Forging a Path to Interreligious Action for Peace

What does it take to build peace among people divided by religion? Is it dialogue about beliefs, traditions, and values that creates greater understanding, and thus more harmony? Or is it joint action that generates cooperation and strengthens relationships? The resounding answer from Catholic Relief Services’ interreligious peacebuilding experience is: both. Talking theology matters, but so does the opportunity to work side-by-side and put values into practice.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has been supporting peace and development efforts since the height of the country’s civil war, programs invite people to connect through dialogue and action. Young people, many of whom attend segregated schools and have never heard stories of the war from the perspective of other ethnic and religious groups, jointly visit one another’s places of worship, perform musical concerts together, and collaborate on art exhibitions, and carry out cooperative community initiatives across religious lines. These shared activities are important to create common experiences and connections.

But deeply held perceptions and attitudes do not change through these joint activities alone; it is also important to delve into values and histories that connect and divide people. Young people have the opportunity to do so through seminars, dialogue sessions, and participatory theatre. Another important tool that CRS has been using in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been “Speaking Out” events, in which war victims share their stories of suffering at the hands of other ethnic and religious groups, and their journeys towards reconciliation. For many in the audience, young and older, this may be the first time that they are confronted with the “other side’s” narrative of the past. While this is challenging, it also opens them to the possibility of greater empathy for people from the other groups.

The stronger relationships and improved mutual understanding that emerge from activities like these prepare the ground for concrete steps towards reconciliation. These can include local initiatives involving ordinary citizens as well as building a vision for changes in the institutions that touch the lives of the broader population. A case in point is a national “Platform for Peace” just recently adopted by the highest level of government in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This Platform, developed at CRS’ initiative in collaboration with local partners and a range of key leaders, commits government officials and other authorities to work for long-term peace and reconciliation through measures such as institutionalizing trust-building mechanisms, reducing divisive rhetoric, and promoting peace education in schools. Over 40% of the country’s mayors have also signed on to the Platform for Peace, and have pledged to dedicate resources from their local budgets to put it into action.

In another landmark move, the deans of the country’s three theology schools – Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim – recently announced a joint Master’s degree program in interreligious peacebuilding. This program, which will accept its first students in the fall, is the first of its kind in the region. It is the fruit of several years of patient and steady work on the part of the seminary representatives, supported and accompanied by CRS as they worked to bring their vision to life. Graduates of the program will emerge with a strong grounding in the three faith traditions’ teaching on peace, justice, and ethics; internship experiences will also give them strong practical skills to contribute to forging unity in their communities and country.

What barriers divide people of different faiths in your community? What opportunities do you see to forge connections across these barriers, through dialogue and action?

Nell Bolton is Senior Technical Advisor for Justice & Peacebuilding at Catholic Relief Services.

To learn more about what works in interreligious peacebuilding, download a copy of CRS’ new book, Interreligious Action for Peace: Studies in Muslim-Christian Cooperation.

Easter: We Encounter Resurrection

When the risen Jesus encounters his disciples on the road to Emmaus, it’s quite clear that their journeying away from Jerusalem is in fact a journeying away from hope. They have witnessed their friend, their hoped-for savior die; they have seen their community scattered; they have understood their trust in God to have been misplaced. What is left for them now?

Jesus, of course, turns them around—quite literally. The encounter with the risen Christ means a renewed encounter with hope; that God is not done yet; that darkness and suffering do not have the final word.

Indeed, this story continues to unfold in our own time. We look out at a world wracked by hunger, poverty, war, injustice and we, too, feel like walking away. Where should we place our hope when the challenges seem insurmountable?

This is the story of resurrection. We encounter Christ daily in the faces of our neighbors, of those we meet in our work, our home, on our streets, those whom we have yet to meet face to face but with whom we are intricately tied as members of God’s one human family. We encounter Christ, too, within ourselves. And in these encounters, we have reason to hope. Because God is not done yet—and so long as we have strength to continue the work of building a culture of encounter, of responding to our Gospel call, neither are we.

Eric Clayton is CRS Rice Bowl Program Officer at Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

This reflection was first published in CRS Rice Bowl’s Encounter Lent: Theological & Scriptural Reflections. Don’t forget to turn in your Lenten alms to CRS Rice Bowl!

Going Deeper

How are you called to join with others to “turn around” and challenge injustice that you see or experience? How can you work with others to be a sign of Christ’s resurrection in your community?

Read about how, in the face of the violence and unrest that followed the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, in 2014, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta has served as a witness to God’s love and hope.  Read these recommendations from the USCCB Special Task Force to Promote Peace in Our Communities for ways your faith community can work to build peace and end racial injustice.

Encounter Dita

Tena is one of many children severely affected by the worst drought in 50 years, prolonged by El Nino. Photo by Petterik Wiggers for Catholic Relief Services.

Tena is one of many children severely affected by the worst drought in 50 years, prolonged by El Nino. Photo by Petterik Wiggers for Catholic Relief Services.

When we think of those goods the poor are stripped of daily, there are probably several key items that come to mind: food, water, and shelter, to name a few. We so often see countries rich in resources, and yet, the people of those countries live in poverty. How do we ensure that the wonders of the natural world are used in a sustainable, equitable way? Giving a man a fish, as the old adage goes, only solves the problem for the day.

Pope Francis says it best in his encyclical, Laudato Si’: “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

Dita’s story of resilience and success in the face of a devastating drought in Ethiopia brings the pope’s quote to life. Dita, her husband and their seven children depend on the money they earn selling crops from their small farm in Ethiopia. But frequent droughts often mean that families like Dita’s who depend on home-grown crops go hungry. And amidst the current historic drought, more than 10 million people are struggling with hunger.

But thanks to a CRS program that helps families prepare for crises like droughts, Dita was able to build a new house and open a small store. Instead of relying solely on what she can grow on her farm, she is able to sell items like pasta, shampoo, and bananas. She earns a steady $400 a month.

“Before, I had to get eggs from my neighbors. Now I have 15 hens,” she proclaims. Saving money and being able to borrow not only allowed her to buy hens but also a metal roof for her new house, a rarity for families in this part of Ethiopia.

“Now we have no problems with food,” she says. Unlike families across Ethiopia that struggle to find enough to eat, Dita says her children eat three times a day, thanks to her newfound business knowledge.

And what’s more, all her children are attending school. “When I was a child, there were no education opportunities,” she says. Then, with a shy but proud smile, she adds, “That’s a big difference.”

The environment and the people that inhabit it are interconnected; all of God’s creation is one. God calls us to be stewards of the resources which we have been given, to look out for one another by sharing and collaborating, rather than grabbing up everything we can get now and worrying about others later. After all, teaching a man to fish will be of little value if we’ve left a polluted pond.

Eric Clayton is CRS Rice Bowl Program Officer at Catholic Relief Services (CRS).


This Lent, USCCB is partnering with CRS to bring you reflections and Stories of Hope from CRS Rice Bowl, the Lenten faith-in-action program for families and faith communities. Through CRS Rice Bowl, we hear stories from our brothers and sisters in need worldwide, and devote our Lenten prayers, fasting and gifts to change the lives of the poor. Read more from CRS Rice Bowl.

Encounter Maria

As Catholics, we go to God together. We’re all in this together. God’s family extends beyond time and space, and we’re called as individuals to participate in that family, both in the daily realities in which we find ourselves and in that eternal reality to which God calls us. Our participation matters, whether it’s buying a homeless man a sandwich, spending time with our parents, or supporting just and fair social systems.

That’s why the saints are so important: women and men who have gone before us who shine the light so that we can see, who relate to us in their humanity and call us beyond ourselves in their examples of holiness. Some of these men and women walked with Christ himself; others lived years later; still others we know from our own lives. This is what it means to be in community—to be a part of God’s community: that we look to one another for support, for prayer, for inspiration and motivation along the journey, because we’re all just pilgrims on the road.

And that’s why we go out into the world; that’s why we build the Reign of God on earth. We should never grow tired of hearing St. Teresa of Calcutta’s words: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” We are called to be saints today; we are called to holiness. And we are called to go to God together. So, as members of a community that stretches far beyond ourselves, we go out to our brothers and sisters to be for them what Christ and the saints are for us.

Maria de lu Luz Lego Martinez, here with her grandson Alexis. runs a household without a husband, who went to the US. Of her 10 children, four have died, two live in the United States, and the other four live nearby. Photo by Karen Kasmauski for Catholic Relief Services.

Maria de lu Luz Lego Martinez, here with her grandson Alexis. runs a household without a husband, who went to the US. Of her 10 children, four have died, two live in the United States, and the other four live nearby. Photo by Karen Kasmauski for Catholic Relief Services.

Maria, a woman from Ejido Hidalgo, Mexico, provides us with a living example of this principle in action. She remembers what it was like growing up in her small village. “We said we were rich because we had a lot of corn, beans and animals.” But now, with few jobs and even less rain, young people—including Maria’s children—are leaving the community in search of a better life.

To help families like Maria’s, CRS launched a greenhouse project empowering women with meaningful work and community. Women visit their community greenhouses to grow cactuses to sell—but they also go for so much more. “At the greenhouses, we laugh, we talk, we spend time together. Sometimes we leave our homes angry or sad. But then we start working with the plants, and we forget. Talking, laughing—we forget our problems for a while,” says Maria.

As the cactuses grow, so to do the economic opportunities. “We didn’t believe we were going to get that far. It’s a lot of joy, a lot of excitement to see so many plants flowering.”

The flourishing cactuses aren’t the only things that give Maria pride. Even though they live far away, she still remains close to her family. “I give thanks to God that he gave me all my children and grandchildren,” she says. “They give me strength and courage to work hard. My children call and say, ‘Don’t give up, Mom. Have faith in God.’”

Eric Clayton is CRS Rice Bowl Program Officer at Catholic Relief Services (CRS).


This Lent, USCCB is partnering with CRS to bring you reflections and Stories of Hope from CRS Rice Bowl, the Lenten faith-in-action program for families and faith communities. Through CRS Rice Bowl, we hear stories from our brothers and sisters in need worldwide, and devote our Lenten prayers, fasting and gifts to change the lives of the poor. Read more from CRS Rice Bowl.

 

 


 

Encounter Fernando

“Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person. Work…anoints us with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God, who has worked and still works…”
– Pope Francis, Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, 2013

 “My Father is at work until now, so I am at work.” John 5:17 How tempting it is to relegate these words of Jesus to the archives of history. But let us realize that they are as relevant now as they were 2,000 years ago—ours is a God of work, a God who is constantly creating anew in us and in our world, a God who beckons us to work alongside with our own skills and passions and dreams, no matter who we are or where in the world we may live.

 Santos Fernando Sánchez García, 22, a member of the Youths Builders “Jóvenes Constructores” program supported by Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for Catholic Relief Services.

Santos Fernando Sánchez García, 22, a member of the Youths Builders “Jóvenes Constructores” program supported by Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for Catholic Relief Services.

Fernando dreams of becoming a businessman. He also dreams of a better future for his family, and this motivates him to sell cookbooks on San Salvador’s buses. It’s dangerous work for $10 a day—gangs frequently stop and harass drivers and passengers—but he keeps going, determined to achieve his dreams.

It was his dreams that led him to YouthBuild, a six-month, CRS-sponsored program that trains young people in business. There, he found a positive community to help him pursue his passion, despite the challenges of life in El Salvador. “When I tell my classmates that I want to do something, they tell me to try it and to not hold back.”

Training for six months with YouthBuild wasn’t easy on Fernando or his family. Without his wife to support him and care for their two young daughters, the early mornings and long days might have been impossible. “YouthBuild is a family because families help you realize your dreams,” Fernando says. It’s a fact he knows well.

Group photo of members of “Jóvenes Constructores” program supported by Catholic Relief Services and its local partners Glasswing. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for Catholic Relief Services.

Group photo of members of “Jóvenes Constructores” program supported by Catholic Relief Services and its local partners Glasswing. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for Catholic Relief Services.

Fernando is putting his newfound skills to work. After graduating from YouthBuild in 2016, he took part in a series of entrepreneur workshops organized by CRS and is currently working on a new business plan. He is also a part of the YouthBuild network of graduates, youth leaders who mentor other young people and look for new opportunities for employment and growth.

 

“We have a saying,” says Fernando. “Once a YouthBuilder, always a YouthBuilder.”

Fernando’ story gives us pause. Knowing that God desires us to use our passion and dreams to guide our work in building a culture of encounter gives us pause, too. Let us pause, then, and think over our own work. Do we recognize God’s hand in the tasks we are given to do? Do we embrace Jesus’ call to keep working, to enter into relationship with a Creator God who never tires? Or do we allow ourselves to give in to our frustrations, to deem a task frivolous or beneath us, to take the easy way out? Do we fail to allow God to use our efforts—no matter how seemingly small!—for God’s own greater glory?

The opportunity to create in the image and likeness of the Creator is a right of every person, the avenue through which each human being is able to more fully reveal God’s glory in the world. How, during this Lenten season, will we liberate that which is holy and hidden in the world around us?

Eric Clayton is CRS Rice Bowl Program Officer at Catholic Relief Services (CRS).


This Lent, USCCB is partnering with CRS to bring you reflections and Stories of Hope from CRS Rice Bowl, the Lenten faith-in-action program for families and faith communities. Through CRS Rice Bowl, we hear stories from our brothers and sisters in need worldwide, and devote our Lenten prayers, fasting and gifts to change the lives of the poor. Read more from CRS Rice Bowl.

Encounter Evelina

“This teaching rests on one basic principle: individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution. That is necessarily so, for men are by nature social beings.”

—St. John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, # 219 (Mother and Teacher, on Christianity and social progress)

It’s a pretty radical thing to say that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. That’s what we’re talking about when we reflect on the sacredness and dignity of the human person—each one of us, every human on the planet, reflects the Divine, the Creator, God. Each of us shines forth that which is holy. None of us is left out; God is present in a unique and irreplaceable way in every human being.

What, then, happens when that unique expression of God is silenced, when that holy light is dimmed? What does our world lose? As we look out upon our global community, it’s not hard to see that some of us have access to more opportunities than others. It’s not hard to see that some of us would rather pretend that human dignity is not universal, that there are people in whom God does not dwell.

Evelina Banda, 35 years old, Petauke District, eastern Zambia. Photo by Nancy McNally/Catholic Relief Services

Evelina Banda, 35 years old, Petauke District, eastern Zambia. Photo by Nancy McNally/Catholic Relief Services

Let’s reflect on Evelina and her son, Stephen, both of whom live in Zambia. Growing up, Evelina, like generations of Zambians before her, used to survive on meals made from corn flour, usually a porridge called ‘nshima.’ “I’d eat porridge in the morning, at lunchtime and again in the evening,” she says. After all, it was cheap and easy to make.

Unfortunately, nshima has very little nutritional value—and relying too heavily on it has led to high rates of malnutrition. Many in Zambia have full bellies, but little nourishment. And this is particularly dangerous for children under the age of two, who need high levels of vitamins and minerals to grow up healthy and strong. That means mothers who are nursing—as well as their children—need nutritious meals.

Evelina Banda, 35 years old, with her son, Steven, 16 months old, in Ndombi Village, Zambia. Photo by Jim Stipe/Catholic Relief Services

Evelina Banda, 35 years old, with her son, Steven, 16 months old, in Ndombi Village, Zambia. Photo by Jim Stipe/Catholic Relief Services

So, CRS is teaching women like Evelina how to prepare healthier meals and grow new, vitamin-rich crops like peanuts, pumpkins and sugar cane. In many cases, these crops were already being grown in the village. Now, Evelina and others are adding more nutritious food to their children’s nshima: ground peanuts or eggs, for example. And, what the women learn, they share with their community—especially expectant mothers.

“We sing and dance during the cooking lessons because we are happy to learn how to cook different types of food,” says Evelina. Evelina is healthier, and so is her son, Steven. “I know I am taking good care of him, because he’s full of energy, he’s strong and never sick,” she says, with a smile.

We see in this story an opportunity to protect and promote the dignity of the human person. Our care for and commitment to individuals and communities—even those far away—is vital. We need only look to Jesus who stood with those on the margins, affirming their dignity, their right to an abundant life even if it meant his own death.

Eric Clayton is CRS Rice Bowl Program Officer at Catholic Relief Services (CRS).


This Lent, USCCB is partnering with CRS to bring you reflections and Stories of Hope from CRS Rice Bowl, the Lenten faith-in-action program for families and faith communities. Through CRS Rice Bowl, we hear stories from our brothers and sisters in need worldwide, and devote our Lenten prayers, fasting and gifts to change the lives of the poor. Read more from CRS Rice Bowl.

Encounter the Singh Family

“Love for others, and in the first place, love for the poor, in whom the Church sees Christ himself, is made concrete in the promotion of justice.

—St. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, #58 (On the Hundredth Year)

 Jesus lived a life of poverty, from his humble birthplace to his death alongside common criminals. He lived among the poor; he cared for them and taught others to do the same. Working with and for those trapped by poverty was not an add-on, or an extra thing to do if there was time; for Jesus, it was a requirement of daily life, a way of encountering God.

We must ask ourselves: What does the preferential option for the poor mean in our own concrete, nitty-gritty realities? Who are these least among us? How do we find them? How do we ensure that we keep seeking the poorest of the poor, those in whom Christ is ever present?

Let’s reflect on how the option for the poor can be brought to life in India.

When the Malaguni River in East India floods, Megha and Raj Singh, their two children and their extended family cannot get to the nearest market—nearly five miles away—to buy and sell food. If the waters do not recede quickly, their rice fields fail, and their animals become sick from diseases spread through dirty water. The family faces financial danger.

That’s why CRS is helping the Singh family prepare for flooding with new farming tools and techniques. Now Raj plants his fields worry-free using a special type of rice that can survive flooding. He can collect and save his seeds for future use. And he now has the resources he needs to vaccinate his cows, ensuring they, too, survive the floods.

Megharani (Megha) Baliar Singh. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/Catholic Relief Services

Megharani (Megha) Baliar Singh. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/Catholic Relief Services

Megha grows vegetables in a kitchen garden, so her family has healthy meals even when she can’t visit the market. During past floods, the family had to survive solely on rice. But now, planting veggies in special sacks, she is able to raise the plants above flood lines, ensuring her family has reliable access to nutritious food.

Just as important, Megha has learned new ways of growing food, so that the entire family gets the most nutrition out of every meal. Now, the whole Singh family is healthier, and with these new ways of farming, they can continue to thrive, even during floods.

After having reflected on life in India, think about your daily life. Think about the people you encounter each week, each day. Think about the people you don’t encounter, those you intentionally avoid or forget even exist. Think about the people you step around or whose eyes you don’t meet. Are these the “least brothers” of Jesus?

Eric Clayton is CRS Rice Bowl Program Officer at Catholic Relief Services (CRS).


This Lent, USCCB is partnering with CRS to bring you reflections and Stories of Hope from CRS Rice Bowl, the Lenten faith-in-action program for families and faith communities. Through CRS Rice Bowl, we hear stories from our brothers and sisters in need worldwide, and devote our Lenten prayers, fasting and gifts to change the lives of the poor. Read more from CRS Rice Bowl.