Ben McBride on Peacemaking 101

Just when peace for violence-prone communities seems an impossible dream – along comes Ben McBride.

Ben McBrdie

McBride, who merges the zeal of a Baptist youth leader with the practicality of 15 years as an advocate for community peace and justice, believes that dream can become a reality. Not tomorrow – but soon enough to believe in it. One evidence of his belief is in the fact that some eight years ago he moved his family (a wife and three daughters) into an Oakland, CA neighborhood tough enough to have won the title of the “Kill Zone.” The idea was to understand firsthand the root causes of gun violence. They have occasionally had to leave town briefly when one group or another was exceptionally angry, but they’re still there.

And gun violence is actually down. This is in part due to McBride’s blatantly walking both sides of the street – as a civilian trainer for police, and a community activist for oppressed groups. The double life has its problems. As a central figure with a group that linked arms to stop traffic on the Bay Bridge one busy afternoon he drew the ire of both law enforcement agencies and his own father, whose career was in transportation. (McBride tells of committing a minor offense as a teenager and asking the responding officer to “take me to jail, just don’t take me to my father.” His father has mellowed after seeing his children reach law-abiding adulthood.) But when community organizers see him hired to work with police, they often consider it a betrayal. In reality, McBride walks both sides convinced that they can come together in the middle.

McBride spoke recently on “Crossing the Street: The Power of Peacemaking,” one of a series of programs on “Waging Peace” at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. Much of the talk was concerned with what he terms “the theology of resistance” – as in resisting injustice.

Sawubona,” McBride said – having his audience repeat the word several times – “is the Zulu word for hello. The traditional reply is Sikhona.” The expanded meaning of the words is central to resisting injustice, he added. “Sawubona literally translates “I see you.” Sikhona means, “Because you see me, I am here.” The business of seeing “the other” with as few lenses, or filters, as possible goes to the heart of McBride’s peacemaking message.ben-mcbride-1

Peacemaking, he argues, requires “disrupting my point of view with ‘the other’s point of view. It  is about stepping into the middle of the tension.”

Opportunities to get groups like community protesters and law enforcement officers to meet in the middle of the tension without violence are few, and fraught. McBride has been called to places like Ferguson where tensions have long simmered – and already exploded. But his ability  to see the perspectives of opposing sides boosts his ability to defuse.

McBride’s lay audiences – this recent one consisted of 40 or so individuals of differing ages, ethnicities and views – rarely have an opportunity to fully inhabit either side of such tensions. But considering how to see “people closer to pain than we are” makes the middle of the street at least a less threatening place to stand. And having the husky, smiling McBride standing there too wouldn’t ever be a bad idea.

 

 

I . . Am . . The Refugee

Refugees are human beings

“If I’d been caught,” she said quietly, “I would have been sent back to North Korea where I would have faced prison, or possibly execution.” She had escaped into China, only to find that refugees were not exactly welcome there. “My parents (who had helped her, and a brother, escape) told the government that my brother and I were dead. For several years, they were closely watched because the government didn’t believe them, but it is somewhat better now.”

The young woman with a shy smile spoke through an interpreter at an event at Calvary Presbyterian Church, in recognition of World Refugee Day – which you may have missed, in the tsunami of news/tweets/rumors about suffering refugees, undesirable immigrants and assorted boundary walls and fences.

The young woman speaker eventually made it to Thailand, and from there to the U.S. where nonprofits such as the International Rescue Committee and Refugee Transitions are helping her piece together a life. It took her seven years. She does not expect ever to see her parents again. We were asked not to take pictures, to protect her.

At a later event on the same day another young woman spoke. Her English was immeasurably better than my Pashto or Dari would be if I studied really hard for the next 10 years. Born in 1992 into an educated Afghan family, she repeatedly cited having educated parents as setting her apart. Most Afghan women of her generation (as with other generations) face a life strictly limited to the confines of the family home. But by the time she was five, the Taliban had taken over and educating girls was forbidden. In her city there was one underground school where girls could learn to read and write, and she and her parents decided to risk it. During regular government inspections the children would hide textbooks in garbage cans. But she survived, and received a rudimentary education that was greatly expanded after 2011 when the U.S. entered Afghanistan. (“In our prayers, we gave thanks for the Americans,” she said. That was surprising, and gratifying, to this American reporter.)  She came to the U.S. on a student visa several years ago. By the time she graduated it was clear that she could not return to her country – which has known nothing but war for forty years – to help young women and girls as her hopes and plans had been. So she became a refugee. A refugee is, by definition, “a person who has been forced to leave his or her country in order to escape war, famine, persecution or natural disaster.”

“So many things are hard,” the young woman from Afghanistan says. “For instance, pronunciation. You want to renew your ‘weesa,’ and they don’t know what you’re saying because it’s ‘visa.’” Other things are harder still. Because she was on a student visa, she could not work. After graduation she “couch-hopped,” staying wherever she could, “because the only people I knew were my professors and my classmates.” She has now applied for asylum — a process that also prohibits working for at least 150 days. She was fortunate to find a family who has taken her in, and she hopes to make a life in the U.S.

For many in the audience, it was hard to imagine the endless bureaucratic mazes refugees encounter and patiently endure — possibly because they often come from countries where government bureaucracy is a daily fact of life. It was even harder to imagine spending two or three years of one’s life (a minimum) or well over a decade (an average) in a refugee camp.

Refugees - UNHCR

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 33,972 people are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict and persecution. That is 33,972 people every day. There are, UNHCR reports, 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. That is sixty-five and three/tenths million homeless/stateless people. Human beings. Many of these are simply desperate to escape; a small percentage hope – and yearn – to return to their homeland if it can be safe (and livable) again.

The United States, a nation of immigrants (we won’t get into the viewpoint of Native Americans here) accepts a few thousand refugees per year.

This writer felt, at the end of the day, she should go home and count her blessings.

The Afghan woman, now – though a long way from citizenship still – an American woman, was asked what those in the audience could do to help.

“Support any of the nonprofits that work to help refugees,” she said. “If you have money, that’s good. But if not, you can give your time – or your prayers.”

But the big thing is, both of these refugees said, echoing the clergy of all faiths who have been speaking out in recent days, not only to give something, but simply to see other individuals not as ‘the other,’ but as members of the community of humankind we share.

Repeatedly, citizens and refugees alike said, somewhat wishfully, “Open your hearts.”