Mennonite Central Committee Archives - St. Stephen's University

Jai, A Lesson from the Heart

By | 2016, Asia | No Comments

In regards to our recent journey across the world to Thailand and Laos, there is one specific experience which I wish to capture amongst all the beautiful, scary and life changing moments.

This happened after weeks of seeking something which I could not put into words until it happened. I was searching for a heart to heart* moment, a moment where I was able to glimpse into another’s world and understand for a minute, even though it may be very different from my own. A smidgen of empathy.

What I learned, though, was this is not something I can force to happen nor is it something I could buy at the market. In order to see another’s worldview, your own must be pierced, at a price.

On one of our first days in Vientiane, Laos, our group went to a museum called the COPE Centre. This centre is a memory of what happened during the Secret War on Laos, or as we know it, the Vietnam War. Little known facts faced us as we entered a room which housed bombs and stories of those affected by it.


Story after story fell upon us as the weight of this act became clear. Many, many, deaths and much suffering was inflicted upon this nation. Children, indiscriminate violence. Over two million tons of bombs dropped. The worst part: the injustice continues in that the explosives dropped still explode today, unperturbed for years until a fatal blow.

This shadow of pain was heavy upon me the next day as we attended a class taught by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) about peace and how they teach peace to their youth. The irony of it upset me. Why would Lao people need to learn about peace? Should not this class be taught in the US? Why is the value of peace so important to these people, instead of justice? As I sat in the corner and attempted to move on and process what had happened there, one of the leaders and I chatted. I mentioned to him that we went to the centre, and tears threatened to fall. Instead of being embarrassed at my crying, he too teared up.

In this moment, something was exchanged, and in a strange twist of fate, this Lao man comforted me as I considered the tragedy in his country. And I felt empathy towards him and his people.

What I learned from this was that in order to experience empathy for another, it requires one’s own suffering in order to understand. This conversation taught me that anger and bitterness would not be the way to justice, and that forgiveness, even if an act is so heinous, can be given before justice is acknowledged or granted. Peace is more important, in one’s heart and life over the value of being done right by. Forgiveness is the path to peace. And it is the only way to endure suffering, or as Madeleine L’Engle wrote:

“Peace is not placidity; peace is the power to endure the megatron of pain with joy…”

This lesson from the heart of Lao people touched my heart, and now, I hope it touches others.


*The Lao word for heart is ‘jai’


Perspectives on Peace

By | 2016, Asia | No Comments

During a workshop with the staff from the MCC Xieng Khouang office in Laos, our group was asked to brainstorm some answers to the question “what is peace?” It seems like such a straightforward question, but it’s pretty loaded. I realized that I’ve never actually thought about this before. It turns out that the term “peace” can hold entirely different meanings to different people. MCC Laos’ Mittapab (meaning “friendship”) group even had to change their original name, which included the word “peacebuilding,” because the government claimed that the nation already had peace and therefore had no need for a peacebuilding group. Since the workshop, I found myself trying to define this crazy concept (I know that it’s already technically in the dictionary, but I don’t like the official definition. Peace must be more complicated than that two-line explanation).

I think that peace can look different within different contexts. It is bound to display itself differently as inner peace with oneself than it does as interpersonal peace in relationships, and even more so as peace on a national or international level. Anywhere on the scale, though, I’d say* that peace is not the absence of conflict, but having the ability to come together and listen to each other to come up with a cooperative solution when conflict does arise. Peace and conflict are not opposites. But that’s still pretty vague. Peace could be an environment of appreciation of differences, where a broad diversity of people and opinions is nurtured and can flourish. It could mean safety or refuge. It could mean the presence of a mutual understanding, or at least an active willingness to work toward that. Regardless, I think peace is a good thing and should be strived for.

I believe another big part of attaining peace can be found in the Zulu greeting “sawubona,” which is used as an equivalent of English’s “hello,” but translates into “I see you.” This is seeing a person’s soul, value, feelings– all that good human stuff. A deeper connection is made. It is saying you matter and are valid. To recognize this in a person is very humanizing and equalizing. After that, the response would normally be “sikhona,” which roughly means “I am here.” They exist after being fully seen by another person. Interconnection is important. When we take time to truly see, acknowledge, and appreciate others as humans with souls and stories, we can then learn and grow toward justice and equality, which leads to peace.

With our friends from the Mittapab Peace Group.

Maybe the concept of peace cannot even be encapsulated in a set of words or a strict definition. Maybe it just is (or isn’t). For example, I’m not really the city type. Smog gives me headaches, traffic baffles me, and I’m not a fan of having my butt accidentally and repeatedly touched while weaving through market masses. So Chiang Mai, as much as I loved it, was a bit much to handle at times. The Karen village that we had the privilege of visiting was precisely the breath of fresh air that I needed. It was totally non-hectic, both embraced by and embracing of nature, and had a small, flowy community lifestyle that just made sense to me. Peace was undeniably present when I was sitting under the tin roof of my host family’s house, listening to the pouring rain but seeing nothing but the pitch blackness of the uninterrupted night sky. It was there again as I stood at the highest mountain peak that we hiked, feeling emptied and breathless (due to both my being out of shape and the stunning view below) as I absorbed the wonder of what I was seeing. I knew that that was peace, even if I can’t define the word itself. I felt content and calm and rejuvenated and okay. Peace was present.

So, what is peace? I don’t know, but I want it.

*Disclaimer: I am no peace expert. I’m just spitballin, here.

Migrants are People

By | All Things Travel | One Comment
[Alannah DeJong, a 2nd year student at SSU, recently participated in Uprooted – a Learning Tour with Mennonite Central Committee to the Northern and Southern borders of Mexico. The three week tour explored themes of migration and peace building. This blog post originally appeared on the Uprooted blog.]

This past semester I learned about dehumanization. Simply put, dehumanization happens when a group of people is seen as “less than human” by another group. By giving a different name and attributing only a single story to this group, it becomes easier to justify their mistreatment. In my own experience, these kinds of dehumanizing tendencies are sometimes shown when it comes to migrants. Naturally, on this learning tour which focuses on migration and peacebuilding, we have had some important discussions about migration. These have continued here in Mexico City. We have learned that there are many different reasons for which a person might migrate. Someone might decide to leave their home because of economic opportunities elsewhere, or because of environmental dangers. Someone may migrate in order to be reunited with family members, or simply for a change in scenery. Some people leave their homes because they will be killed if they stay. There is no single migrant story.

Being on this trip has allowed me to broaden my understanding of what a migrant is. I have come to the realization that a migrant is someone who has left one place to move to another. I am a migrant if I leave my home country for fear of persecution. I am a migrant if I move to another province for a job. Migrants are not all victims. Migrants are not all criminals. Migrants are not all poor. There is no single migrant story.

During our time in Mexico City so far, we have been able to visit some of the spaces that shelter migrants along their journeys. Within these shelters are incredibly beautiful pieces of art painted by some of the people who have stayed there. I would like to share pictures of a few murals in CAFEMIN, a family migrant shelter that also provides workshops in areas such as baking, sewing, and computers for the people staying there:


This mural pictures an angel overseeing Mary, Joseph, and Jesus during their own migration.


This mural shows Jesus carrying his cross, and migrants after him carrying theirs.

The message of these murals is one of humanization. They bring humanity to the topic of migration in a powerful way; by countering the disassociation that sometimes occurs when migrants are concerned. It is important not to fall into the tendency of dehumanization. I know that the pain in the world is so great, and it is often easier to talk about people as though they are a little less than people. It makes life easier to bear. But if I take a step back, I remember that Jesus was a migrant, and that I myself am a descendent of migrants. Yet I also remember that migrants are people deserving of human rights and dignity not because I am related to migrants, or worship a God who was one, but simply because they are people.

Moose Bones and Truth

By | 2016 - Aski Learning Tour (Ottawa & Timmins, Ont), Education for Reconciliation, Short-Term Trips | No Comments

[The fourth in a six part series of posts from SSU students participating in a First Nations Learning Tour, hosted by Mennonite Central Committee. The group is travelling in Ottawa & Timmins, Ontario from April 26th – May 8th, 2016.]

Well folks, here we are in Timmins, a city so dusty that many of the graffiti tags are done with fingertips on glass windows (I don’t know whether to blame the spring, the mining, or the unfrequented selection of roads along our route). This marks the beginning of the segment of our journey with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) for the Aski Learning Tour. Today was a day of exploration. We started with a presentation by CreeGeo Mushkegowuk Information Services, and from there set out on winding back roads that surrounded our train of vehicles with grey clouds of dust to get to Miken-otaski. When the tall teepee and glow of the warm fire became visible, we were welcomed with smiles and got the opportunity to participate in a traditional cookout consisting of goose, moose, bannock, dumplings, and Labrador tea. After our stomachs were stretched to their full capacity, Annie pulled out a box of freshly caught whitefish to smoke over the fire. We stood in awe as she dexterously decapitated and gutted the fish. However, we were not warned that we were standing directly in the splash zone of the gory deed. That’s a story for another time, but I just had to mention this incredible feast.

The real highlight of my day was what began as nothing more than an impromptu stroll. Amanda (the 14-year-old daughter of our MCC Learning Tour coordinator, Lyndsay) led me down the trail to see an older cloth teepee on a nearby site while pointing out different plant species and their uses along the way. We found that the teepee had been taken down, but I learned a lot from the 4-foot-something wealth of knowledge on the expedition. In addition to the typical conversations about school, pets, and family, she told me about exciting and hilarious encounters with animals in the woods we were travelling in, identified droppings, and explained several traditional ceremonies. By this time, we had been joined by a few more members of the group. We decided to make the most of this time by doing some exploring in the area surrounding the trail. In the clear, flat area where the old cloth teepee once stood, we came across scattered bones of some poor unfortunate soul that were picked clean. Among these remains was a spine, the size of each vertebra comparable to a small dog’s pelvis. Based on this enormity, it was unanimously decided by our bunch of unqualified people that this thing must have once held a moose together. In myself, this discovery revealed a possibly morbid fascination in skeletal systems and paleontology.

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Don’t fret: this little excursion did not pass by without a lesson. If I hadn’t gone on this little hike or cut up my legs by trudging through thorns and branches in the woods, I wouldn’t have found those bones. I wouldn’t have had my interest in historical traces peaked, and I wouldn’t have learned from Amanda. Something I’ve noticed in my observations of the First Nations cultures is the great amount of value they place in the passing-down of knowledge and tradition. Amanda (an indigenous girl herself) is more aware of her culture’s traditions than any non-indigenous person her age that I’ve met. I myself know close to nothing in comparison about my own ancestral history, but a new determination to dig for it has been placed in me. Like the moose bones and truths about First Nations, it will have to be intentionally sought after. In the same way, if you don’t go out seeking answers and truths for First Nations issues, you won’t find them. They are intentionally buried, and you won’t just stumble upon them by walking along the beaten path. The government and the public make sure of this by working hard to conceal the abominations to this nation and to our own unearned European dignity. If we sweep all of our unflattering history under the rug, we won’t ever need to address it– out of sight, out of mind. But the truth is that it did happen, and it’s time to move the rug and clean it up. The key is knowing where we come from and who we are, awareness, and education– whether it be self-education, curriculum-based education in school, or educating the public on corrected misconceptions of indigenous issues and the people themselves.

On another note: although today I ate moose meat for the first time- heck, I even held the very core of the animal’s physical body in my hands- I still have yet to see a living, breathing moose. I’ve made it one of my goals on this trip to spot at least one of these (increasingly likely to be mythical) creatures, which has proven to be a challenge. Wish me luck.

The Metaphor of Metamorphosis

By | 2014 - Colombia | No Comments

Colombia is a country that might best be described as “complicado.”

Having a population only slightly larger than Canada, it has a history that is criss-crossed by violent upheavals, an armed conflict that has lasted for almost a century and comprised of enough players to make your head spin.

Having coordinated with Mennonite Central Committee, our team of students and teachers have been almost two full weeks in the country, connecting with various partners of MCC who work in areas of aid, agriculture, psychosocial support, politics, and more.

Out of the many impactful experiences our crew has had on this trip, I want to highlight one of the days we spent with MCC’s partner, Sembrandopaz.


Sembrandopaz, which means “sowing peace,” works with four different communities in the Monterria and high mountain region.

We heard first from Ricardo Esquivia.

He unfolded for us a beautiful vision of supporting and strengthening communities, and he challenged us also, saying that the academic world was not created to deliberate amongst its own members, isolated, but that it was created to serve the community.

He talked about the history of the armed conflict, beginning with a period in the 1800s known as La Violencia and leading up to today. It is a hard road. There are many setbacks. At times it can seem hopeless to be an advocate for non-violence and justice. What is a human in the face of senseless violence? What is a mere body against the violent tide, a fragile body thrown against the rocks by a surging tide of power and elitism and violence.

He says that justice is a long endeavour, and that change does not happen overnight.

“We have visions, but we must have patience; we are dreaming of butterflies, but working with caterpillars”.


Later, we heard from Narciso, a campesino, or peasant farmer, who runs the Sembrandopaz farm outside Sincelejo.

He stood in front of a table covered in various fruits and vegetables that were produced on the farm, and proceeded to tell us his story.

He was a farmer and community leader in a town in another region of Colombia, and was targeted by a paramilitary group. He was attacked in his home and shot through the face and left for dead. Despite having to find a way to a hospital and losing immense amounts of blood from the wound in his jaw and throat, he managed to survive. He had a friend who happened to work for Sembrandopaz, and was offered a place to stay and work, and eventually became the farm manager.

As Narciso shared his story, talking about feeling helpless in a new place, useless without work, and hopeless as a result, he praised God and expressed his immense gratitude in being allowed to resume a life of dignity and meaning. For the campesino, working the land is their joy and their privilege.

As he spoke and shared his passion and his journey, the room seemed to change, in a way. I really felt that I was seeing the table of fruit in a completely different light; this was not just a pile of root vegetables; this was an altar of first fruits, the harvest of a holy profession.

Narciso held up a cluster of mangos and shared his appreciation for the simple fact of having grown them with his own two hands, something that cannot be measured or substituted. The land is his identity, and his connection to it was life-giving in a powerful way. and his belief is that tomorrow, or the very next day, he himself may be eating mangoes grown by someone else. We all need food, and he explained, saddened, that in the end, the campesinos are the true victims of the conflict and warring over drugs and land and politics, and this is a tragedy that affects the whole nation. Every Colombian needs to eat, and yet the campesino is often degraded and disregarded. His passion, resilient faith, and persistent hope were striking and beautiful to witness.

As he finished speaking, a butterfly came right into the cabana we were seated under, and flew around for the next fifteen minutes. It was a huge specimen, and we were all surprised and captivated by it’s graceful, unpredicable movement and curiously dull exterior, only catching glimpses of a brilliantly coloured interior wing pattern between wingbeats. We hadn’t seen any on the trip yet, and I felt that this was a beautiful symbol. This was one of the few people whose growth and restabilization have progressed enough over the time of their relationship with Sembrandopaz in which we were able to witness a more “butterfly moment” than we had yet seen.  As Ricardo said, we work with Caterpillars, but dream of butterflies.

I have high hopes for MCC and its partners as they continue to dedicate much time and heart to bringing new life and new possibility to communities that have been severely hurt by violence of the military groups, both systemic and chaotic.

Alan Sears managed to snap a photo, so I thought I’d include it.