Frantic banging on an auditorium door interrupted a quiet moment during the May 3 opening of the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at EMU.
Once Brian Gilchrest gained admission, he ran anxiously up the aisle shouldering a huge travel bag. “I’m confused!” announced Gilchrest (actually, a student in EMU’s Conflict Transformation Program, which sponsors SPI).
He role-played an SPI participant who had struggled to obtain a visa and flight connections, as many had. He expressed relief at finally reaching EMU. (Fortunately, he noted, his taxi driver had known the way to the Harrisonburg campus because “he had a brother who was a Mennonite or something.”) Though eager to jump into peacebuilding issues, Gilchrest’s character was uncertain what to wear or how to behave in this gathering of guests from many nations.
Some of his new friends who wore garments ranging from colorful, flowing robes to t-shirts advised Gilchrest that diversity would be valued. However, they suggested that cultural sensitivity called for discretion in his habit of greeting new acquaintances with head-rubs.
About 100 participants were on hand at the start of SPI’s ninth summer, with 185 anticipated during sessions that continue through June 15. SPI learners represent all major continents and faith traditions. All have experience in peacebuilding work, such as human rights and relief. Most are sponsored by home organizations. Some, like Gilchrest, are studying toward a masters degree. Others come only for all or part of the summer institute.
Over its four sessions, they will complete workshops such as “Restorative Justice” and “Peace Education for Youth and Children.” During free hours, they share food, sports, music and culture, visit local families and churches and form friendships. Close ties sometimes form between persons from clashing nations and cultures.
This year’s attendees include five from Iraq. Mindful of recent world strife, SPI is offering two new workshops related to societies recovering from violence or repression: “Transitional Justice,” facilitated by Louis Bickford of the South African-based International Center for Transitional Justice, and “Peacebuilding for Traumatized Societies” by CTP faculty member Barry Hart.
In the Philippines, Ramon Chito Villegas Genoroso works with a peacebuilding institute assisted by the Mennonite Central Committee. He received a transportation scholarship to attend SPI in search of ways to promote peaceful change in his native country. He has enrolled in the workshop, “Strategic Nonviolence,” led by by CTP faculty member Lisa Schirch.
In Haiti, Genevieve Bonny is a peacebuilding project manager for Catholic Relief Services. Bonny sees Haiti’s recent, violent governance change as a challenge. “That gives us more opportunity to know what to do,” she said with a smile.
Her organization, affiliated with Caritas, works to meet a broad range of needs through orphanages, homes for the elderly, a microfinance program for small-business loans, and a health and nutrition program for mothers and babies. She has come to SPI for the workshop, “Introduction to Conflict Transformation,” co-taught by David Dyck, a mediation trainer from Manitoba, and Nyambura Githaiga, program officer for the Fellowship of Christian Councils in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa.
“Our peacebuilding program is one year old. The Mennonites have a lot of experience in this arena,” Bonny said. “I’m very excited to be here and I hope I’ll learn a lot.”
Chris Edwards is a free-lance writer from Harrisonburg, Va.