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Seeking Peace through Striving for Justice in Asia’s Communities

March 31, 2014

Last year my four-year term in Hong Kong concluded, and I spent the last six months of the year in the United States on home assignment, speaking in local churches as well as seminaries and universities about Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF), our regional interfaith network of young people who work on a variety of issues in Asia, from alleviating poverty to addressing gender discrimination to seeking to resolve violent conflicts. It was wonderful to be home again to see my family and friends and to visit congregations in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota and the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho. I appreciated the opportunity to not only share about our interfaith programs but also to learn about the work that local churches are doing in their communities in the United States.

I returned to Hong Kong after Christmas and began another four-year term in January at the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs (APAY) as ICF is a joint program of APAY and the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Like my last term, I will once again edit our monthly e-newsletter faith and peace (past and current issues are available online at http://icf.daga.org/faithpeace/fparchive.htm), coordinate ICF’s internship program and mentor our network members in Indonesia, East Timor and the Philippines.

While I was away, another ICF coordinator, Max Ediger, conducted ICF’s main program, our School of Peace (SOP), in Sri Lanka. It is the one activity that all members of our network have attended, and it gives each network member a common foundation of experience and understanding and a common bond. Unlike past SOPs, however, that were held for 14 consecutive weeks in India with participants from throughout Asia, this program was our first subregional SOP with participants coming primarily from the same part of Asia who share a similar culture, history and issues. The 10 participants this time at the sixth SOP were from the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, plus East Timor. In addition to having participants from mainly one subregion of Asia, the three modules of SOP were conveyed differently as well, for the first two modules were presented between August and October, and the last one-month module began in January. Between October and January, the participants were to use what they learned in the first two modules, such as structural analysis of their context and tools for transforming individuals and society, in their work with the issues in their own community. We now need to discern if this model was more effective than our previous program structure.

In our endeavors to build and strengthen an interfaith movement of young people to work for justpeace in Asia, we have always emphasized that justice needs to precede peace—hence, the term “justpeace”—for peace without justice, we believe, will not truly result in a resolution of the issues that led to the violent conflict but will merely produce perhaps an absence of violence for a period of time. Meanwhile, the seeds of the disagreement that caused the violent conflict—the root causes of the hostilities—will still be deeply buried in the hearts of the losers of the dispute and their children.

Since 2003 when ICF was formed as largely a response to the tragedy of 9/11 in the United States and the ensuing intensification of previous so-called religious conflicts in Asia, I believe the need for our work has, if anything, increased as violence continues to often be the preferred method of responding to conflict; as identity, especially one’s religious, ethnic or national identity, is more and more used by some leaders as a means to divide and manipulate people; as unemployment and poverty, particularly among the youth, remain largely unaddressed, contributing to an ever wider chasm of economic and social inequality in many societies. These interconnected phenomena create the conditions that spawn the foot soldiers for many of today’s violent conflicts. The overall result is that our world today is characterized by broken relationships. As people of faith, however, we are called to act toward healing and mending these broken relationships so that peace rooted in justice can be restored. This aim is the overall purpose of ICF’s work. While ICF’s 98 SOP alumni will not instantly alter the dynamics above, they are seeking to bring about positive change in their communities in Asia. Their energy, commitment, patience and persistence, creativity and courage inspire me to hope that violence, identity politics and inequality will less and less be features that define our world today in Asia.

In Peace,

Bruce Van Voorhis serves as missionary with the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCA’s in Hong Kong.  He serves as the Coordinator for Interfaith Programs.

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