Peacebuilding and the Evolution of World Relief’s Village Peace Committees

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DRC: The Conflict in Context

“Conflict spares no one,” writes Cyprien Nkiriyumwami, World Relief Africa Director for Peacebuilding.

The context in which he writes is that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). For twenty years the DRC has experienced continuous and brutal conflict, originally a result of the tribal animosities unleashed by the Rwandan genocide in 1994, then exacerbated by the military overthrow of its president, Mobutu Sese Seko, in 1997.

There are now as many as 70 armed militias operating in the DRC, fighting over control of the land and the rich mineral resources buried within it. As many as 6 million people have been killed in the fighting or by related impacts such as disease or malnutrition. Women and children are those most affected and victimized by this conflict—including recruitment into armed groups, sexual violence, and many forms of gross physical violence. Today, the United Nations estimates that there are 4.7 million people displaced from their homes in DRC and another 450,000 who have fled the violence as refugees living outside of their country.

On the UN Human Development Index, which measures for life expectancy, educational, and economic factors, DRC is ranked 176 out of 188 nations worldwide. And despite its people’s deep desire for peace, the conflict and resulting corruption too often benefits those in positions of power, creating little incentive to stop the violence that causes so much unbelievable suffering.

In the midst of this chaos and constant simmering of open-conflict, Cyprien has been facilitating World Relief’s efforts to transform communities of conflict into those characterized by peace through the formation of our Village Peace Committees (VPCs). VPCs are community structures composed of ten trained and respected community members who work together to solve disputes and conflicts within their localities before they reach violence. Today, the VPCs are incredibly successful vehicles for conflict prevention throughout the DRC. The road to their installation however, was not an easy one.

A Difficult Task

Over ten years ago, World Relief’s work in the Democratic Republic of Congo experienced disruption upon disruption due to constant violence. As staff came together to discuss solutions, two staff members who worked with local churches observed that the tribal divisions in churches typically mirrored the conflict they saw in the wider community. Pondering how they could act upon this insight, Cyprien and local pastor, Marcel Serubungo, called together church leaders from across the area to a 3-day pastoral retreat to address the conflict in the community.

This task was harder than it sounds given the history and context of this request. At the time, pastors and their churches were largely segregated by tribal identity. So too were the relationships among pastors. In fact, pastors would normally avoid meeting one another or even gathering in the same room with pastors of another tribe. Now tensely gathered together in one room, Pastors Cyprien and Marcel shared their vision of pastors leading the way in bringing peace to their community and providing care to victims of violence, without consideration of tribal affiliation. Discussion was difficult and quickly devolved into accusations from pastors of one tribe against pastors of another, even as Pastors Cyprien and Marcel tried to bring pastors together in unity around their shared purpose and design as image-bearers of God.

That night, by design, Pastors Cyprien and Marcel assigned each retreat room to two pastors, one from each combating tribe. Each room was furnished with one bed. The pastors were forced to decide if they were to sleep on the floor or on the bed. In customary African fashion and considered culturally appropriate, the pastor-pairs reluctantly agreed to share each bed. Yet lying back to back, the pastors could not sleep because of the level of bitterness and mistrust against one another.

The Birth of the VPCs

The next morning, the pastors wearily re-convened to continue conversation about their influential roles in conflict mediation. As the day went along, defenses began to fall and conversations moved into a recognition of the need to be involved in brokering peace. That night, back in their rooms, the pastors engaged in willing conversation and were finally able to sleep, this time side by side. The next morning, well rested, the pastors regathered. The conversation turned personal as one pastor stood and confessed publicly his hatred for pastors from the other tribe. One by one, pastors stood to confess their own sin against one another. Confessions turned to weeping and forgiving-embraces, which turned to corporate repentance and a final decision as a group to pursue reconciliation and peace in their communities. The Pastors shared a collective and unifying sentiment as they left the retreat, “How can we expect our people to live any differently, if we ourselves cannot gather together in peace and unity?”

That water-shed gathering shifted things significantly. Meaningful pastor-friendships formed across tribal differences. Regular pastor gatherings commenced to discuss peacebuilding in their congregations. These gatherings and relationships soon led to pulpit-exchanges, where pastors from opposite tribes would preach at the other’s church on a Sunday. At first, parishioners were shocked by these actions, but eventually began to realize that “If pastors could meet together, so too could they.” The example of these pastors cascaded into their churches and out into the community, as tangible hope began to form within their people.

VPCs Around the Globe

The lessons learned from the early peacebuilding efforts in the DRC have today formed the foundation from which World Relief’s peacebuilding efforts have expanded into other fragile countries, including South Sudan, Burundi, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

Today, VPCs are able to operate independently and successfully because they are acknowledged by villagers as neutral, impartial and effective conflict resolution facilitators. Not only do they formalize the process by which tribal leaders and community members publicly address past and current tensions, but they also encourage and offer this process free of charge. These local committees have resolved thousands of conflicts which would have otherwise escalated into cycles of violence causing loss of land, property, and life on mass scale and tearing families and communities apart.

Peace building matters because it helps people and communities to refrain from using force to impose their views on others. It helps people to accept others as they are, to tolerate differences, respect the vulnerable, especially women and children, and eventually, to come voluntarily to solutions acceptable by all.

VPCs have resolved conflicts as small as land and livestock disputes, as well as cases referred to them by the local police, but they also accomplish something much bigger: They create hope, courage and faith. Hope that problems can be resolved and that a better future exists. Courage to address larger relational issues and conflicts despite historical failures and fatigue. And faith, as communities begin to see that the church is both relevant for their communities and that the teachings of scripture do make a difference.

Today, World Relief continues to pioneer our VPC work across fragile states. Though we face countless challenges and roadblocks to this work, we take heart, because of our confidence in men and women like Cyprien who lean into the discomfort and fear courageously, in faith. And we have great faith that this work will continue to be transformative in the lives of thousands across the world.


CONTRIBUTORS

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Gil Odendaal, Ph.D, D.Min, is the SVP of Integral Mission Division at World Relief. He previously served as the Global Director for PEACE Implementation with Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California as well as Global Director for the HIV/AIDS Initiative under Kay Warren. Gil has 30 years of ministry experience as a missionary, pastor, educator, leader and public speaker, including serving as Regional Coordinator for Africa, Russia and Easter Europe with Medical Ambassadors International. Gil serves on the Lausanne Movement Integral Mission leadership team as well as a board member of ACCORD Network. Gil and his wife, Elmarie, were born and raised in South Africa. They have three adult children and five grandchildren.

 

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Cyprien Nkiriyumwami is World Relief’s Africa Director for Integral Mission, Church Empowerment and Peace Building. Trained as community development facilitator and working in that capacity since 1984, Cyprien has designed and led programs that lean on local churches and grassroots structures of volunteers in reconciling people and communities in the war torn Democratic Republic of Congo and in Pakistan.

 

 

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Damon Schroeder is the Director for US Integral Mission at World Relief. Springing from his experience as a missionary kid from Cyprus, he has worked for 17 years, equipping churches in the US to holistically welcome and build community with newly arriving refugees and immigrants.

 

 

The Magic Years: Care Groups

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My grandson had a birthday recently. He’s two. He blew out candles, devoured cake and ice cream, and tore into presents. His favorite was a large bubble machine that floated huge translucent bubbles all over the room when he blew with all his might.

My work every day at World Relief involves birthdays. We mark them, celebrate them, prepare for them, and advocate for them. No, not birthdays with cake and bubbles, but birthdays with critical significance: the milestone of reaching a precious child’s fifth birthday.

The months of life in a mother’s womb and the first five years of a child’s life are the most critical. These are the years of rapid brain growth, physical, mental, and developmental growth, of early adaptation to our world of disease, of bonding with mother and family, and of discovering personhood, belonging, and identity. These are the “magic years” as described by author Selma Fraiberg. [1]

Too many children in our world never reach their fifth birthdays. In fact, nearly 6 million children under-five die every year. [2] They die prematurely from diarrhea, malnutrition, malaria or pneumonia; all of which are preventable deaths. Today, however, we know how to simply, cost-effectively and radically ensure that no child fails to reach his or her fifth birthday because of these causes.

Recognizing what nutrition experts call, a “Window of Opportunity” to promote nutrition and early development during the first 1000 days of life (counted from conception to two years), World Relief and the communities and churches we work through are seizing this opportunity to protect and nurture these precious children under the age of five. The interventions are basic:improved nutrition for mothers, infants, and children; prevention of life threatening pneumonia and diarrhea;and prevention and early treatment of malaria. Something as simple as hand-washing with soap can prevent persistent diarrhea that may eventually lead to severe dehydration, malnutrition and even death in a two-year old.

So what prevents this life-saving work from saving the lives of more children? How can we reach the millions of children needing this support throughout these early months and years? How can we impact behavior, especially where some cultural practices and a simple lack of knowledge can impede growth and development?

Long ago, a practical solution to reaching large masses of people was proposed by Jethro, a simple farmer whose son God chose to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land—Moses. Today, World Relief and many other NGOs and governments are using the same model Moses initiated…and we call them Care Groups.

Care Groups are an integral part of our Church Empowerment Zone (CEZ) model, pioneered in Rwanda and used across many of our programs in sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia and the Middle East. As a part of the process, small groups of 10-15 community members are formed, trust is built, information is shared, volunteers support one another, and then share their learnings with neighbors in their village. Complete community saturation is the goal and the means through which Care Groups can potentially reach every child under five to ensure they safely navigate their early years.

The implementation and impact results of this biblically-designed approach has a growing amount of evidence-based findings. The peer-to-peer approach has reached over 1.4 million households in more than 28 countries globally. [3] It is attracting public health experts, government ministries of health, and large development funders. And, it is at the very core of what we do here at World Relief.

World Relief’s Pieter Ernst first developed the concept of Care Groups in 1995. In his words:

About 3,500 years back in history, a skilled and educated leader by the name of Moses from a nomadic nation of around 3,000,000 people wanted, on his own, to judge and resolve all the social and many other problems they had as a result of living so close together. Interestingly, in spite of all his education and his close relationship with God, he was unable to see beyond his own experience, and God sent his less educated father-in-law, Jethro, from a distant country to visit and advise him about the advantages of Care Groups. He also gave him some important selection criteria for choosing the right volunteers, and gave him guidance on an accountability that included a supervision structure that would help secure sustainability. Therefore, in reality, Care Groups is a design structure that is 3,500 years old.  It is God’s doing… [4]

With a little updating from Moses’ time, today we are pressing our technological age to do what works, no matter how simple it may be. Public health experts who studied eight Care Group projects found that as a result of the group teachings and outreach, under-five mortality decreased by 32%. And the cost per beneficiary per year for such impact? Only US $3-$8. [5]

Once scaling and saturation takes place in communities, the Care Group model allows communities to reach a critical tipping point that has the potential to transform entire nations. As a result, the Care group model becomes an efficient, inexpensive, self-sustaining vehicle for transformation.

It is a future that is bright, and filled with healthy, joyful children, celebrating many more birthdays to come.

 

[1] The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood (Fraiberg, Selma. Simon and Schuster.)

[2] Acting on the Call, USAID, 2017 Fact Sheet

[3] Global Health:  Science and Practice 2015, Vol 3, Issue 3, p. 370

[4] CORE Group Conference for Global Health Practitioners, Silver Spring, MD October 16, 2014, Acceptance Speech by Pieter Ernst for Dory Storms Award

[5] Global Health:  Science and Practice 2015, Vol 3, Issue 3, p. 370


Deborah Dortzbach is the Senior Program Advisor for World Relief. She has been involved in church-based HIV/AIDS prevention and care since the early 1990s. Prior to joining World Relief she directed MAP International's HIV/AIDS programs from 1990-1997. Doborah is the author, with W. Meredith Long, of The AIDS Crisis: What We Can Do (2006), as well as Kidnapped (1975), which chronicles her 1973 abduction with her husband by the Eritrean Liberation Front while they were working as missionaries.

Agents of Peace Amid Despair

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by Maggie Konstanski
World Relief Middle East Programs Technical and Operations Coordinator


Last month, I stood in Iraq while looking out over Syria. My heart was heavy. New challenges emerged by the hour and all of our efforts felt insufficient when compared to the immense and ever-growing needs. As I stood in one land and looked out over another—both of which are entrenched in horrific conflicts, my frustration grew. I was overwhelmed by the news cycle that day: violence, terror, hate, persecution and unimaginable atrocities perpetrated against children. And, as violence continues to cause mass displacement around the world, this same news cycle showed many countries adopting increasingly restrictive policies that result in closed doors, preventing the persecuted from finding refuge.

At the end of most days, I find myself crying out questions of why and how long people must be left to languish in such circumstances. I struggle with the knowledge that we’re too often paralyzed when confronted with suffering at such magnitude—oftentimes believing there is no hope, that there is only darkness and that the dawn will never come. Today, too many of us have come to believe that the darkness is impenetrable, the conflicts too entrenched and that our resources are too small to make a difference.

But there is another story. It is the story of a small but persistent church body, isolated and under-resourced, yet powerfully engaged. It is a story of hope and light amidst the darkness.

The Middle Eastern conflict and disruption has been devastating for millions of men, women and children. Yet, this terrible struggle has also given the church an unparallelled opportunity to reach out to their vulnerable neighbors. Though these churches are usually small and often face significant challenges, their leaders deeply desire to serve faithfully and extend love, compassion and refuge to the thousands of suffering around them.

Today—perhaps more than ever—the church in the Middle East has the opportunity to break down damaging historical perceptions and cultural stereotypes, and foster restored relationships in their communities. And as the world looks to see how the global church responds to this conflict, its legacy will be one of love and welcome. It will be a “light for the world.” A town built upon a hill that gives light to everyone and shines a path forward, one of hope and of peace.

I have seen enough to believe that there is no place secluded enough, no place dark enough and no place disguised enough to keep the oppressed hidden from a God who hears their cries. I have seen the church reaching the furthest corners of the most vulnerable communities, identifying the neediest for emergency assistance and connecting them to the services and resources they need. I have seen them reaching the unreached in fearless and compassionate service.

This is a place where I know morning will come. The dawn will break upon us. The sun will rise. Darkness will be vanquished. This is a place where the church is truly stepping out in faith as the hope and light of the world. And I have already seen this light.

I see it in the faces of children who laugh, play and show compassion to others in our kids clubs and safe spaces programs. I see it in the displaced community as they seek to serve one another and make sacrifices for others. I see it in parents here who give up their own lives and comfort in hopes of providing a different future to their children. I see it in families who welcome the refugee, the stranger and share their homes and dinner tables. I see it in the person who forgives words said in anger and frustration, and extends undeserved grace. I see it in the grace, forgiveness and kindness that have been extended to me by so many.

And above all, I see it in the church that chooses to boldly and compassionately reach out, even when they themselves are under pressure and persecution.

We may not be able to end all conflicts. We may not be able to meet all the needs on our doorstep, but we can answer God’s calling and follow the church's lead to love those in front of us. We can work through the church to push back the darkness in our own spheres of influence. We can advocate for more action. We can show compassion. And we can be peacemakers.

Across the Middle East, the church is bringing light to places of great darkness. In the valley of the shadow of death, churches are agents of peace, light and reconciliation in communities entrenched in conflict. To witness their love in action and commitment to guiding the region towards a path of peace inspires me with renewed hope each day.


Maggie Konstanski has been a part of the World Relief team for over 4 years, and currently serves at the Middle East Programs Technical and Operations Coordinator. With a passion for international human rights, Maggie often uses work-related travel as a platform to tell the powerful stories of the vulnerable families and communities we serve.

Changemakers in South Sudan — Establishing a Place of Peace and Love

This month, we’re sharing stories from our work around the world.  It is our hope that these stories will inspire, encourage, and enrich your lives. The following post was written by Darren Harder, Country Director for World Relief South Sudan.
 

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me;
Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be.

With God as our Father, brothers all are we,
Let me walk with my brother, in perfect harmony.

Let peace begin with me, let this be the moment now;
With every step I take, let this be my solemn vow

To take each moment and live each moment, in peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

The lyrics to this beloved Christmas hymn seem to ring truer with each passing year.

Peace. Something that has too often seemed unattainable in 2016. A year that has been difficult, contentious, and violent both here in the U.S. and around the world. A year that has challenged us all as individuals, as parents, spouses, friends, colleagues, even as Christians. Now, as we draw near to the end of the year, we long for a more peaceful 2017, one filled with love and with hope for a better tomorrow. 

Amidst this darkness, what better time to look to stories of incredible hope where peace can indeed triumph against the odds? Stories that encourage and inspire us. Stories that show us we can rise above our doubts. Stories like the one of the Church in war-torn South Sudan. 

Though pushed from international headlines by the tragedy of Syria and the horrifying images streaming almost daily out of Aleppo, few places have more tragic histories or precarious futures than South Sudan. After decades of civil war with North Sudan, the world’s youngest country was born to great fanfare and hope in 2011. But that hope did not last long. In 2013 violence broke out, between supporters of the President and former Vice President of South Sudan. Over the last three years, ethnic-based killings have taken place on all sides, accompanied by growing demands for vengeance. According to the U.S. Institute for Peace, nearly 4 million South Sudanese face severe food insecurity, and more than 2 million have been displaced by the war. 

The stories circulating in international media, paint a bleak picture of South Sudan and its immediate future. Even bleaker are the suggestions from the diplomatic community that the situation could get worse before it gets better. Despite multiple efforts to broker peace, South Sudan, like too many other places around the world, now faces impending catastrophe. Militias are mobilizing along ethnic lines, hate speech is circulating on social media, and international human rights groups are now documenting widespread human rights abuses.

And yet, against this dark canvas of suffering, fear, and forced displacement, one area stands out, determined to be a place of peace and love. This place is Ibba, a county in Western Equatoria State, where World Relief South Sudan is partnering with Church leaders, determined to become a light amidst the darkness.

In Ibba, World Relief is working in collaboration with local Churches to build homes for the elderly and the sick, run agricultural trainings to increase harvests in order to feed the hungry, and start savings groups. We are training women and young mothers in fostering peaceful family environments and in other life skills. Above all, we are focused on working together to organize spiritual activities that help build the unity of the Church, enable them to share each other’s burdens and challenges, and share in peaceful solutions. 

On November 20, 2016 a joint prayer service was held at St. Charles Lwanga Catholic Parish of Ibba, which brought together more than 3,000 people from across the region for over eight hours of prayer and worship. It was the first time that four Christian denominations, namely ECSS/S, Roman Catholic Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, and Seventh Days Adventists, have come together to worship in Ibba. Church leaders preached messages of peace, unity, and collaboration. Many announced it was the first time in their lives that they’d seen such unity, and challenged the congregation to take the message of peace home to their neighbors.

As I watched the church come together as a unified body of believers, to pray for their communities and to serve the most vulnerable, I reflected on how much we can learn from our brothers and sisters in South Sudan who are doing the hard work of peacemaking each day.  Even though insecurity exists in neighboring counties, Ibba has remained calm, and I have no doubt it is due to the leadership shown by the local pastors in Ibba. I thank God for them daily and pray that they will continue to find their voice as they become beacons of light in their suffering communities.

Now and in the coming New Year, let us stand up for change. Let us join together with these peacemakers. Let us come alongside them to learn from them, to stand with them, and to give to them, so that they may increase their capacity for peace in South Sudan and beyond. Let us find peace on earth, and let it begin with you.

Changemakers in Rwanda — A Story of Light Overcoming Darkness

The following post was written by Moses Ndahiro, Country Director for World Relief Rwanda.
 

Rwanda.

A country as magnificent as it is complex. A place of breath-taking beauty, and of an unthinkably violent history. A marvelous land of a thousand hills, still haunted by an eerie morning fog that sits atop the horizon and whispers of horrors passed; a genocide that shook the world so deeply, it promised, “never again”.

It is a country unlike any other, where God’s creation is on display in all its splendor and diversity. The warmth and hospitality of a people striving to rebuild and rewrite their story. The hope of a history overcome, and of a nation reborn.

And it is a country where God is at work in powerful ways. Where people’s hearts and minds are being transformed through Christ. Where the Church is stepping into its rightful place as the hope of the world. 

It is a story of light overcoming the darkness.


The Church established itself in Rwanda over 100 years ago, and today, more than 70% of the population is in a church building every week. How then, in 1994, did a genocide of such horrific proportions and unprecedented brutality take place? Volumes have been written on the underlying causes, on the immediate events leading up to the genocide and of the failure of the world to take heed of the warning signs. Little, however, was said of the failure of the Church to stand up and protect the vulnerable. Fortunately, that has changed. Today’s Church in Rwanda is quite different from the institutionalized Church of the past. It is vibrant, diverse, and growing. And step-by-step, it has begun to walk alongside its people in their journey from darkness and despair, towards hope and renewal.

World Relief first established its presence in Rwanda immediately following the genocide. Watching the international community respond with one-off emergency interventions, we became increasingly convinced that solutions needed to center on the resourcefulness and hearts of the local people, and that the Church had a unique role to play. Born out of that conviction, World Relief first pioneered its Church Empowerment Zone model in 2011. Founded on our strong belief that transformational change begins with the Church, we began teaching, mobilizing, and empowering local churches and their networks to serve the most vulnerable in their communities. Through sharing and building leadership capacity, we brought churches of all denominations together in one network to unite under a common curriculum and leadership development program, giving them the opportunity to wrestle with common problems, share resources, and join together in a common vision for their churches, families, and communities.

“We do not see one another as enemies anymore. Now we come together as brothers, bringing our strengths together. We are at peace.” – Pastor Museveni

Today, the Church Empowerment Zone model is unleashing the potential of hundreds of churches and communities across Rwanda, building a legacy of hope, generosity, and self-reliance that is sustaining progress. Local churches are no longer simply institutions for Sunday gatherings, but the epicenters of their communities—transforming hearts, minds, and attitudes. Rwanda is a vivid and timely reminder that there is more to religion than just turning up to church. It has revealed how essential it is for our faith to be strongly rooted in a holistic and meaningful understanding of the Gospel. 

One pastor in Bushenge, Rwanda said, “Now we are caring for the poor and most vulnerable. We are creating love where the Devil was bringing hate and division. We are bringing the Kingdom of God down to Earth. Our families are in harmony. And a family in harmony will prosper in everything.”

Over the last five years, we have seen families reunited and health and nutrition outcomes improved. We have seen neighbors, siblings, spouses, children, and friends overcome their challenges and experience renewed and strengthened holistic relationships.  We have seen the transformation of lives.

The story of the church in Rwanda is powerful and inspiring. But it is not the only nation where the church is catalyzing transformational change.

Now is the time for the U.S. church to join in this rebirth. We have a unique role to play in helping African churches increase their capacity, and they have much to teach us about what it means to truly trust in God. When we work together in harmony, uplifting one another, and placing God at the center of our partnership, we have the true potential to transform the lives of millions of vulnerable people.