Numbers and Spirits Rise for 15th Peacebuilding Institute

Enrollment numbers have climbed back for EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute, which brought most of the 112 learners enrolled from 37 nations together for a jubilant May 10 opening.

That morning, as a conga line danced, singing, into the crowded Martin chapel on the Harrisonburg, Va., campus, volcanic ash storm-related travel delays kept one participant behind in Italy. Lack of funds and/or visas barred others. Yet attendance had jumped back significantly from the recession- and epidemic-driven drop, to 84, a year ago.

Now, those assembled laughed as SPI Director Sue Williams noted, “We have only seven days of class, and we will try to fit too much into them.”

Thousands of alumni worldwide

Since the institute’s 1994 founding, about 2,500 international workers in humanitarian, conflict transformation and other peacebuilding endeavors have taken part. During four week-long sessions – this year, until June 18 – they investigate many aspects of peace and conflict while forming cross-cultural friendships and working partnerships.

SPI student Vera Giantari
Vera Giantari from Indonesia introduces herself during the opening SPI gathering. Photo by Lindsey Kolb

Williams expects enrollment to total more than 200 over all sessions. She adds, “One new thing this year was a one-week intensive English class, before SPI began, for those who wanted to spend some time getting comfortable speaking English.”

“We are people of many colors, and we represent so many ministries and activities around the world,” said EMU President Loren Swartzendruber. Learners’ home countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Zambia, include Haiti, Israel and Palestine as well as the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Building networks

Valerie Helbert, a staff member with EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding – which sponsors SPI – encouraged learners to “educate others” if misunderstandings arise. “Assume that they mean well,” she suggested.

SPI student Richard Higginson
Richard Higginson from Northern Ireland introduces himself during the opening SPI gathering while fellow participants post “footprints” with their names on their home countries on a world map. Photo by Lindsey Kolb

Participant introductions were accompanied by the beat of CJP student Mashuri’s djembe drum. Another CJP student, Richard Higginson, strummed a guitar for a sing-along of his “Colors Song”:

“We are many colors . . .a portrait of perfection.”

CJP master’s student Abdinasir Nur, attending his first SPI, says, “In CJP we talk about social capital.” He hopes that in SPI, “We’ll be making a lot of social capital: networks.”

He wants to be a peacebuilder in his country, Somalia. “I like to work with communities,” he says, and may do so either in professional work with an NGO or as a volunteer. He’s taking the course, “Conflict-Sensitive Development and Peacebuilding,”

Clan rivalries and religious discord – even among people of the same faith – drive conflict in Somalia, Nur explains. “I want to see a world where people live together in peace and harmony without any form of conflict. This is a naive hope, but we can at least try.”

Memphis team works with youth

Although this is the first trip to SPI for Vickie O’Neal, her husband, Michael, and their colleagues with the Memphis, Tenn., conflict-resolution team, Turning Point Partners, attended in 2009.

O’Neal, a Turning Point coordinator, is happy that after years of volunteering in Memphis schools, the team has been hired to do similar work. Members lead empathy-training and “peace-making circles,” working with children involved in juvenile courts.

Having enrolled in the courses, “Introduction to Conflict Resolution” and “Restorative Justice,” O’Neal says, “Violence is not only physical. I’m sure I’m going to find that conflict is on many levels.”

The opening ceremony featured two Irish blessings. An American CJP student with Irish ancestry led the recital of one in a brogue. Williams shared another: “If God sends you down a stony path, may he give you strong shoes.”

Learn more about conflict resolution at EMU

Chris Edwards is a free-lance writer from Harrisonburg, Va. Contact EMU’s marketing and communications office for more information on this article.