Embracing Diversity

Embracing Diversity

*In this moment of embracing diversity, I am reposting my words from March 2012, about the power of coming together in love.*

Building peace means sometimes being uncomfortable. It requires listening to the other side with respect and being civil when telling others about your beliefs. Peace often means compromise, allowing differences to exist side by side. This can be uncomfortable and it can also be freeing and expansive.

Agree with Me

City of Toronto's Coat of Arms and MottoMany proverbs tell us that it is worthwhile to come together with each our unique perspectives: “united we stand, divided we fall” (Aesop); “alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” (Helen Keller); and “diversity our strength,” the motto of the City of Toronto (my home of three years now).

I was recently shaken by a discussion with someone about interdenominational Christian nonprofits. He works for a non-denominational organization but was concerned about working with Spirit in Action because I didn’t agree with his interpretation of a particular bible verse. That he wanted to limit his interactions based on beliefs, albeit sharing the foundation of our mutual Christian faith, shocked me.

I understood that for him, to “agree to disagree” on a point of faith would necessarily mean compromise and, therefore, loss; that this compromise of beliefs would make a group weaker. However, I have found that requiring everyone to agree on specific, narrow rules does not bring strength. Welcoming multiple views breeds flexibility and trust, rather than shutting conversation down with only one way to view things.

Diversity our Strength

Women from many walks of life lead the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative members in song at the beginning of our meeting. (Malawi, 2014)

Women from many walks of life lead the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative members in song at the beginning of our meeting. (Malawi, 2014)

The strength of Spirit in Action is bringing people together from many different traditions for a higher good overall rather than separating people along dogmatic lines.

In fact, our missions of compassion and social justice require us to see God in all people and to serve our neighbor as we serve God. This also frees us all to do our work of fostering prosperity, rather than spend energy forcing people to believe a specific doctrine. This openness then actively encourages personal exploration of each person’s relationship and path with the Divine.

When I visited SIA partners in Malawi in 2011, I asked about the variety of denominations represented in the group. “SIA is the one place where Catholics and Protestants come together,” was the answer I got from Canaan Gondwe, the local Small Business Fund Coordinator. This response brought a sense of pride. Inter-denominational collaboration allows each person to respond to the call to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God, rather than the call to shun those who are different.

Spirit in Action local coordinators; building peace

SIA Small Business Fund Conference, Kenya 2011

Similarly, Benoit Malenge, a former Small Business Fund Coordinator in Rwanda, reported that people of many beliefs came together, “sharing a meal, without discrimination since they are all members of Spirit in Action, who came to share the gifts.” This place of openness brought a community together, beginning to build peace after years of war in the area. 

In the words of Thomas Merton, the great Christian mystic, “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image.” Can we embrace people who are different – who live and express themselves in different ways – and proceed as the peacemakers we were called to be?

Peace and “Soul Force”

Peace and “Soul Force”

In the swirling midst of on-going protest and the struggle for justice, I am reposting an essay I wrote for Memorial Day in 2010 about the power of nonviolent peace-building. I still believe peace is possible and worth striving for.

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I have long been intrigued by the connection between peace and prosperity. When people are safe and free I believe they are better able to participate in their local communities and economies. As they become involved, they create prosperity and security for themselves and those around them. It all starts with peace.

Del Anderson, Spirit in Action’s founder, wrote often about finding peace within oneself and sharing it with others. In 2002 Del wrote, “Being and expressing this peace and participating with God in bringing peace here on earth as it is in heaven is an activity of being a co-creator with GodBringing peace on earth is being in God’s grace activity and also brings forth a flow of health to mind and body.” In other words peace brings empowerment.

How do we begin to think about peace in a world so full of conflict? Mark Kurlansky’s book, Nonviolence: 25 Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea starts by exploring the concept of nonviolence – choosing to explain nonviolence as not merely opposition to violence but also as a positive action towards social change and equality. This is similar to what Martin Luther King, Jr. is advocating for when he says in his “I Have a Dream” speech“Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” Oftentimes a violent person expects the victim to react with violence, however, if one can react by standing firm in love and peace it catches the aggressor off-guard, creating space for social progress.

I know this all sounds like a far-fetched dream but Kurlansky makes a great case for the possibility of nonviolent revolution. Also, The Friends Committee on National Legislation provides some great information about the effectiveness of diplomacy and development for the “peaceful prevention of deadly conflict”. Similarly, I am encouraged when I read about the work of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, which sends trained peacekeepers into conflict areas to encourage productive discussion and protect citizens. They point out that peace and diplomacy are much cheaper than war and armies.

Creating peace is a difficult and important job! At Spirit in Action we pray and act for peace with this thing Martin Luther King, Jr. calls “soul force”. We call on the spirit inside each of us to be put to action, which creates a positive force toward understanding, support, and empowerment. On this Memorial Day I hope you will join me in celebrating those brave souls who have stood up for a better world through nonviolence and the promotion of peace.

I will end with a blessing my Grandma Barbara often says: “May peace prevail on earth and in your heart.”

[Pictured above: We met this girl at a local water borehole in Kasozi Village, Uganda. She was pumping water as our group of SIA Small Business Fund Coordinators – on our tour of local SIA groups – passed by her. We paused, and Ofonime Nkoko from Nigeria helped her pump the water.]

Wisdom from Del: “Act in the Truth”

Wisdom from Del: “Act in the Truth”
school children

Boyd and Tanya with school children at the SIA Small Business Fund nursery in Manyamula Village, Malawi.

On this election day in the U.S., I post something to remind us of our core and common humanity. Del Anderson wrote the reflection below in the weeks just after September 11th, 2001, and for me it is a call to search for and hold onto that flame of hope within each of us. Where ever you are, I hope today you reclaim that “boldness, firmness, and humility to act in the truth.”

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This is a difficult moment in which to write. The September 11th bombings seemed to further destroy the hopes of humankind and the building of peace, as the gulf seems to widen daily between peoples.

Using violence, and killing people to prove that it is wrong to kill people, has also proven futile through all of the history of civilization. Throughout history, force has resulted in more and violence. Such response breeds defeatism, fear and despair.

I believe that humans, as transcendent creations of God, have within them the Spirit of God and the capacity to participate in, with, and through our Creator God.

A mix of footprints and bike tracks on the dusty road in Manyamula Village, Malawi.

A mix of footprints and bike tracks on the dusty road in Manyamula Village, Malawi.

Our responsibility is not to lose our willingness to seek the truth and the boldness, firmness, and humility to act in the truth. As we hold fast to this consciousness, we cannot despair.

Great ideas may often be expressed in simple words such as, “All humankind are brothers and sisters from the same Creator.” We are not here by chance, but as an individualization of God and in union with our Creator and each other.

We each are unique and distinct, one of a kind. We lack nothing and are here to fulfill God’s special purpose through each of us for this generation. What a glorious, sacred, holy privilege and responsibility. Let us realize we are needed and important.

The time of decision is now.

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Del ends with this prayer, which he used in the mornings and evenings. He adapted it from John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Brewing of Soma”:

Drop thy still dews of quietness
Till all my strivings cease;
Take from my soul
The strain and stress,
And let the Christ within express
The beauty of thy peace.

Click here for more inspiration from Del.

There is no “us”, there is no “them”

There is no you, there is no me. There’s only God that I can see.
There is no us, there is no them. There’s only God. Amen.
— “There’s only God” by Richard Burdick

A simple meditative chant. Yet it sparked in me, if just for a few moments, a sense of true connectedness with all the world. I paused to consider what this – no us and no them – could really mean for me and for the possibility of peace. I wrote:

If there is no us and no them, then I am completely equal to every other human being.

I am the same as the corporate executive,
we are both worthy of love.

I am the same as the Boko Haram member in Nigeria,
we are both worthy to be heard.

I am the same as the Liberian street kid,
we are both worthy of help.

I am the same as the Midwest meth addict,
we are both worthy of healing.

I am the same as the homeless man,
we are both worthy of a job.

I am the same as the evangelical,
we are both worthy to talk to God.

I am the same as the atheist,
we are both worthy of community.

I am the same as the Congolese,
we are both worthy of trust.

I am the same as every other individual,
we are each worthy to be.

SIA local coordinators from all over Africa sing together in Kenya

SIA local coordinators from all over Africa sing together in Kenya

New businesses leaders “over the moon” in Nairobi

The five new groups in Nairobi, Kenya that received SIA Small Business Fund (SBF) grants weren’t just pleased, “they were ‘over the moon’” says Wambui Nguyo, SIA SBF local coordinator. “They said it seemed like a dream, especially when I confirmed it wasn’t a loan and they wouldn’t pay back!”

Each group of three people received $150 and they have agreed amongst themselves to meet regularly and to get together with the other three SBF groups in the area to see how they can all grow and also start saving together.

Brenda's clothing shop in Malawi

Visiting Brenda’s second hand clothing shop in Malawi, 2011.

Wambui, who works for peace and reconciliation in her day-job made sure that one of the new groups was Muslim. She explains, “As you know, our relationship between Christians and Muslims is getting strained by the minute and with the frequent explosions in buses and churches people are beginning to point fingers at one another. We therefore wanted to promote and set an example that it is possible to work together, although I did caution them to be sensitive to them especially when praying together.” Not only are the groups diverse in their faiths, they are also a mixture of different ethnic groups, including Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya and Somali.

Here is a short profile of three of the five new groups, along with their Swahili business names:

AMANI GROUP (PEACE)

Mercy and her two daughters, who are in high school, run this new business. Mercy’s husband left her three years ago and so, in order to provide food for the family, she worked washing sacks at the riverside. With the SBF grant they have opened a roadside cafe, where they cook and sell maize and beans.

JIINUE GROUP (TO LIFT ONESELF)

Peristar is also starting this business with her two daughters, Mary and Rose. Wambui describes Peristar as a “very strong, charismatic woman who is a believer and has a lot of hope for tomorrow.” They will be selling vegetables in the market to support themselves and Mary and Rose’s children.

UPENDO GROUP (LOVE)

This is a group of three friends – Jamarose, Rodah, and Melvon – and they chose the group name to reflect their friendship! All of them were in the business of selling second-hand clothes and the grant made it so they could come together and form a larger business together. One is married with two children, another is single, and the third is divorced and has two children. The grant doesn’t just help the three friends, it also will benefit the four young children! 

I’ll be visiting all these groups in Nairobi in July and I’ll be able to share more photos and stories then!

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