Journal from Jamaica: Reflections from the Peace Convocation – May 17, 2011

Church of the Brethren director of news services, Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, is reporting from the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Jamaica through May 25, the culminating event of the Decade to Overcome Violence. She hopes to post a journal entry each day as a personal reflection on the event. Here is the first journal, for Tuesday, May 17:

On my first day in Jamaica–actually on the way to Jamaica–I quickly realize that the Brethren group at this peace gathering are a handful in a multitude. We’re just a drop in the bucket, if one is allowed to think of this convocation of Christians as living water!

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Jamaicans welcome IEPC participants with a table at the airport in Kingston. At the right, the sign gives an official welcome from the mayor and municipality of Kingston and St. Andrew.

Boarding the plane that would take me from Chicago to Miami, I begin to notice people likely to be heading to Jamaica for this meeting. A bearded man in a flowing black robe and a clerical collar paces up and down waiting for our American Airlines gate to open. Sure enough, this evening I encounter him again at dinner on the campus at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Kingston. By coincidence he also is a church journalist, covering the ecumenical world for the publication of a Catholic monastery in Belgium.

On the flight from Miami to Kingston, I sit next to a Serbian woman who also is headed for the convocation. She has started a groundbreaking project teaching peacemaking to youth and young adults in Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina–the site of a horrific genocidal massacre during the Balkan War. It’s tough work, she tells me, because for family members who survived, the trauma is still fresh. It’s as if it happened just yesterday, although it has been 16 years. Her program helps young people learn how to effect change in an area sharply divided by ethnicity. The young people she works with are “so brave,” she says, because they are daring to cross ethnic divides, to work at relationships, to talk openly about the past.

It turns out half the plane is going to the convocation. After we all get through customs at the Kingston airport, it takes three large shuttle buses to take all of us and our luggage to the university. We board the buses and wait for everyone–and their luggage–to be settled. I meet a woman who has spent more than 17 hours straight on an airplane, flying in from India. Needless to say, she is exhausted. A German friend finds her a quick snack in the form of a granola bar, to keep her going.

Our driver starts the engine, ready to leave, when a frantic older woman speaking Spanish runs up looking for a spot on the bus. At first it seems there is no space for her–which would have been a real embarrassment as it turns out she is one of the presidents of the World Council of Churches. But a Korean woman quickly gives up her seat and moves to the back of the bus, to a folding chair in the aisle beside me. It’s in the Asian culture to respect elders, she explains. Plus, she adds with an impish smile, the few women leaders in the ecumenical movement are to be treasured.

On the university campus I run into more interesting people, from all over the world. One of the first thing they ask is where you’re from, and then what church you represent. After spending time trying to explain where Elgin, Illinois, is, I start just saying I’m from Chicago–a city everyone seems to know thanks to its identity as President Obama’s home town!

But just as I stop ’fessing up to being from Elgin, I meet a former pastor from Elgin’s First United Methodist Church. Disney has it right, it really is a small world after all!

Besides many different nationalities and church traditions, this gathering also includes people of differing abilities. A group of disabilities advocates from a World Council of Churches disabilities network are here. One introduces himself as I’m sitting at a table in the courtyard of our residence hall with a Brethren colleague. A striking young man from Costa Rica, he quickly lets us know he is deaf, with hearing aids in both ears. He asks us to look across the courtyard to another table where several people are sitting in wheelchairs. He says he has been encouraging them to sit with other participants, but it’s difficult. He shares his hope to be able to integrate those with disabilities into full participation at this meeting.

I have to write about one more encounter to close: A woman who had been at the launch event of the Decade to Overcome Violence in Berlin, Germany, in 2001. She pulls out a brochure about the history of the DOV, with a picture of the march and candle lighting in Berlin 10 years ago. “I was there,” she says, pointing to the picture. At the time she’d been ecumenical staff for the American Baptist Churches USA, but since then has moved on to another position. But this culminating event of the Decade has remained on her calendar. Having been there at the beginning, she wants to see it through and be here at the end. It’s a kind of closure.

— More reports, interviews, and journals are planned from the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Jamaica, through May 25 as Internet access allows. A photo album is being started at http://support.brethren.org/site/PhotoAlbumUser?view=UserAlbum&AlbumID=14337 . Go to www.overcomingviolence.org  for webcasts and video provided by the WCC.