Gathering Around the Peace Table
This article was first published in the current issue of Sojourners magazine.
Seven American women sat at a long rectangular table with 10 pastors from rural communities in Eastern Congo to learn about the pastors’ work of healing and reconciliation. A brilliant World Relief translator moved seamlessly from Swahili to French to English as we jotted notes.
“When Marcel from World Relief first gathered local pastors together, we were suffering,” one pastor said. “But he reminded us that, even in circumstances like these, the church has a crucial role to play. All the victims in our communities are people given to us to care for.”
Local church pastors in the North Kivu region of Congo face personally all the sufferings common to members of their communities: murder of family members by armed militias; rape of mothers, wives, and daughters as a weapon of war; displacement from their homes because of local conflict; an economy based on subsistence farming destroyed when crops are burned or uprooted by marauding rebels.
But their personal suffering doesn’t invalidate their biblical call to “care for the least of these.” Marcel, formerly a local Congolese pastor, works with World Relief Congo to serve local pastors by providing training in leadership, community transformation, trauma healing, and conflict resolution.
The pastors’ first challenge was to create committees representing every denomination and tribe in the region. The committees meet monthly to determine who in the community is most in need—a family with nothing to eat, a widow without shelter, a victim of sexual assault who needs hospital care. Sometimes the most needy are church members; sometimes they aren’t. It doesn’t matter.
In June 2012, I took my second trip to Eastern Congo. I had met many of the pastors on my first trip to Congo in 2009 and was amazed by the progress they had made in just three years.
On this trip, our team of seven spent a day listening to 11 women courageously share their stories of rape and other violence by rebels and “bandits”—and the care they received from lay counselors provided by the church committees. In some cases, women had found their way to the counselors bleeding and naked, having lost everything, including their families. The women said, “The counselors literally gave us back our lives.”
Equally impressive were the village peace committees—men and women from every denomination and tribe in the region, appointed by their churches to resolve disputes and facilitate reconciliation in their communities. We spent an entire day seated in a concrete church building listening to 20 stories of reconciliation: Broken marriages. Conflicts between parents and children. Disputes over land. Paternal neglect. Violation of widows’ rights. It was like sitting in a passage of the Bible: “A certain widow had two sons ...” Except the story unfolded in 2012 in Rutshuru, Congo, and the agents of reconciliation—who had the wisdom of Solomon—were the humble leaders seated before us.
In each case, disputing parties had tried other options—which basically meant paying bribes to local police and judges, trying to get someone to take up their cause. But bribes and justice seldom kiss. Finally, they would hear about the peace committees, who take no bribes, earn no salaries, and seek only the benefit of those involved in the conflict. The favored technique of reconciliation is to initiate ongoing conversations with the disputing parties—separately at first—and slowly allow possible solutions to emerge from the shared ideas. These solutions always involve compromise and must be accepted by each party rather than imposed upon them.
Several days after I returned from Congo, a New York Times columnist suggested that the largely ineffective U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Congo “should refocus its efforts on supporting grassroots projects directed at resolving local conflicts ...”
I wonder if that writer knew he was describing the local churches of Eastern Congo.