Peace conference aims to foster multi-faith dialogueWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
With much controversy circling around how to conduct the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a conference at Lake Junaluska this weekend will instead focus on how to bring about lasting peace.
The second annual Lake Junaluska Peace Conference, scheduled for Sept. 20 to 22, promises to stimulate a deep dialogue among followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as encourage everyone involved to be effective “peace builders” in their local communities.
The conference will be held at Lake Junaluska, which may come as no surprise to those peacemakers who already live in the community. The lake has long been an epicenter for peacemaking efforts, as well headquarters for organizations that support those endeavors like the Lake Junaluska Assembly and the World Methodist Council.
Jimmy Carr, director of the Lake Junaluska Assembly, said the lake is a kind of “magnet” for people who care about making the world better.
And while striving for peace can sometimes be tied to religious and political themes, Haywood County peacemakers are anxious to include people of all backgrounds.
“It’s kind of hard for one group to bring about peace by itself,” said Carr. “You need to have persons of other faiths besides just the Christian faith if we’re going to really be sincere.”
In accordance with that idea, many of the peace activists in Haywood County, from middle school kids to 20-somethings to the retired population, say they are not driven solely by religious or political views.
Rather, their vision is fixed on achieving peace on a much grander scale, whether it’s improving daily interactions between friends and neighbors here or ending violence definitively thousands of miles away.
Working toward unity
After Wright Spears, a Lake Junaluska resident, came up with the idea for a peace conference at Lake Junaluska, a grassroots movement quickly materialized to turn his vision into reality.
“It was a group of people about two years ago who decided the church had been way too silent in the midst of war and violence, and we needed to be speaking out,” said Carr.
Now, the conference is an annual event, with plans for peace conferences in 2010 and 2011 already in the works.
Attendees this year will learn how scriptures and practices from each of the three Abrahamic faiths promote peace. Speakers at the conference include Archbishop Elias Chacour, a native Palestinian who was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize; Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow, one of the 50 most influential American rabbis according to Newsweek magazine; and Dr. Sayyid Syeed, the national director of interfaith and community alliances for the Islamic Society of North America.
Syeed said there’s been a more pressing need to achieve mutual understanding after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“There is so much negative stereotyping,” he said. “There are extremists in Afghanistan and Iraq who are giving a bad name to the religion of Islam. That’s why it’s critical that our partners and neighbors understand that those extremists do not represent Islam.”
He said there are approximately 1.3 billion Muslims in the world with 57 countries having a Muslim majority.
“If every Muslim were a terrorist, then the world would have ended a long time ago,” he said.
Syeed said we must understand what went wrong and focus on the core of each religion and build on that, rather than focusing on differences and all that has gone wrong in the past.
“We want religion to play a major role in promoting brotherhood, friendship, values, [and] to help fight against injustices,” he said.
Garland Young, chair of the Peace Conference Committee, said he hopes the conference will help people of different faiths move beyond just tolerance to real acceptance and understanding of each other.
“Tolerance kind of says we’re going to put up with each other,” said Young.
Ambassador for peace
When it comes to peacemaking, Waynesville resident Joe Hale ranks among such notables as Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Kofi Annan. All five, along with many others, have been distinguished recipients of the World Methodist Council’s Peace Award, which recognizes those who strive for peace with courage, creativity and consistency.
Hale had personally presented the awards to some of the world’s most famous peacemakers for 25 years as general secretary of the World Methodist Council before being surprised with the award himself after retiring.
The peace award went to Hale for his dedication to making sure the voice of the Methodist Church was heard in opposition to apartheid, reconciling national churches in conflict, and promoting peace with justice in the Middle East.
Despite the breadth of his accomplishments, Hale is quick to deflect attention away from himself to pay homage to other recipients of the award.
“They were all great people who had a vision of a better world, of people living in peace,” Hale said. “They were people of real quality and very modest.”
Hale said the award recipients had wide-ranging visions and did more than just make a speech here and there.
But according to Hale, it doesn’t really take someone extraordinary to strive for peace.
“It just takes sensitivity to others and a concern for others. It’s something we can all do,” he said.
Some students from Waynesville Middle School and Tuscola High School have taken that message to heart. They spent all day this past Saturday washing cars and selling baked goods as well as handmade jewelry at the K-Mart parking lot. They weren’t fundraising for a trip, sports equipment or for that matter, anything that would benefit them directly.
The $531 they raised will go toward buying 2,124 meals that they will bag themselves to ship off to the other side of the world. The students are well on their way to achieving their goal of 10,000 meals that will serve as school lunches in impoverished areas of the world.
Their hope is that parents will more likely send kids to schools to get that one good meal a day. In return, the kids will receive an education, hopefully breaking a cycle of poverty that sometimes breeds violence.
Inspiration for the fundraiser came from the students’ participation in PeaceJam, an international program that connects youth to Nobel Peace laureates and asks them to create their own local projects to address some major global issues.
“The idea that the laureates have put out is that peace is not just the absence of war,” said Frank Pollifrone, a teacher at Waynesville Middle School who helped organize PeaceJam here. “As long as there is hunger and poverty and people don’t have access to clean water and education, there will never be world peace because there’s suffering.”
Pollifrone said the Stop Hunger Now campaign will have a marked impact on the kids this year.
“Kids physically get to touch what they’re doing,” Pollifrone said. “They’re holding it, it’s tangible. They’re not just sending money off.”
The local PeaceJam program launched last year at Waynesville Middle School. The eighth-grade students who participated mentored sixth-graders, collected items for 100 hygiene kits to donate to a local homeless shelter, and raised enough money to buy 50 LifeStraws, or water purifiers, to send to people in developing nations without access to safe water.
Some of the eighth-graders who participated last year have enthusiastically signed up for the PeaceJam program that just started this year at Tuscola High.
“I liked it a lot last year,” said ninth-grader Maddy Thurman. “It was really fun to know you were actually doing something.”
“It really meant a lot, showing kids our age care,” said Morgan Trantham, another ninth-grader, who added that it’s important for young people to learn about pressing global problems now and work toward fixing them when they become older.
Thurman also realizes the need to stay active all throughout life. “When you’re little, you believe in things,” she said. “When you’re older, you can come back to that. It’s just so much wasted time in between. We can do a lot, too.”
Next on the agenda for the students is helping to start more PeaceJam programs, including at schools in Cherokee and Macon counties, and even Jamaica.
Peacemaking every day
Haywood Peace Fellowship plans to start mentoring local students involved in PeaceJam, as well as those who attend Western Carolina University, as part of its efforts to encourage peacemakers in the region. In addition, the peace fellowship is sponsoring the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference this year.
Coincidentally, the fellowship had its roots in a 1987 peace conference between Haywood County residents and citizens from the Soviet Union. Its objective is to provide a forum for those who are interested in peace and justice and to deepen understanding of local, national, and global issues.
At its monthly meetings, the fellowship learns about and discusses solutions to controversial issues like illegal immigration.
Diana Warren, chair of the fellowship, said the organization as a whole, however, does not take a position on political issues, though she has no objections to some of the members being vocal on their own.
“I think it’s important to express your opinions to others. The important thing is that you can do everything in a nonviolent way,” said Warren. “If you avoid violence, you have more of an opportunity to communicate and potentially reach a middle point.”
Warren said achieving peace is not necessarily a lofty goal. It can be something as simple as feeling a sense of calmness that helps one better understand co-workers, family members, and friends.
“You could reduce abuse among people if people could remove that anger and hatred and the desire to lash out physically against someone,” said Warren. “We could reduce the amount of gang violence, reduce the need for drugs if people had that calm and content attitude.”
Warren said anybody could become an advocate for peace by not immediately throwing up a barrier to understanding what another person is saying.
“We may have built in our minds barriers and prejudices toward a thought or an idea,” she said. “If we can push those back, be open, give eye contact, we can have more of an open dialogue.”