Peacebuilding in Tense Times: The Church of the Brethren and Russia

The Russia-U.S. relationship has become increasingly complicated over the past few years. The Syrian conflict has attracted both U.S. and Russian involvement, becoming a proxy war between several international actors. Accusations of cyber- and information warfare between the nations persist, and complex questions of global leadership have arisen.

The tensions should concern all who seek international peace. In one recent example of conflict, the United States shot down a Syrian warplane. In response, the Russians suspended the use of a military communication program that helped to prevent accidental in-air collisions in Syrian airspace. They also threatened to shoot down any U.S. plane that traveled west of the Euphrates River.

The dissolution of communications structures like these, combined with military action and general posturing on the part of each national actor, does not bode well for regional or international security.

When suspicion clouds the relationship between nations, it is often difficult to see past our national allegiances and fear. However, peacebuilding requires us to build relationships where others only see conflict.

Quote from 1947 Annual Conference statement on Russia, referenced in the Brethren Encyclopedia.

The Church of the Brethren has a fascinating peacebuilding history in relation to Russia. During the Cold War, in which tensions ran high and peace was fragile, the Church of the Brethren maintained connections with the Soviet Union in hopes that relationships could prevent nuclear war.

As part of this work, the Church of the Brethren participated in two cultural exchanges in 1963 and 1967. While in the United States, Russian church leaders ate, talked, and joked with their American hosts, and were especially interested in visiting with the youth. Their American counterparts, while visiting Russia, were fascinated by the unfamiliar political ideology and relationship between the Church and State.

A 1967 Messenger article on the cultural exchange

At these meetings, delegates were able to experience each other’s culture, learn about their religious beliefs and structures, and gain new perspectives on the other nation. These were not meant to be high-level religious or political discussions- rather, they were meetings of Christians from different countries, earnestly seeking to understand one another and forge a peaceful future.

The work done by the Church of the Brethren during this era is strikingly relevant to modern interfaith connections in U.S. and Russia. The same general distrust and military posturing that occurred during the Cold War has resurfaced in more modern contexts. As the political rhetoric once again heats up, it is essential that the faith community works to discern its role in the U.S.- Russia relationship.

There are many relational and advocacy opportunities for churches, including the Church of the Brethren, to work towards greater interpersonal understanding and large-scale investment in peace. Like the leaders of the Church of the Brethren during the Cold War, we can, and should, use our faith commitments as a powerful platform for international dialogue and peacebuilding work.

While we recognize that there are many ways in which the current tensions are different from Cold War tensions, we believe that it is important to adapt the Church of the Brethren’s historic peacebuilding mindset to the modern context. At the Office of Public Witness, we hope to continue the Brethren legacy of peacebuilding in this region, and will be working to discern our role in the relationship over the next few months.

***

A huge thanks to the staff at Brethren Archives for their research assistance!

Interested in reading more about these cultural exchanges? Check out these Messenger articles:

https://archive.org/stream/messenger1967116126mors#page/n823/mode/2up/search/%22Russian+Orthodox+Church%22%22

https://archive.org/stream/gospelmessengerv112mors#page/n83/mode/2up/search/%22Russian%22

https://archive.org/stream/gospelmessengerv112mors#page/n1243/mode/2up/search/%22Russian%22

 

Disaster Response Ministry in Maiduguri

From EYN Disaster Ministry Reports

Food Distribution

The road from Kwarhi (EYN Headquarters) to Maiduguri is less than 150 miles but it is a treacherous journey. The section from Damboa to Maiduguri  goes through an area close to a Boko Haram stronghold and is only accomplished with a Military escort. Hundreds of vehicles line up with Military at the front, rear and middle hoping to ensure a safe passage. As the EYN disaster ministry traveled this road they witnessed the Boko Haram’s destruction of homes and businesses. The farms on the outskirts of Damboa lie fallow; it continues to be too dangerous to work the fields despite the fact that the survival of most people in the area is dependent on farming.

Upon arrival at Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, the Disaster Response Ministry held three large food & supplies distributions; helping 577 families. Medical assistance was also provided at the distributions. Recipients of the relief were extremely thankful and many told tragic stories of the death of family members.

Participants in a Trauma workshop

Ester Kashim shared, “I was sick when the Boko Haram caught me and took me away from my home in Gavva. I spent two years and three months with them in the Sambisa forest and in another location around Lake Chad. When a fight occurred between the Boko Haram and some military, I was released and ran away. By this time I was pregnant but got to Maiduguri where I stayed at a military barracks for a month before an uncle found me and took me to his home. My baby has now been born, her name is Rebecca, and I am trying to take my High School exams. Thank you for your assistance!”

Teaching on Forgiveness

Trauma workshops have also been held recently in the Maiduguri area. Testimonies from these workshops confirm the need for this ministry. Maryamu testified after her workshop, “I was angry and hardly forgave before, but now I have learned the importance of forgiveness; hence from now on I will forgive people who hurt me.”

Violence continues in Maiduguri and the surrounding countryside. Attacks have occurred within the city and on the road from Damboa despite the Military escort. We continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in Nigeria.

Stewardship in the small church


A reflection by H. Fred Bernhard

“Tell those rich in this world’s goods to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money: which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:18-19, The Message).

In 1995 my wife and I were invited to attend a stewardship conference. While there, I experienced a mindset change from scarcity to abundance, realizing that we as Americans are far richer than other peoples around the world. It changed my whole perspective on how I view wealth and material possessions.

Small congregations usually view themselves as congregations with limited resources, both financial and in people skills. Pastors of these congregations hear these responses: “We can’t do that; we don’t have enough money.” “We don’t have the time to do that; all of us are already too busy.” “We’re not like the big church down the street. Let them do that.”

From my own experience, I can testify that a bigger worshiping community does not mean a more effective church. Size may make multiple programs possible, but congregational vitality can be achieved in congregations of all sizes.

The common denominator is passion. Congregations who possess passion know that they can make a difference for Christ in their community and around the world. They know that, no matter how small, they can do big things for God. The secret is a passion for a purposeful, mission-­driven, congregational life. Persons are drawn to such churches because they want to serve.

A mission committee struggled for weeks trying to come up with ways to buy one heifer for Heifer International. With a little help from the pastor, the congregation caught the vision and turned it into a passion for a mission. The result was 32 heifers purchased and donated to Heifer International.

That congregation experienced a mindset change: from scarcity to abundance. What no one thought possible became a reality when they caught the vision and their compassion fulfilled the mission. In simple terms, they put their hands where their mouths were. It’s a spiritual condition, isn’t it? Giving isn’t about the receiver or the gift but the giver.

It’s a sign of our spiritual discipline. We give because it’s the only concrete way we have of saying that we’re glad to be alive and well. Giving is a way of taking the focus off the money we make and putting it back where it belongs—on the lives we lead, the God we serve, the families we raise, the communities which nurture us. Our spiritual condition can be summed up with this prayer: “No matter what we say or do, God, this offering is what we think of you.”

When your congregation, however small, puts its trust in God and changes your attitude from scarcity to abundance, amazing things will happen—things beyond your wildest imagination. Just ask that church’s mission committee!

Fred Bernhard is an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren and has served as a pastor and interim pastor in many congregations.

This reflection was originally published in Giving magazine, produced by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center. E-mail ebrethren@brethren.org to receive a complimentary copy of the 2017 issue of Giving magazine.

(Read this issue of eBrethren)

Update from Pam and Dave Reist (volunteering in Nigeria)

Pam Preaching in Mubi temporary church

Since the church building was destroyed in the insurgency of 2014, a temporary building sits in its place…tree-trunks for posts, rough-cut timbers for rafters, cinder block gable ends, plastic chairs and wooden benches accommodate a congregation of over 700.  On the floor behind the speakers’ seats is a nest of chicken eggs just days from hatching, and a lizard is visible underneath the plexiglass lecturn.

On Sunday morning, May 28, we celebrated worship with the congregation at E.Y.N. No. 2 Mubi.  In spite of the violence they have suffered and the damage that was incurred, the congregation was overflowing and the spirit and the weather were warm!  The almost three-hour service included dynamic singing by six choirs accompanied by drums and a variety of instruments, congregational singing, numerous announcements, a detailed financial report, collection of offerings twice (tithes and building fund), introduction and dedication of the new youth membership class, reception of new members, and many, many prayers, including prayers for a bumper harvest from the crops being planted.   Dave was asked to give a greeting and pray, and I was honored to preach.

new church Mubi 2In the churchyard outside the temporary building, a new one is underway – the walls are going up as the funds come in. They were pleased to share that they had qualified for one of twenty $5000. grants from the CoB U.S.

Before the day was over, we had visited several more church buildings in the Mubi area alone that had been burned by the insurgency.  All are now rebuilding with great anticipation!  These lovely resilient people are full of hope as they “press on.”

A few more highlights of the last two weeks:

Bringing greetings from U.S. to pastor training event at E.Y.N. Conference Center.

Greeting at PDPDave presenting the keys to the second tractor (for use in the Kwarhi area) on behalf of the CoB U.S.) to E.Y.N. President Joel Billi.

Dinner with E.Y.N. leadership and presenting the E’town banner to Brother Joel.

IMG_8758Demonstrating popping corn at E.Y.N. Headquarters.

Dave making popcornDinner and discussion with Kulp Bible College leadership – hosted by KBC President Dauda Gava.

Hanging with new friends at the C.oB. house at K.B.C.Hanging at the house

We miss those who are absent from us and pray for you daily!  Much love from Nigeria!

Pam & Dave Reist

Strengthening relationships

Jay Wittmeyer with Mr. and Mrs. Fafa Lawan Kapi from Chibok.
Photo by Marcus Gamache

By Jay Wittmeyer, executive director of Global Mission and Service

As executive director of Global Mission and Service, my responsibilities include strengthening relationships with our sister churches in other parts of the world. I recently returned from a trip to be with the Nigerian Brethren as they convened their 70th Majalisa (annual conference).

This conference was particularly significant for the Nigerian Brethren as they returned home after two years of displacement and exile. There have been ongoing efforts to de-Christianize the historic homeland of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN), and the Brethren counted it a tremendous blessing to be present in Kwarhi. To celebrate this and to express gratitude to the Church of the Brethren for assisting EYN through their time suffering, leadership invited me to participate in the Majalisa and deliver the opening sermon.

Among those present at the Majalisa were the governor of Adamawa State, who gave a speech, and his entourage. In response, EYN president Joel Billi shared. “We request a place. Our people have lived here for centuries,” he said, “and we want to continue to live here. We do not want to go anywhere else.”

Going to Nigeria also allowed me to visit Chibok for the first time. Chibok is about an hour from Kwarhi. The paved road finishes miles before Chibok and the remaining stretch is gravel with deep potholes. Chibok is noticeably drier than many areas and extremely dry in April.

The Brethren established a missionary presence in Chibok in the 1930s, started a school, and even established a Bible school. (To my amazement, I learned that the Bible school still holds classes and currently has 13 students.) Long-term mission worker Gerald Neher wrote several books focused on his time in Chibok.

Despite its deep Brethren roots, however, Chibok became known internationally on April 14, 2014, when the radical sect Boko Haram drove dozens of heavily armed vehicles into the compound of the Government Girls Secondary School and forcefully abducted 276 girls. This prompted international outrage, reflected in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. (Our prayers continue for these girls.)

The Nigerian security forces have a heavy presence in Chibok. But since I was traveling with Paul Yang, EYN district secretary, we were given permission to enter the town, visit EYN churches and the Bible school, and meet with EYN families. What had a significant impact on me in Chibok was seeing the youth brigades practice their marching. They are tasked to assist in patrolling the community and to alert the security forces of any attacks.

It was inspiring to meet Laban Wadi, an EYN member who, despite the attacks, decided he and his family should stay in Chibok. They were forced to flee and spend eight nights in the bush, but otherwise have been safe living in the town while others on the outskirts had to flee. Laban retired as a medical assistant, a trade he learned from the Brethren. He expressed gratitude for my visit and asked me to bring greetings to Brethren in the United States. He mentioned Roger Schrock, Owen Shankster, and Roger Ingold, and was saddened to learn that Gerald Neher passed away last year. Laban was baptized by Gerald in 1958. Laban also reported that the last rainy season was good and he harvested 30 bags of peanuts alone.

On our way back from Chibok, we stopped to see the church in Uba. When Boko Haram attacked the area in 2014, they went from town to town burning churches by the hundreds. EYN lost 250 large churches, and the church at Uba was among them. The congregation is now meeting under a temporary structure as it works to raise funds to rebuild. Several thousand members attend worship every week and the footprint of the new church is very large. It will not have wooden rafters and will not be easily burned.

When you give to the Church of the Brethren, you support new and ongoing partnerships around the world. Your prayers and financial contributions make it possible for relationships to grow and communities to thrive through the partnerships of Global Mission and Service. We are so thankful for your support of this important, life-changing ministry of the Church of the Brethren.

Learn more about the work of Global Mission and Service at www.brethren.org/global. Support this and all of the ministries of the Church of the Brethren today at www.brethren.org/give.  

(Read this issue of eBrethren)

Skills Acquisition Centers help widows and orphans

Dr. Rebecca Dali

Dr. Rebecca Dali is the Director of Center for Caring Empowerment and Peace Initiative (CCEPI). Her Non-profit runs three Skills Acquisition Centers in Jos, Yola, and Michika. They specialize in training widows and orphans by teaching them for 3-6 months in either sewing, knitting or computers.

As part of the computer training, the students worked on vivid Power Point presentations about their own lives. After giving the presentations to the other students, they discussed their stories; this sharing of trauma is an important part of healing.

Sewing practice

In the sewing section, students work on mastering the manual treadle and are learning to sew various dress styles. Knitting students are making baby sweaters and caps which will be used during the “cold” season in December and January.

Another group learned to make women’s purses. A widow named, Lella, said for the first time in three years her life was beginning to have meaning and it brings her joy each time she learns and makes something new.

Lella learning to make a purse

Knitted garment

Keep Dr. Rebecca and each team of workers in your prayers as each center faces its own challenges. Some do not have enough chairs, others have no camera to document the work, transportation to and from the center is challenging, and there are always more who need help than the centers can accommodate.

 

Tractor Update

By Dave Reist

Dave Reist hands off tractor to Gurku Leadership

Both Gurku and Kwarhi have received their tractors.  Pam and I were at Gurku from Wednesday noon through Friday noon which gave me an opportunity to get some of the bugs out of the tractor and the implements.  They actually had me out on the “back 40” with the disc plow, which was quite an experience!  There were many items that a US dealer would have done that were not done such tighten bolts, install drawbar, adjust hood, etc.  I also discovered that the trailing wheel on the disc plow had been installed backward and the actual discs on the disc harrow were installed end-for-end.  Both mistakes made by the dealer.  (During the purchasing process, Abu the dealership owner said, “Dave you know so much more about this equipment than we do”).

Unloading the tractor

There was great excitement at Gurku when the tractors arrived Tuesday and according to Markus great excitement at Kwarhi too!!  One of the men (I think Ibrahim the school headmaster and trauma healing teacher) at Gurku commented “Our children will remember this day (arrival of tractors) for the rest of their lives.”

Yesterday I left the Gurku equipment in the hands of the Agric Chairman, a very competent IDP resident appointed by Markus.  I also created a logbook in which to enter service/maintenance records, jobs accomplished by the equipment, billing, etc.  Carol Smith printed a Massey Ferguson Care booklet for the Chairman.  Abu did not have an Owner’s Manual to give us but he will supply one.

Dave Reist and the tractor are the main attraction of the day

It is, of course, our intent that after a hopefully short incubation period, the tractors will be completely self-sustaining.  Asta, a BEST member, who has a farm near Gurku has asked me about rental of equipment policy.  There seems to be a strong need for this equipment and many ways for it to create value which will then create revenue.  Markus has stressed the importance of accountability to his “team” and I believe this project has a great chance of success.

Today or tomorrow an experienced tractor driver is coming to Gurku (and will be a resident there) to do the actual operation of the tractor.  Pam and I plan to go to Kwarhi with Markus sometime in the next two weeks to present the equipment to EYN and to conduct the initiation process.

Tractor arrives at Kwarhi

We are hearing and sensing much gratitude for this project and so we convey that sincere gratitude to you and the many others who have made this possible!

Unplug, refresh, and change perspective

Photo by Traci Rabenstein

By Traci Rabenstein, congregational support representative

Every spring, with summer just around the corner, I dream about the beach! Squishing sand between my toes, sitting in a beach chair with a good book, people watching, and all around enjoying the majesty of the ocean—the mighty work of God.

A couple of years ago, I went to the Outer Banks in North Carolina with my mother and childhood best friend. We did several things during our week together, but watching the sun rise on the Atlantic Ocean was a favorite activity. Those tranquil moments were great for reflecting on life and God’s creation. The quiet, beautiful setting served as a powerful reminder of how awesome our Creator God is, and I found solace in those moments.

Unfortunately, those moments of peacefulness were (and are) fleeting. Just a few weeks after returning from our trip, I found myself in a tense and stressed posture. It was as if I had forgotten how to relax and feel centered. Looking out my office window and pondering what my life had become, I considered what it would take to unplug from the issues I dealt with.

My thoughts wandered to an article about what it means to “reboot.” Author Peter Bregman shared a story for Harvard Business Review about having Internet connection problems and becoming frustrated. Initially, instead of trying to fix the issue, he ignored it and worked to complete an article for his editor. After finishing the article, however, he still couldn’t connect to the Internet. He tried everything he could think of, which included yelling at the computer, but was unsuccessful. Then he remembered something that had worked before. He unplugged everything—the computer, the router, everything—and waited.

As he waited, he realized that his frustration and annoyance drifted away, and he wasn’t as angry about the situation as he was originally. He shares, “It’s strange, because one minute is so little time, but when the time was up, I felt noticeably different… [and] oddly refreshed. My situation hadn’t changed, but my perspective had.”

Changing our perspective is purposeful work and something that we need to practice regularly. A volatile mindset can become the agenda of our day, and lead us into a rhythm of hostility and lashing out at others when we get frustrated. However, as Christ-followers, we are called to a different rhythm. One that says, “love one another.” It is often easier said than done, and it can even seem easier when interacting with strangers than with one another, but it’s the work we’re called to do.

What can we do to unplug, reboot, and change perspective in the situations of life? It’s a difficult question, but a cherished Bible verse of my great-uncle might help: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills, From whence comes my help? My help comes from the LORD, Who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2. NKJV).

May we be willing to unplug from the grind of life, find time and space to refresh ourselves, and allow our perspective to be changed by the wonderful work of God around us and in us.

The ministries of the Church of the Brethren can help you or your congregation unplug, refresh, and change perspective. Learn more about them at www.brethren.org or support them at www.brethren.org/give .

(Read this issue of eBrethren)

Looking Back on Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2017

On the weekend of April 22nd, I had the opportunity to attend the 2017 Ecumenical Advocacy Days. This event brings together Christians from many different denominations to advocate for peace and justice around the world. This year’s theme, based on the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, was “Confronting Chaos, Forging Community.” This focus revolved around countering racism, materialism and militarism in our society- very fitting, considering that the venue was just minutes from the Pentagon. The political “ask” of the conference, to be presented to legislators during Hill visits on Monday, was for the U.S. budget to reflect our values, and to be a “moral document” that actively countered racism, materialism and militarism.

Friday night began with a keynote address from Tamika Mallory. She spoke powerfully about the need for communities to rally around the oppressed, and to recognize the structural injustice present in society. Silence and passivity in the face of injustice allow it to continue, and we must be intentional about speaking out against racism. In one of the most memorable moments, she noted that if you are fighting for social justice and your stomach isn’t in knots all the time, you aren’t doing it right.

Saturday’s speaker, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer, explored the often uncomfortable topic of white privilege. There are many implicit benefits to being white in our society, and it is important that we are intentional about recognizing the ways in which we each benefit from unjust societal structures. His advice for white job-seekers truly interested in employment equality was brilliant- before accepting any position, ask the interviewer how many people of color they have interviewed for the post. If the answer is none, decline the position.

On Sunday, a panel of global activists explored the impact of American militarization on people around the world. Panelist Amal Nassar, a farmer and peace advocate from the West Bank, saddened and inspired the crowd with the story of her family’s orchard, which has been destroyed repeatedly by Israeli settlers. Her family has had to fight unending, ridiculous legal battles, and yet her optimism and hope for the future remains strong. No matter what obstacles the farm faces, she said, her plan is always to plant more trees.

The workshops that I attended revolved around the U.S. drone program, the role of the International Criminal Court in Africa, and the work being done in Nigeria to build stability amidst insecurity and violence. It was great to see the presence of the Church of the Brethren’s work in many of these issue areas

On Monday, after an information-packed weekend, we were energized and felt ready to advocate for a moral budget! Conference-goers descended on the Hill for meetings with their legislators. Our PA delegation visited with staff from Senator Toomey’s and Senator Casey’s offices in the morning, and in the afternoon, a group of us from the 8th Congressional District visited with Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. In these meetings, we told our legislators that our budget should reflect our values. Funding should be given to robust programs to help the poor both domestically and internationally, and should NOT be given to increase the already enormous military budget.

We were all acutely aware, however, that meetings with legislators can only accomplish so much. If we are to truly fight for social justice within our communities, it is essential that we build meaningful relationships, have honest, loving conversations, and commit to standing up for the rights of our neighbor even when it is uncomfortable for us to do so.

These reflections have been brought to you by Tori Bateman. Tori will be serving in Brethren Volunteer Service through the Church of the Brethren, Office of Public Witness beginning June 2017.

 

Trust and Obey

contributed by Pam Reist

Our Nigerian experience began yesterday, with a deeply meaningful and moving full-of-life worship service of about 500 at the EYN Church in Abuja: a modern worship team,  woman’s choir with drums, consecration of church leadership, awards presented to youth, and recognition of others for special service, all in addition to preaching and singing and praying – Alleluia! Amen!  While much of the music was new to us, when we sang When we walk with the Lord,’ we couldn’t help but think that just a few weeks ago, we sang that very hymn around the tables at Love Feast in Elizabethtown, with our beloved community.

And now, in this “land of many possibilities,” we are imagining that “trust and obey” may take on new meaning during these two months that we will be serving with our Nigerian sisters and brothers.  The hospitality has been overwhelming, even these first few days.  “You…are…welcome!” is a greeting we hear over and over.  And we do feel welcome to this land of many possibilities!

Dave Reist at Abuja church with Ayuba and Nancy Gwani

Salam alaikum,

Pam and Dave Reist