was thrilled to find that people did not rise up en masse and leave the room as I had feared. The open mike nights led to real gigs, and by the time I graduated, I was doing enough performance that I could imagine doing it for a living.

I loved music for many of the same reasons that I loved mediation. They both have the potential to remind us of our connectedness and common humanity. They can speak to our better natures and call us to our higher selves. And they both seemed to welcome me and my gifts to their service.

The summer after I graduated in 1990, I took a summer job in the mountains of western North Carolina and spent those few months trying to discern which of these two paths was right for me. I applied for one job in the field of alternative conflict resolution. There was a new mediation center opening in Roanoke, and they were looking for a director. As a recent graduate in his early twenties I was grossly under-qualified, and only a miracle would have led to my hiring. As it turned out, though, the deal was sealed by the flat tire I had on the way to the interview and the fact that I had left my dress shoes at my sister's house. I showed up to the interview 45 minutes late, wearing a suit and old tennis shoes. Enough said!

That seemed like enough of a sign to me, so I threw myself into music professionally, though I knew the odds were against me. I gave myself two years to try to make it work. Eighteen years later, it had worked remarkably well. I was a veteran of 2,000 shows on 4 continents and 10 CDs of primarily original music.

The pull toward peace work never left me, though, and I took any opportunity to step toward conflict zones and learn from people who are on the front lines there. On various European concert tours I would play a string of concerts in countries like Germany to make a bit of money, then visit Belfast or Sarajevo and play for free to hear the stories of people who were working on improving the deeply difficult situations in those places. More recently, I went to Israel and Palestine and met with people on various sides of the many issues there.

I also spent time in downtown Atlanta at the Open Door Community where I learned from bold activists and peacemakers who were working on social justice issues that have an impact on Atlanta's massive homeless population. I also connected with countless activists who were working on local issues in the various towns that I visited on tour. These are the people that almost never make the news but are slogging it out day by day to change the world, and they are doing it.

One of the biggest corners on the trajectory of my own peace work came, surprisingly, on my honeymoon. Deanna and I were married in 2004, and we chose to go to Guatemala for about 18 days to celebrate. Being admittedly nerdy, the thing that most appealed to us to do there was to go to a language immersion school. We spent four or five hours each day studying Spanish, lived with a family, and explored Guatemalan life and culture. It was a wonderful time; we learned more Spanish than we had expected, and we made some deep and enduring friendships.

I have generally not been too interested in `the sites' when traveling internationally. If there is any way to figure out how to do so, I much prefer to talk in people's living rooms than see the wonders. I am much more fascinated by the variations on what people consider `normal' than I am by the unusual. So when I had the opportunity to visit a Guatemalan elementary school, I took it.

The school I went to visit is in Santa Lucia Milpas Altas, in the mountains outside of Antigua. It had 218 students at that time, five or six classrooms, a tiny and simple office for the principal, a small kitchen space in a hallway, and boys' and girls' bathrooms. The bathrooms were in a North American style, but most of the sinks and toilets were off the walls, and there was no running water. They simply hauled buckets up from the well to clean them at the end of the day.

After the principal of the school showed me around, he mentioned that he had a dream to run water from the well to the bathrooms. I asked what was keeping him from doing that. He said they simply didn't have the budget—that the necessary plumbing would cost 1000 quetzales. I did the math in my head, and thought I must be wrong: 1000 quetzales was about $125

That was the day that I began to learn about public schools in Guatemala. Poverty and corruption were both endemic to Guatemala. It is generally considered the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, after Haiti. It was not surprising, then, that education was underfunded. The reality of the numbers, though, is striking: The government only paid, if anything, the salaries of an inadequate number of teachers and nothing else — . not the cost of constructing a building, nor the power bill, nor the cost of textbooks, which is why there were no textbooks in many (perhaps most) Guatemalan schools.

This meant that the communities had to pitch in to pay for those things if they wanted their children to have an education. Many Guatemalans were living on less than two dollars a day, so gathering those funds in the school community was difficult if not impossible. Some rural Guatemalan `schools' consisted of children sitting together under a tree writing with sticks in the dirt. There was certainly no money for plumbing, let alone to build the simple kitchen which the principal dreamed of — a cost of about $850.

As I talked with the principal that day, several thoughts were forming and joining in my head: 1) US dollars go a long way in Guatemala; 2) I'm a performer and have frequent chances to speak to large groups and tell them stories; and 3) I might be able to leverage more effective change by spending my own money on logistics and collecting donations at my concerts than I could by simply donating money. I didn't discuss my plans with the principal, because I didn't know whether I would be able to come through on them. However, I began to formulate a plan to raise money for the school.

My audiences were more than happy to contribute, and I raised the $1,000 quite easily by telling the story at three small concerts. They understood that the need was great, and they trusted me to get the money to the school, and they believed me when I promised that every penny of their donation would go to the project rather than to my expenses.

As it turned out, however, a host of unfortunate circumstances and a few goofs on my part led to that project being delayed. My first trip back, the principal was unreachable by phone or E-mail; on another trip when I came to town, the principal was away. By the time I finally reconnected with him, another organization had visited and done a wonderful job of renovating the school—much more than we would have been able to do.

That was great news for the students, even though I felt a little silly. The kids had a much better and safer facility, and in the meantime we had started several other projects which were successful and which continue to thrive. Because of that initial enthusiasm, we had formed a small non-profit, PEG Partners (Proyecto para las Escuelas Guatemaltecas, or Guatemalan School Project). We've raised over $100,000, funded more than a dozen library and school projects, and had a significant impact on hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of children's lives in Guatemala. We still don't seek large corporate funders, preferring to empower small donors, and to emphasize the efficacy of small efforts. We still don't remove anything from donations for administration unless the donor specifically requests that part of their donation help with plane tickets and printing.

There is a lesson, though, in the fact that all of this was launched by a project that never happened. All of our efforts are imperfect, but that doesn't make the effort wasted. I've been to Guatemala more than 10 times since then, and on each trip I've seen the large results of these small efforts.

In 2007, feeling empowered by the effectiveness of our work in Guatemala and re-connected to my longtime passion for peace work, I applied for a Rotary World Peace Fellowship. The fellowship program, which began in 2001, is a generous scholarship that chooses 60 people each year from a large pool of applicants worldwide and sends roughly 10 to each of 6 universities around the world where Rotary Peace Centers have been established.

For the last decade that I was on the road full-time, I had been offering citizen activism workshops called "World Changing 101" at universities, churches, and conference centers in the U.S. and Europe in conjunction with my concert tours. When I heard about this fellowship, it felt like an opportunity to go deeper into this work that had been tugging on me all of these years. So I jumped at the chance, even though it was counterintuitive. After spending years as a starving musician, my music career was going beautifully.

In January of 2009 I flew to Brisbane, Australia to begin a master's degree in International Relations, Peace, and Conflict Resolution at the University of Queensland. Between my second and third semesters, I spent three months in rural India working with a Gandhian integrated development organization called Arthik Samata Mandal.

When I told people I was hanging up my microphone, I got a variety of responses. I got some supportive pats on the back, but I also got some pats on the head at least figuratively—looks and comments that said, implicitly if not explicitly, "That's cute." The common presumption is that peace work is naïve, and that a solid dose of "the real world" will strip those who pursue it of their childish hope.

The way to judge the wisdom or naïveté of an idea, though, is to compare it to the historical record and see if it matches. If dedication to peace and justice are predicated on inexperience with the harsh realities of human depravity, and exposure to those realities turns people away from such thoughts, then Dr. King, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi must have been quite sheltered (just to name a few wellknown examples). In reality, those three could only have been considered sheltered if one counts prisons as shelters. They knew (and Mandela still knows) more about the cruelty of humans than I ever care to, and yet they persisted in their hope and their work for peace.

Peace work is not predicated on ignorance of cruelty, greed, bigotry, etc. It is choosing a proactive response to them, rather than a weak resignation or an equally base reaction. As Howard Zinn wrote, "human history is a history not only of competition and cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness." Peace work is anything but naïve. It merely acknowledges that there are more productive and less productive ways to respond to bad situations, and argues for the former.

On the whole the verb peacemaking is more important to me than the noun peace. I am more concerned with what I'm called to do with my days than I am with the unachievable ideal I use as a compass star. My working definition of peacemaking is "approaching conflict in ways that are primarily constructive rather than destructive." The word approaching should be emphasized—it is an irony of peace work that making peace requires stepping toward conflict rather than away from it.

I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours in private conversation with civil rights hero and U.S. Congressman John Lewis in January of 2009. We talked about the fact that the civil rights movement stirred up quite a bit of conflict, but, as Rep. Lewis said to me "conflict is sometimes necessary on the way to justice." Real peace, positive peace, as Johann Galtung called it, is not placidity. It is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice. Rep. Lewis told me that Dr. King used to put it this way, "Sometimes we have to turn the world upside down in order to set it right."

King and Lewis understood, though, that even in turning it upside down, they had to act with maturity, compassion and integrity, so as not to add to the evil and dysfunction that they were trying to oppose.

Now that I've come home to North Carolina, I'm working on peace issues as the Program Associate for Peace at the NC Council of Churches. I've been given a great deal of room to define my job and to determine how I can be most effective in it. That's good for a man who reached his early forties without ever having had a boss before.

It's meaningful work, and sometimes hard. Many of the issues are grim. I'm working on everything from advocacy on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to interfaith dialog and to proposed changes in some North Carolina school systems which threaten to effectively re-segregate public schools. These are often discouraging conversations to have. I'm sustained, though, by meeting and working with so many good people who are, yes… changing the world, and for the better.

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Azim Khamisa
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