Exporting Violence: How preoccupation with U.S. economic interests is undermining peace around the world

Exporting Violence:

How preoccupation with U.S. economic interests is undermining peace around the world

As members of the Church of the Brethren, it is easy to forget that there are worldviews other than “peacefully, simply, together.” In our communities of faith, we are much more likely to have discussions about how we can make peace or build relationships with global competitors than we are to have discussions about how to gain coercive economic power over our international peers. As it says in the statement Justice and Nonviolence, “persons who aim to maximize their wealth and power rather than serve human needs deny the sacredness of life.” This lens is not universal, however- something that is made abundantly clear when looking at the United States’ approach to national security in recent years.

The National Security Strategy released earlier this year by the Trump administration lists “Promote American Prosperity” among it’s three main pillars, arguing that “a strong economy protects the American people, supports our way of life, and sustains American power… A growing and innovative economy allows the United States to maintain the world’s most powerful military and protect our homeland.” This view is driven home by presidential advisor Peter Navarro in a New York Times op-ed, where he highlights the administration’s belief that “economic security is national security.”

This focus on American prosperity in relation to national security has begun to impact the global community, as U.S. arms sale policies are adjusted for the express purpose of benefiting the U.S. economically. This economic focus comes at a cost- a decrease in focus on the impacts of U.S. weapons sales on peace efforts, humanitarian situations and human rights.

  • The gun manufacturing industry has pushed for rule changes that would loosen oversight of foreign military sales. The proposed change would move the foreign sale of certain semi-automatic weapons under the jurisdiction of the Department of Commerce rather than the State Department. This move would make it easier to sell these weapons abroad, and more difficult for human rights actors to track where guns are going and how they are used.

It is ethically problematic to suggest that the economic interests of the American people outweigh the human rights of people impacted by U.S. arms sales. In its statement entitled Call to Peacemaking, the Church called for policies that “convert our national priorities to peaceful and life affirming production.” In its Justice and Nonviolence statement, the church called for the United States to “cease immediately its sales of arms to other countries.”

So what can we do to push back on this economic focus?

We can support legislation that will counteract the proposed rule changes- especially bills like H.R. 4765, which would counteract the shift of semiautomatic weapons to the jurisdiction of the Department of Commerce. Let your Representative know that the bill has been introduced, and ask them to add themselves as a co-sponsor.

We can learn from and support coalitions and organizations working to make the arms trade more transparent, and those working to put pressure on defense contractors. Check out  organizations like the Forum on the Arms Trade, the Stimson Center, the Divest from the War Machine campaign, and the Security Assistance Monitor to learn more about this issue.

We can recognize the legitimate concerns that those employed in defense-related industries have for their livelihoods. We must restructure the economy in a way that allows for a just transition for these people into jobs that contribute to the well-being of humanity rather than to war.

Most importantly, we must continue view the world through the lens of the Brethren values that have been reiterated time and time again through our discussions and statements at Annual Conferences. This includes self-sacrificing perspectives on the relationship between economic gain, national security and global power, a commitment to non-violent solutions to conflict, and the desire for all of humanity to live with peace and justice.

Happy #IndigenousPeoplesDay!

“Creation Story,” 2000. Harry Fonesca, 1946-2006. Nisenan Maidu/Native Hawaiian/Portuguese.
National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian

Happy #IndigenousPeoplesDay! Today and every day we recognize the many vibrant and resilient Native American tribes and communities around the United States.

Join the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy and Intercultural Ministries during the month of November, Native American Heritage Month, for the Native American Challenge—30 days of daily resources and weekly conference calls to foster learning, conversation, and awareness. Go to http://www.brethren.org/intercultural/continuing-together.html for more information.

“The scriptures also call us to work alongside indigenous people to seek justice and peace on their behalf, as they are among those on our planet whose lives and cultures are most in jeopardy. The church has an obligation to join with them to protect their human and political rights, their cultural expressions, their claims to land, and their religious freedom, at any point that such efforts are in keeping with the purposes of God for human life.” —Community: A Tribe of Many Feathers, 1994 Annual Conference Statement

Make Peace and Justice a Campaign Issue!

In 1989, the Church of the Brethren passed an Annual Conference Statement on Church and State. In this statement, the Church recognized the importance of speaking out against the government when it is “doing things that negate and deny God’s will as revealed in Jesus Christ and the Bible,” and in support of government when its work aligned with the “general direction of God’s will and way (human well-being, justice and peace).”

As we get closer to election day, candidates for public office will be available to you at town halls, campaign events, and even online question sessions. These are opportunities for you to let your current or future legislators know which issues matter to you as a person of faith. Other voters present at these events may also have their interest in the issue piqued by your questions!

Please consider taking advantage of these opportunities to show politicians that Christians care deeply about justice domestically and globally, and are willing to speak up about our commitment to peace.


Types of Events:

  • Town Halls
    • Town halls are a chance for legislators or candidates to meet their constituents, give legislative updates and answer questions from the community. You can find a list of town halls in your congressional district at The Townhall Project. Most of these events are in-person, but some may be virtual.
  • Campaign Events
    • Candidates for office often travel throughout the community to meet their potential future constituents and share their views with voters. These are typically listed on the individual’s campaign website or social media. While there may not be a scheduled time for questions, you may be able to bring up the issues in conversation with the candidate.
  • What if my candidates aren’t available? 
    • There are still plenty of opportunities to get your candidates’ attention. Social media is often just as public a forum as a town hall, and your message has the potential to be amplified by other interested voters! Find your candidate on Twitter and Facebook, and use the sample posts below to bring up the same concerns.

Issues to Bring Up: 

Drone Warfare

Drone strikes are used by the United States around the world, including countries like Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan. These strikes are shrouded in secrecy, often kill civilians, and incite fear and anger in the affected communities.

Our office works with the Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare to tell Congress that drone strikes are immoral, illegal, and ineffective. We need your help to tell legislators that their constituents care!

One Church of the Brethren member from Michigan asked Rep. Justin Amash questions on drone warfare this past spring. Check out his example here. 

  • Sample Town Hall Questions
    • If you are elected, what steps will you take to curb the harmful impacts of the U.S weaponized drone program on communities around the world?
    • Can you commit to supporting legislation that would end the CIA’s authority to conduct drone strikes?
  • Sample Tweets
    • [CandidatesHandle], can you commit to supporting legislation that would end the CIA’s authority to conduct drone strikes? #EndDroneWarfare
    • {CandidatesHandle], if elected, what steps will you take to curb the harmful impacts of the U.S. weaponized drone program? #EndDroneWarfare

Refugee Resettlement

This month, the administration announced goal refugee resettlement numbers lower than at any point in the program’s history. This change denies stability to thousands of refugees fleeing conflict and disaster, and weakens the refugee resettlement structures- including faith-based organizations like Church World Service! This action is directly counter to the commitments we have made as a church to care for immigrants and refugees, and it is important that people of faith step up to advocate for these marginalized communities.

  • Sample Town Hall Questions
    • This past year, the administration released the lowest refugee resettlement goal in the program’s history. If elected, what will you do to ensure that the United States provides a home to those fleeing violence, oppression and disaster?
  • Sample Tweets
    • [CandidatesHandle], This year’s refugee resettlement goal numbers were released- lowest in program’s history. If elected, what will you do to make sure the United States continues to welcome refugees?  #RefugeesWelcome

Able to ask a question at a town hall? We’d love to hear about it! Email us the story and any pictures/video to vbateman@brethren.org, so we can share your work with other Brethren interested in getting involved. 


Interested in learning more? You can find additional background on the Church of the Brethren’s approach to these issues here: 

Drones: 

Refugee Resettlement: 

  • The Church of the Brethren is a member of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, which advocates for policies that treat refugees and immigrants with dignity and justice. 
  • The recent release of the low refugee resettlement numbers is detailed in this article from the New York Times.
  • Church of the Brethren Statement on Undocumented Persons and Refugees states that: We need to affirm that everything belongs to God and that we are part of an immigrant people who are looking for better land. Our brother and sister immigrants are reminders of who we are and whom we serve. The refugees and immigrants bring needs with them but they also bring considerable skills, rich cultures, and great spirits which can enrich us all. We look forward to a time when all people will be free to move from one nation to another and to choose their homeland without restriction. If that seems impossible to us now, it is only because sinful greed and fear still divide the nations East and West North and South, poor and rich, crowded and spacious.

Washington D.C. Nigeria Working Group

This analysis was written by Zakaria Bulus, who interned in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy this summer through Ministry Summer Service. 

Nigeria has been referred to as the Giant of Africa in terms of population and economy, and it is the largest democracy in Africa. The state has topped the list of wealthiest African economies.“ It has overtaken South Africa in 2014 with GDP valued at $568.5 primarily due to its richness in oil and gas reserves. This short paper is an analysis of the Nigeria Working Group meetings, resolutions and other related events in the United States capital on issues concerning the well-being, challenges and the progress of Nigeria. Currently, the group is discussing the 2019 general election, the farmer-herder conflict and issues of humanitarian support that will  inform the policy makers in the United States.

About the Nigeria Working Group

The Nigeria Working Group is coordinated by Dr. Nathan Hosler, Director of the Church of the Brethren, Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. It started after the 2014 Chibok kidnappings, when over 200 school girls in Chibok local government of Borno State were taken as hostages by Boko Haram.  Civil society advocacy groups met during a “Bring Back Our Girls” rally, and agreed to continue meeting to discuss their Nigeria efforts.

The Nigeria Working Group (NWG) consists of organizations and individuals that work on Nigerian issues within  the context of U.S. policy. The group includes different international organizations in Washington DC. Some of these organization have field offices in Nigeria.

The NWG meets monthly to discuss the current situation of the Nigeria crisis and the operation of the government in general towards the welfare of its citizens, as well as how Nigeria influences the rest of Africa. Since its inception, the group has coordinated congressional briefings, written letters to various public officials, and organized discussions on providing support to Nigeria. They also meet with key stakeholders and policymakers to brief them on what is happening in the field to gain support that will improve livelihood as well as foster peaceful coexistence in the country, especially as the 2019 election approaches. This includes the State Department and legislators and their staff  on issues affecting Nigeria.

NWG  are working on issues around human rights, peaceful coexistence, research, and providing humanitarian and other developmental support by organizations within the group. Beneficiaries include the victims of farmer-herder conflict, victims of the Boko Haram insurgency in IDP camps and host communities. Due to  their in-country presence, they receive regular updates regarding the situation on the ground in Nigeria. It should be noted that most of the organizations working in Nigeria are also from the United States.The NWG also intends to draft a joint letter on the farmer-herder conflict and another joint letter to Secretary of State after consultation with members for their inputs about the broad strategy on elections in Nigeria.

Recommendations:

The group should continue inviting Nigerian citizens that are in the US and are well informed about the issues in Nigeria to bring diversity into the group discussions. This will bring diversity into the group deliberation with more relevant ideas and insights on the Nigerian situation. It would also make Nigerians themselves keep reflecting on what they can do while in  diaspora for the development of their country.

As Nigeria approaches its general election in February 2019, the group should develop   a strategy on how to be involved in election monitoring so that they can have firsthand information on election credibility and its outcome.

The working group should pay close attention and  time to the issue of religion in relation to conflict as most of the facts on the causes of religious conflict are  viewed as a result of poverty, ethnicity, or the growing population of people looking for livelihood which are part of the sources of conflict but the role of faith cannot be overemphasized in Nigerian peaceful coexistence.

For the congressional briefing, the NWG should reflect on the violence surrounding the 2011 presidential election and the peaceful outcome of 2015 general election. This will provide an opportunity to learn lessons from the elections’ outcome and how they impact Nigerian  polls positively or negatively.

Another issue of concern is the safety of and the provision of basic amenities for the returnees from the IDP camps and those in  host communities as they return to their places of origin so that their livelihood, education, shelter, and healthcare can be guaranteed. The group should also advocate for the support of local peacebuilding efforts in the conflict-affected states and non-conflict states, and increase their call for good governance within the three tiers of government in bringing healing and trust among the people.

Nigeria has the potential to be an example of good governance and peaceful coexistence in Africa, but is weak due to lack of good   governance, tribalism,lack of good public educational system, devaluation of its currency, and religious fundamentalism among others. Presently, its GDP has dropped to $375.77 billion in 2017. Hence, the Nigeria Working Group in DC is strategic in coming out with recommendations to the government on how to support Nigeria sustainably since they have some considerable knowledge about the happenings in Nigeria. Their meeting outcomes can serve as an eye-opener to the Nigerian government, the US Congress and the United States government towards policies that affect the country. By continuing to pursue its current advocacy work and  incorporating the suggestions above, the Nigeria Working Group can have a positive impact on policies that impact the country.

Privatization of War

Profiting off the pain or exploitation of another human being is wrong. Not only does it make one complicit in the harm of another, it provides an economic incentive to continue in the harmful behavior. This is just as true for profit from war and violent conflict as it is for profiting from human trafficking or theft. The Church of the Brethren Annual Conference Statement on War, approved in 1970, affirms that, “We, therefore, cannot encourage,engage in, or willingly profit from armed conflict at home or abroad.”
 
This refusal to willingly profit from violence is relevant to the current public discussion on privatizing the war in Afghanistan. Erik Prince, who founded the mercenary firm Blackwater- infamous for the Nisour Square massacre of Iraqi civilians in 2007- first proposed privatizing the war in Afghanistan while the Trump administration was re-evaluating its strategy last year.
 
While the administration ultimately decided to go in a different direction, the proposal has resurfaced in recent days as Prince launched a media campaign to influence President Trump’s approach to Afghanistan. Appearing on television news sources as diverse as MSBCCBS and Fox News, Prince recommends that the United States replace U.S. forces with a smaller contractor force of alumni Special Forces/NATO fighters.
 
If Prince’s plan were implemented, privately contracted security forces would be embedded with Afghan troops, assisting the local forces in pushing back the Taliban. Prince proposes replacing the current 15,000 troops and 30,000 contractors with a smaller force of about 2000 military special-ops, and 6000 contractors. He also calls for the use of CIA in the region, backed by air power. The stated objectives of Prince’s plan- a reduction in military spending and a decrease in the number of troops on the ground, would technically move us in a positive direction. However, the underlying motivation of the change- making war more economically efficient, is counterproductive to our work towards long term stability, peace and justice worldwide.
 
The Church of the Brethren believes that “all war is sin”, but it is important to expressly take a stand against war that is explicitly bringing economic incentives for military action. Private military companies (PMCs), the contractor forces who carry arms and are engaged in direct security and combat operations, have commoditized conflict. As profit-seeking entities, there is little reason to believe that private companies would be free of self-interested decisions that would extend conflict to ensure continued income. A free-market for force could also lead to PMCs from various countries competing to be the most effective security forces- which would include pressure to lower the bar for adhering to human rights standards that limit the range of acceptable security activities in which they can engage.
 
It is important to recognize that economic incentives for military action are not new, and not limited to mercenary firms. In the 1970 AC statement on war, the Church of the Brethren said that although it recognizes “that almost all aspects of the economy are directly or indirectly connected with national defense, we encourage our members to divorce themselves as far as possible from direct association with defense industries in both employment and investment.” These concerns about public military spending and the economic incentives created by military production remain and are of huge concern to us. However, moving from a public military force to a private military force would exacerbate the negative impact of market forces on our propensity to resort to violence.  
 
In addition to increasing the economic incentives for violence, private military companies raise huge oversight concerns. Legally legitimate use of force in conflict zones being outsourced by nations to private companies reduces the extent to which these armed actors are directly accountable to our democratic institutions. Concerns over weak oversight have plagued the private defense industry, as military actors and civilian actors operate under different legal expectations and accountability mechanisms. For example, the Blackwater employees who killed Iraqi civilians in 2007 saw their case go through civilian courts rather than military courts.  A lack of transparency also makes oversight of contractors difficult. Because the companies can claim certain information as “proprietary,” researchers and journalists have difficulty understanding and analyzing the true impact of these firms.
 
In 1934, the Church of the Brethren passed an Annual Conference statement on war that said, “As a people we have opposed wars at all times throughout our entire history of over two hundred twenty-five years and we have stood with equal consistency for constructive peace principles in all relationships of life. We hate war because we love peace, our way of life at all times.” This sentiment, which has remained a core value of the Church of the Brethren, must inform our thinking on proposals like Prince’s. Rather than encouraging the privatization of war, the U.S. government should channel the frustration with our long-running military engagement into a positive re-evaluation of military tactics, one that uses the momentum towards “new ideas” to use innovative alternatives towards violence. Diplomacy, nonviolent direct action, Unarmed Civilian ProtectionCivilian-Based Defense, and other creative solutions to violent conflict have lacked investment.
 
With its incredible access to funding, research capabilities, and sway over public and political opinion, the Pentagon has an opportunity to make huge steps towards peace as the country reevaluates the effectiveness of traditional military action. We must push the administration and the Department of Defense to prepare for peace, rather than continuing along our path of militarization.

What you should know about #PrisonStrike2018

Image courtesy of incarceratedworkers.org

Hebrews 13:3, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

On August 21, incarcerated people across the country began what has become the largest prison strike the U.S. has ever seen. “We are demanding humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform, and the end of modern-day slavery,” their website says. Their full list of demands call for these ten actions:

  1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
  2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
  3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
  4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
  5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.
  6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
  7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
  8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
  9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
  10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.

The demands of the strike place a strong emphasis on access to rehabilitation, something that the Church of the Brethren has supported through pushing for restorative justice and an end to mass incarceration. Our commitment to God’s peace is a radical one, one that we should carry to everyone, especially those in prison. The U.S. prison system is one of deep violence and trauma, and rehabilitation is a healing balm we should offer to all who seek it. 

The demands also call us to recognize that prison labor is a form of modern-day slavery, paying workers little to nothing and forcing them to work in horrible conditions. We must turn to see the most invisible laborers in our society and the injustices they so consistently endure. As we said in our 2008 Annual Conference resolution on 21st century slavery, “We commit to educating ourselves and others about modern-day slavery and initiating and supporting anti-slavery action at home and abroad. This includes measures to prevent enslavement, to end slavery, to care for those who have been victimized by slavery, and to change our personal lifestyle habits that support it.”

Furthermore, the strike laments the extreme disparity between the treatment of people of color and white people in the current criminal justice system, with many laws on the books that target black and brown people. Mass incarceration and racial injustice are two issues tightly woven together.

At its very core, the strike is calling for the recognition that imprisoned people are humans. “We must see that the denial of basic human rights and the violence and counter-violence that terrorize humanity are all related; we cannot address one without addressing the others. They are connected” (Making the Connection, A.C. Statement 1986).

Getting Involved

The strike ends on September 9 and, with less than a week left, there has been little national news coverage and an increase in punishment for the prisoners who organized the movement. This is a rare moment when prisoners themselves—not simply outsiders speaking on their behalf—are trying to make their voices heard. During the second week of the strike, organizers released a statement saying:

“Right now we know that thousands of prisoners are risking torturous repression to bring this agenda forward, and we do not take their sacrifice lightly and neither should you. Prisoners are facing repression right now as we speak and it is our duty on the outside to do whatever we can to shield them from that violence of the state.”

This is simply a call to action—with only a few days left to the strike, there is still much to be done. A list of ways to take action (as well as many more resources and information on all relevant issues) is on the strike’s website, and the strike’s statement on August 28 lists the states with prisons with known participation. Call your representatives (202-224-3121) to tell them you support the strike and the prisoners’ demands, specifically to be implemented in your state’s prisons. Follow the strike on social media with #August21 and #PrisonStrike and make your support known by amplifying the voices of those involved.

We are called to release the captives, let the oppressed go free, and when our brothers and sisters behind bars desperately ask for peace and rehabilitation, who are we to deny them?

 

2016 Christian Citizenship Seminar on Mass Incarceration

2010 Annual Conference Resolution on Torture

2008 Annual Conference Resolution on Slavery in the 21st Century

1986 Annual Conference Statement on Making the Connection

National Religious Campaign Against Torture

 

With Actions and In Truth: An introduction to OPP’s new racial justice position

New BVSer Monica McFadden joins director Nathan Hosler and current BVSer Tori Bateman at the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy.

“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. “ — I John 3:17

In 2007, the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference adopted the Separate No More statement, which challenges the church to intentionally move toward being more intercultural and ethnically diverse.

In 1994, Annual Conference adopted the statement Community: A Tribe of Many Feathers, which sought to show support for Native Americans and reckon with the role the Brethren have as a part of the colonizing power in America.

In 1991, Annual Conference received a report on Brethren and Black Americans, which carefully examines how Brethren have engaged, or not engaged, with Black Americans and how we will seek to address systemic racism in our denomination and our society.

Back during the Civil War, Brethren grappled with their relationship with this oppressed “other,” asserting that “it would be best for a follower of Jesus Christ to have nothing at all to do with slavery,” a very controversial topic in the church at the time.

While it’s clear the Brethren have long been considering these issues, adopting a number of statements discussing racial discrimination and our relationships with minority groups, these statements have yet to be fully realized. In order to pursue the goals of these statements more intentionally, the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy created a new Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) position dedicated to the topic of racial justice and reconciliation as it applies internally to our denomination and outwardly to our society.

I’ve just finished up my three weeks at BVS orientation and am excited to delve into all the work this new position requires—working alongside minority communities in food deserts through Going to the Garden, teaming up with the interfaith community in criminal and racial justice working groups, leading visits and workshops for Brethren groups in D.C., and everything in between. The Church of the Brethren has a long history of standing up for justice, peace, fairness, and mercy, and this is no time to slow down.

In his book Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer advocating on behalf of those sentenced to death row, says:

“I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

Our nation’s complicated history with race is often tied up in how we decide who is poor, who is disfavored, or who is accused. Through Christ, “who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14), we can seek God’s justice to help break down those barriers. The beginning of this new position on racial justice stands as an open call for church members or youth interested in racial justice-oriented tours of the D.C. area, workshops, or museum visits to contact our office.

Sometimes, it is easier to look across the globe at people being oppressed than it is to look within our own communities and neighborhoods, our own states and districts, and open our eyes to the people suffering right beside us. This position is one step toward seeing our brother or sister in need and witnessing racial discrimination, and then seeking righteousness with actions and in truth. I hope that you will join hands with me for the difficult work ahead.

 

Monica McFadden is the new Racial Justice Associate at the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. She graduated from the University of Denver in June with a B.A. in Political Science and Art History. Contact her at mmcfadden@brethren.org.

Reflections on the Washington, DC Workcamp

This summer, the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy welcomed a group of junior highers for the Washington, D.C workcamp. The following is a guest blog post from Marilyn, a junior high workcamper who participated in the workcamp.

Workcampers meet with a staff member from Senator Casey’s office.

On July 29th, 2018, three other members of the Mountville Church of the Brethren and I packed our bags and drove to a Christian work camp in Washington, D.C. All of us, including our two advisors, were extremely excited. But I had no idea how much my experiences would positively impact my life and mindset. It was here where I realized how much being a Christian and being a citizen overlap.

During this workcamp, me and 10 other campers worked in the Marvin Gaye Parks. On the first day of work, we weeded and composted in the Marvin Gaye urban gardens, where people who normally wouldn’t be able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables can pick their own in exchange for garden work. This makes these gardens valuable to people in need of fresh produce.

On the rest of the camp’s work days, all the campers participated in removing Kudzu plants from some of the parks’ beautiful land and trees. This invasive plant was concealing the beauty of nature that parks can provide that people living in the city rarely get to experience.

One day, after a much needed shower and a change of clothes, everyone walked to the Senator’s office to advocate for the LWCF. The LWCF stands for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and it is a program where the government works to protect national, state and local parks by helping to fund them.

The money given to the parks is often used to help keep it clean and safe. Through working in the Marvin Gaye Parks, all the campers realized that parks play big parts in our communities, especially parks in the city, where people have an opportunity to escape the busy, crowded place that they live in. But this important fund will expire on September 30th, if Congress doesn’t take action. So, in the Senator’s office, we spoke to PA’s senator’s education board about why the LWCF should stay in action. The person we talked to listened to our every word and said she would do all she could to help keep the fund going.

Parks such as the Marvin Gaye Parks are very important to our communities, but we often take them for granted. Parks give people a place to exercise, socialize, and learn about nature. So conserving them is a big deal, and at work camp, we learned that being a Christian means standing up for what you may, or not believe is good for our communities.

While being a Christian does mean standing up for what you believe in, it also means serving God by serving people. When you help to take care of your community and its citizens, you are also loving God and that is where being a Christian and being part of a community overlap.

When our workcamp ended, I had a completely different mindset than I had before it started. From working and caring for a park, I realized that helping our communities is a big part of loving God, and that is what being a Christian is all about.

 

Human Trafficking: Part II

By Doris Abdullah, CoB representative to the United Nations. To learn more about human trafficking, stop by the human trafficking booth at Annual Conference. 

Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888 Text HELP to: BeFree (233733)

The trafficking hotline is open 24 hours 7 days at week. Over 200 languages are available in addition to English and Spanish. We, in the faith and spiritual community, can also be a hotline as we raise awareness to the trafficked victims around us. Below are several summarized cases of human trafficking which can be found in more details online. I hope we can all become more informed about the subject as information becomes available. We are the eyes and ears of our communities and we should know what is going on all around us.. As a community, let us join together and stop human trafficking.

“As for mortals, their days are like grass; the wind passes over it, and it is gone.”

Psalm 103:15-16

I believe human trafficking is a moral evil driven by material greed for the god of money. The desire for riches, while powerful, can be overcome with the use of the justice systems to punish the illegal buying and selling of human cargo combined with a spiritual commitment to overcome the evils of slavery. All the cases of human trafficking involve material transactions. One rescued young women said she was “an ATM machine”. Of course, she was never a machine. She was the victim of a brutal crime of exploitation for financial gain that is widespread and in our backyards.

“In Our Backyard” is a documentary about sex trafficking in Brooklyn, New York where I live. One of the victims was a young woman from Indonesia who answered an ad for a waitress job in the United States. She arrived at JFK airport and met a man who delivered her to her trafficker. Her traffickers initiation rites included rape among the abuses in the attic where she was held. As a sex slave she was sold every 45 minutes for the price range of $120.00 to $350.00. She was rescued after jumping off the building ledge of the apartment house where she was enslaved. I live in the next neighborhood to where she was held and worked as a slave.

In the USA we do not have a caste system as we find in India and other countries with caste. In those countries women and girls from the Dalit Caste and Bedia and Bachra tribes (in India) accept their fate as ritual sexual slaves (Devadasi, Jogins and Bacchava). These women and girls cannot change their caste, because they are born into it. What we find, in the United States, is forced prostitution hiding under the disguise of entertainment. At large sporting events, such as the Super Bowl, prestigious corporate conventions in major cities and truck stops along major highways and other similar venues, we find runaways teens and unsuspecting women and girls being held by force. They are sold to the highest bidders. The five states where the most trafficked persons have been found in are: California, Texas, Florida, Ohio and New York. But do not think for a moment, that because you do not live in one of those five states, that your state or community does not have human trafficking. Human trafficking can be found in all 50 states. The “entertainment” aspect of trafficking was found in and near the Bakken Shale oil fields in North Dakota. The same coercive and deceptive practices were used for enslavement of Native America women and girls. They left the reservation for the promise of economic advancement not to become prostitutes and certainly not to become slaves.

I became more aware of USA sex trafficking after hearing the harrowing tale of survivor and advocate Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew. T came from California and was trafficked from the age of 10 until she was 17. In her own words on trafficked children:

“Many children, like myself, come from various traumas previously to entering into foster care, and many times, are further exposed to trauma throughout their experience in the foster care system. Although there are many people who uplift the system for its successes, there are many elements within the experience of foster care that make youth more susceptible to being victimized. Youth within the system are more vulnerable to becoming sexually exploited because youth accept and normalize the experience of being used as an object of financial gain by people who are suppose to care for us, we experience various people who control our lives, and we lack the opportunity to gain meaningful relationships and attachments.”

Again we hear about financial gains in trafficking from T. Monetary gain is the only incentive for human trafficking.

The April 24, 2018 PBS Frontline documentary titled “Inside the Hidden Reality of Labor Trafficking in America” gave an up-close look into enslavement of children on an Ohio egg farm in 2014. The teen boys families gave up the deeds to their properties, in Guatemala, in return for a promise that their children would be given a “better life in America”. The total sum owed for their children’s trip and care in America was $15,000.00. HHS released the boys to their trafficker believing that they were relatives and or legal sponsors. The boys had to work 16 hour days for the total sum of $600.00 per week of which $550.00 had to be returned to their traffickers. The original debt sum of $15,000.00 was held over the boys head with threats of killing their parents and other relatives if they ran away. These boys were held in horrible conditions and while Frontline did not focus on harm to the boys, we are aware from similar cases of child labor trafficking that children are often subject to harsh physical abuse. Rape, beatings and malnutrition are often found among abuses and enslaved children.

“The Boys in the Bunkerhouse” by Dan Barry 2014 6 exposes the enslavement of persons with intellectual disabilities. The men worked for 30 years at a turkey farm in Atalissa, Iowa. They worked from sun up to sun down for $65.00 per month. Note deductions in salaries were made for social security, room, board and outside trips such as an outing to amusement parks. Their mental and physical health was not cared for nor were they given an education. They were adult men, but were referred to as boys, even when they reached their 60s and 70s. One man attempted to run away and was later found frozen to death a half mile from where they lived. Their life was one of harsh economic conditions and punishment when they did not work to “full” capacity. 21 men were rescued from the turkey farmhouse. They lived with no windows under lock and keys, in filth with an open toilet and blood embedded in their mangled hands. These men were victims of human trafficking. We must question disabled beggars on our city streets and hidden coop like housing in rural areas. It is better to be wrong than to just ignore unseemly and or unusual signs of trafficking in our backyards. For it is not just egg and turkey farms, but major construction and capital improvement projects, hospitality service centers, mining and agriculture laborers, where we find traffickers taking advantage of labor and moral laws in order to turn a profit.

A very disturbing human trafficking case involved a young women who escaped from a moving car. Her husband was taking her to a hospital where she was due to have her kidney involuntarily removed. Human trafficking is all the more awful when we grasp how often the source of the fraud, force and coercion are family members and other persons known to the victims. We can stop human trafficking only if we are aware that it is a crime and morally wrong regardless to the source. The family members that sell or hold in domestic servitude another family members are just as reprehensible as the business man who buys a child or mentally handicapped persons for labor on their farm or for sex.

We are all aware that slavery has been a part of human history and widely accepted throughout human history. Some even suggest that since Jesus never directly addressed slavery it’s acceptable . Still others extract passages from the written words of the Apostles Paul and Peter to perpetuate slavery and call for obedience to master from the enslaved. I prefer not to ignore Exodus (an entire book dedicated to the topic of slavery), the laws given in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Jesus’ covenant obligation on us humans: “to love God , love our Neighbor and love Ourselves.” I can not find any space in all that love for human trafficking also known as modern day slavery. Let us all become more aware and human trafficking and work to put an end to it.

Reflections on Burundi

One of the things that I appreciate most about the Christian faith is that it provides a common denominator between people around the world. This common identity can be a catalyst for important relationship building across national boundaries. In early June, I joined the Church of the Brethren young adult work camp trip to Burundi, hoping to both build relationships and see some of the great peacebuilding work being done in the African Great Lakes region. These relationships and my increased understanding of the challenges in Burundi will feed into the work of the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, as we increase our level of engagement with advocacy relating to the region.

The view from the THARS center porch in Gitega. Photo Credit: Tori Bateman

Located south of Rwanda, Burundi is consistently ranked among the poorest countries in the world. In 2017, the GDP per capita was just $818, according to the International Monetary Fund. In addition to poverty and humanitarian concerns, Burundi has a history of genocide and election violence. Conflict between Hutus and Tutsis killed upwards of 300,000 people in several outbreaks of violence between the 1970s and the early 1990s. More recently, political conflict has led to instability. Just a week before our work camp traveled to the region, 15 people were killed in election violence related to a referendum vote.

Banana trees planted using the agriculture methods taught by a educational program funded by the Church of the Brethren. Photo Credit: Tori Bateman

Our group was hosted by Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services (THARS), a partner of the Church of the Brethren’s Global Mission and Service office. THARS provides mental health services to Burundians still impacted by the history of violence. This includes operating listening centers, facilitating support groups, and conducting training workshops. In addition to mental health work, THARS runs two programs that are funded by the Church of the Brethren, including training for farmers and a feeding program for Batwa schoolchildren.

Pouring concrete in the new kitchen building at THARS. Photo Credit: Grey Robinson

While at THARS, our group worked on two construction projects. At one location, the team knocked down walls in a building that was to be re-purposed as a library. Just down the hill, another group was pouring the concrete floor in a new kitchen facility. Our team worked alongside a Burundian construction crew and the national staff of THARS, who had traveled to Gitega to participate in the work camp.  These projects included a lot of shoveling, carrying bags of sand and rock, and transporting concrete via bucket brigade.

A banner for a USAID-funded peace conference that was held at THARS in 2011. Photo Credit: Tori Bateman

The impact of United States policy on Burundi could be seen everywhere we traveled. The USAID logo denoted vehicles, events and programs that have been funded with U.S. foreign aid money. Because of the reality of this impact, it is important that offices like ours maintain awareness of the situation in the country, and amplify the voices of Burundian peacebuilders in U.S. policy discussions.

 

My trip provided many useful insights into potential advocacy avenues for our office. During a meeting with one of the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy’s partners in Bujumbura, for example, I heard about one of the biggest challenges facing peacebuilding work in Burundi- a lack of long-term funding for projects. Many peacebuilding projects are only funded for one year, meaning that the work lacks consistency, there is not time to learn from mistakes and adjust programming, and programs have a limited impact. It is important that we share this funding concern with relevant government staff in Washington, D.C, as we seek to make peacebuilding programs as effective as possible.

 

David Niyonzima, founder of THARS, and Tori in Gitega. Photo Credit: Donna Parcell

I am grateful to THARS and the people of Burundi for their hospitality. Going forward, I am excited to engage with the Burundi Working Group in DC on behalf of the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. Made up of NGOs and government agencies that work in Burundi, the group plans to engage with legislative staff, the administration, the interfaith community, and broader civil society. The group will work to increase awareness of the political and humanitarian situation in the country, and advocate for policy and funding that will support the important peacebuilding work done by partners like THARS.