In Afghanistan, where we worked from 2014 until 2017 through the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), we were assigned to a long-standing Christian humanitarian and development organization. The major focus of our time there was on nurturing and building the capacity of our Afghan peace-building project colleagues.
In a country steeped within decades-old violent conflict, we worked in a team with our Afghan colleagues, steadily and consistently adding new programming facets relevant to the context, such as organizational conflict resolution, trauma awareness and resilience and aspects of restorative justice such as peace circles. Since the time we left in 2017, the program now Afghan-led, has grown into a full-time staff complement of five, assisted by two college interns.
We know that violence feeds upon itself and is cyclical. For decades now in Afghanistan, children are born into the horrors of war. The goal of breaking out of cycles of violence entails systemic, structural and cultural change; it is a huge challenge. One way our Peace Team strove hard to meet that challenge was through implementing its vision of developing, and introducing peace education curricula within educational institutions.
Breaking through the layers of bureaucracy to make this happen was a daunting, uphill struggle. We were able to make some headway in a couple of private schools. Then in the last year, a major breakthrough for our Afghan colleagues was the signing of an agreement with the Ministry of Education that has allowed for the designing and ongoing implementation of a peace curriculum for schools and universities in the capital city Kabul.
For the following three years in Bangladesh, Kirstin and I worked directly with MCC’s oldest country program, focused on humanitarian development, which was initiated when Bangladesh became independent in 1971. We worked alongside a highly experienced staff in a peacebuilding program that strives to integrate and mainstream peace into its education, health, food security and job-creation sectorial work.
In this country’s rich culture, with a diversity of religions and ethnicities, our minds were inspired by the artistic creativity of the local peace builders. Community-based peacebuilding training sessions, in harmony with cultural norms and traditions had built-in components of song, dance and theatre created channels that were able to cut through barriers cemented by generations of distrust and division.
In these two Muslim-majority countries, the interweaving of rituals and precepts of their Islamic faith into the day-to-day lives of people was an eye-opener for us. As we learned about their faith practice, we saw that the practice of Islam blurs lines of social distinction and differences.
In both countries, we lived within the vicinity of several mosques. The Azan call to prayer five times a day became our compass; it marked our routine, urging us to reflect upon the day’s deeds and give gratitude for the people with whose lives we intersected.
Returning to the US, after several years of international service, we are motivated by dual goals of relating our faith and professional experience and learning to this context.
From our time in the US, we knew of individuals and communities that choose an alternative to an upwardly mobile, career driven path. Like them, we decided upon a model of simple living, hospitality, solidarity with the vulnerable and witness through non-violent resistance.
After visits with several communities, we have dropped anchor at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in DC. DDCW, for more than 40 years has served as a house of hospitality for mostly single mothers and their children from the U.S. and around the world. Members commit to live Gospel values of nonviolent resistance through joining in movements opposed to the military-industrial complex, war and nuclear weaponry, while raising awareness and advocating on local issues around racism, poverty, education, housing and health.
While living in community, Kirstin will work with the Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) Advocacy and Programs Office in DC. Merwyn will distribute his time between DDCW and other groups supporting and exploring peace and justice and community-based organizing initiatives. While on this path, we want to practice our deep-seated desire to connect with the earth through gardening and living in harmony with nature.
We are deeply grateful to all who have accompanied and supported us on our journey and seek your companionship as we travel the road ahead.
See also: Healing Afghanistan through peacebuilding by Merwyn De Mello (Maryknoll magazine, Nov. 2017)