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Pilgrimage to East Africa

Posted by Erin Bechtol
01.06.18

By Ken Butigan

Today I am traveling to Kampala, Uganda.  I’ve been asked again to co-lead a seminar on “Christian Nonviolent Response to Conflict” at the Great Lakes Iniative (GLI) Leadership Institute, January 7-13, with a great nonviolence trainer from South Sudan, Flora Bringi Kumayo. I will also be giving a plenary presentation. Typically 120 people from the eight nations in the region — all working toward peace and reconciliation — participate.

To get a flavor of this powerful assembly, here are some reflections on last year’s experience.

On day three of the weeklong GLI Leadership Institute, I joined over a hundred participants on a short but powerful pilgrimage to Lake Victoria. 

Dramatizing the spirit of this annual assembly—which gathers Catholic and Protestant ministers and agents of change from throughout East Africa to renew the work for reconciliation in their local contexts—we walked the two-kilometers to the lakeshore to remember the violence and injustice that has taken place in the nations connected, directly or indirectly, to this vast body of water, the largest lake in Africa.

When we arrived, the participants—from Rwanda and Burundi, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Kenya, from South Sudan to Uganda—prayerfully lamented the blood that has been spilled in this region, but also recommitted themselves to continuing their work to transform structural violence and to build cultures of peace.

Being with these peacebuilders was a transformative experience, something that was made possible by an invitation to co-teach one of the institute’s six seminars entitled “Christian Nonviolent Response to Conflict.” It was the first time a seminar on active nonviolence was offered at GLI.

Not only was it deeply moving to work with people from throughout the region who had experienced first-hand the unspeakable horrors of genocide, military dictatorship, interreligious conflict and ethnic violence—and, at the same time, to learn about the powerful ways they have sought to transform conflict and create the possibilities for reconciliation—it was thrilling to co-lead this class with Flora Bringi Kumayo.

Flora is a gifted nonviolence trainer with the Organization for Nonviolence and Development in Juba, South Sudan. Her wealth of knowledge is rooted in her own personal journey from violence to wholeness. “I used to be a violence promoter,” she says, referring to her involvement in past political movements in her home country, which netted her four stints in prison. “Now I am a nonviolence promoter.”

After undergoing rigorous education in the power of active nonviolent change, she now trains people throughout East Africa in these strategies and techniques, including at the Kampala gathering. Flora and I crafted a process that wove together role-plays, exercises, small group discussions, videos, and presentations. Throughout the week, we opened space for participants to grapple with the vision, principles, strategies and methods of active nonviolence. Most importantly, participants were encouraged to learn from one another the breathtaking stories of nonviolent change from their own lives, communities, countries and continent.

In keeping with the theme, we also unpacked the biblical roots of Christian nonviolence, which—as these long-time people of faith reported in the final evaluation–helped illuminate for them in a new way the spirituality and practice of the Nonviolent Jesus. 

The Great Lakes Institute was founded in 2006 to promote the practice of reconciliation throughout East Africa. In 2011, it launched the annual leadership conference. GLI is now a network of organizations and what it terms “restless Christians” yearning for what the Bible calls the “new creation,” where all are reconciled. The week-long institute fosters leadership through plenary sessions, worship times, formal seminars, and interaction at meals.

In this atmosphere, as GLI puts it, “the institute provides rich theological content and discourse, and enables leaders to engage in lively imagination and reflection on practices which can build peace and transform leaders using a theological, contextual and practical curriculum.”

But it is more than this. GLI is a safe zone where participants coming from situations of acute violence can share and learn—but also catch their breath, get rejuvenated, and hear from others who are also up against it, before heading back into the fray. It reminds me of Tennessee’s Highlander Center, which offered nonviolent activists waist deep in the US Civil Rights movement in the 1950s a space for going deeper and re-charging before slipping back into the terror and hope of that struggle. Or the two-week retreats that Liberation Theology founder Gustavo Gutierrez held in Peru for change agents from across Latin America who were founding what they called base communities in the 1970s, with the express purpose of building a more just world. 

There is something profound about such spaces. In Kampala GLI fills its space with questions, each with its own day: Day One: Toward What? (Vision), Day Two: What is going on? (Lament), Day Three: What does hope look like? (Pilgrimage), Day Four: What kind of leadership? (Leadership), and Day Five: Why me and why bother? (The Long Haul). This is a powerful and transformative pedagogy for our time, and I was grateful to have been invited along.

Now, en route to Uganda again, I am grateful to once more walk with my sisters and brothers who have committed their lives  to peace and reconciliation.

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