Vision of the Peacemakers

Last week, as communities across the United States remembered and celebrated the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., I couldn’t help but think about the Peacemakers.  Dr. King was a man who drew upon his faith to reach millions with a vision of nonviolence and equality.  The Peacemakers, too, carry that vision.  They are Christians, Jews and Muslims, whose peace work reflects the diversity of religious beliefs within the Abrahamic traditions, as well as a key shared objective – building peace with one’s neighbor.   

Nearly three months ago, the Peacemakers gathered in snowy Sarajevo for their third Working Retreat. They came together from around the world as clergy and lay leaders, women and men, local heroes and national figures.  They brought unique knowledge and experiences from 13 distinct armed conflicts, where they each take great risk to end suffering and build a foundation for peace.  They may not get the recognition rightly given to Dr. King, but they’re remarkable just the same.  

Three months later, I’m still thinking about Father Reid’s first-hand account of mediating behind the scenes of the Northern Ireland conflict.  Or the stories that emerged when Bill talked about his work with the tribes of Southern Sudan, and asked what rituals from our own religions or cultures could be used to promote peace.  Or the healthy debate on whether or not certain conflict resolution techniques apply in different contexts, which followed James and Ashafa’s description of their interreligious work in Nigeria.  Not to mention the both intense and hilarious stories that were swapped over steamy Burek or Cevapi in the cozy restaurants within Sarajevo’s Stari Grad (often my favorite part of the day)! 

Dr. King reminds us of the power of just one individual who dreams that peace is possible, and who is brave enough to follow that dream.  I feel thankful for the Peacemakers, and the many others like them, who share that dream and call to action.  They have much to teach us.

The Power of Context

Read as an isolated struggle, the story of Peacemaker Sakena Yacoobi is impressive. Sakena founded the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) in 1995, the same year that the Taliban came to power. Her organization began “underground” and now serves 350,000 women and children annually.

Read in the context of Afghanistan’s recent history and current reality, Sakena’s story is astonishing. Last month I read Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a novel that describes the last thirty years in Afghanistan through the lives of two women. I was blown away thinking: this is the context of Sakena’s work.

Today, I read a Time Magazine article (“Afghanistan’s Girl Gap“) which notes that only 28% of Afghan teachers are women. In the article, the Afghan policy adviser for Oxfam, Matt Waldman, says , “It is absolutely crucial to increase the number of female teachers if you want to see more girls in school.” This is exactly what Sakena and AIL are doing. In addition to providing teacher training (and training in literacy, health, income generating activities, leadership, women’s rights and vocational skills), AIL is itself the employer of 470 Afghans, 83% of whom are women.

Four of my friends from graduate school are currently working in Afghanistan and even those personal ties do not make it possible for me to “get” what’s going on in this war zone. It occurred to me today that I need every article, every historical novel, every shred of information to help me to begin to appropriately value Sakena’s work. Still, as the story of contemporary Afghanistan unfolds, I know enough to be grateful for it.

Different Kinds of Difference

Recently our Executive Vice President, Joyce Dubensky, and I were interviewed by Rose Garrett, a writer for on the issue of religious diversity among young people.  One of the thoughts I had, and mentioned in the interview, is that there are different kinds of difference.  Having gone to a prep school here in New York, the first difference that I generally recognized was being one of a few Black students in the school.  I might also notice class depending on where we decided to have lunch that day.  So, from my high school years I would identify diversity with where I was different.  At Tanenbaum, we look through the particular lens of the difference of religion as it applies to diversity.  We don’t discount the other factors.  We can’t!  Yet I think there is value for all of us to continue to peel back the layers of what we call diversity and be critical about who’s different at any point in time.  Occasionally, someone will mention my ability to speak in front of people as something that makes me unique, different.  I have to wonder in those moments if I’m different from other Trainer/Educators? Different from other Black people?  Different from other Brooklynites?  Exactly how am I different?  And if I am different, where is the diversity?