Horrific violence and valiant struggles for peace kind of go with the territory that I cover in my work in Latin American and the Caribbean for The United Church of Canada. As I left Colombia on Saturday, the news was of the massacre of 10 farm-workers whose employer may have refused a “vacuna” (literally vaccination, but in the sense of protection) to a local gang.

Neighbours’ memorial for Nighisti Semret

And yet, the closest I have been to an actual murder as it occurred was on Oct. 23 when Nighisti Semret was stabbed to death in a laneway next to our apartment building in the Cabbagetown part of downtown Toronto: she was so close by that we heard her screams.

A few days earlier in Grenada, I had been part of a long, spontaneous conversation about violence. In part, this was related to work on gender-based violence carried out by the Caribbean and North America Council on Mission (CANACOM) with other ecumenical groups.

A judge from Grenada who works in family support within the justice system told a story. Noting that an increasing number of children do not have parents at home, children bring themselves up. “Some may be good, but this is a problem that is not addressed. She spoke of a family with nine children. The mother died; the father was unable to cope. Relatives cared for the girls, but the boys were turned loose. The judge met one of the boys while he was still in the youth criminal justice system.

“Bright kid,” she said, and helped him get back into school. “But he continued his life of violence. Then there was a terrible, terrible murder: he cut a young man in four.”

What are churches doing?

We began sharing ideas about doing something—an art exhibit, a quilt, prayer, a prayer chain. I suggested that any or all of those things might be done, but that we should also hear from each other what our churches are doing with regard to violence. A few of the responses touch on why violence occurs and what might be done differently:

  • We see crimes without remorse. Conscience is not developed. As churches, we need to work with young mothers to help them nourish their children in love. Positive parenting: most mothers did not receive this themselves.
  • Sources of violence are many: immaturity, poor parenting, inter-ethnic or inter-faith conflict. And drug activity, both trade and consumption.
  • Family violence affects all classes. Foster care and abuse. Care for children.
  • “A boy was stabbed four yards from our church. In Jamaica, several things like this happen every day, so you get a bit anaesthetised.”
  • Identify different issues or challenges—and then think of strategies, because they are likely to be different in different contexts.
  • Barrel children: parents migrate to North America, leaving children with a relative. Occasionally they send a barrel with clothes or money, but there’s no attention, no control.
  • Peace-making and reconciliation: do an inventory among our churches about what efforts are already being done. What is our experience? Let us share about what has worked.
  • Use materials from the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation held in Jamaica in May 2011.
  •  “Some evils can only be cast out by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). The church is required to play its part. Set aside a day per month for prayer or fasting.

A woman from Guyana talked about a symposium in 2009 that drew attention to domestic violence and sexual abuse of children. With a grant from what is now the World Communion of Reformed Churches, several projects were launched to empower women. Today a women’s centre thrives in Demerara, providing counselling as well as computer training for children and women.

  • We need to learn how to address desensitization, hopelessness, notions of self-protection.
  • We can compile prayers that we can use: prayers from other places help us to not feel so alone. Peace Sunday, World Communion Sunday, etc.
  • With children, we can accompany them, show compassion, cry when they cry, laugh when they laugh, encourage prayer. They often blame themselves.

“Peace is the fruit of justice.” Isaiah’s words shared in the opening of the assembly of the Colombian Methodist Church in Medellín Nov. 2.

From Jamaica came stories of efforts to reduce violence in music, radio, television and newspapers. “Get a conversation going about music. I say to kids: ‘Can I hear what you’re hearing?’ If they say, no, no, Rev, then we talk.” Churches and other groups also put direct pressure on media and on the government’s broadcasting commission.

From the northern countries came a description of efforts to end bullying led to the acknowledgement that churches may be part of the problem across the region. “Shame and guilt: churches are experts.”

A woman from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. talked about the church’s efforts to learn from groups like Quakers and Mennonites so as to become a peace church. “We’re in a six-year process that is just beginning. We ask, ‘What does peace mean? What does a ministry of reconciliation look like?’”

 

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