Kind acts and good intentions will out

What do we do to overcome violence in our community and the world? Greg Hughson takes inspiration from an international peace convocation and reflects on how Christians respond to the issues in Dunedin.

There is a great deal of violence in our world. In response to this, the World Council of Churches (WCC) designated 2000-10 to be a decade to overcome violence.

During this period, the 349 national member churches (made up of 500 million or so members) attempted to make a difference, to move our world in the direction of peace and justice.

Hundreds of projects were established by churches all over the planet to address and overcome violence.

The ecumenical accompaniment programme of the WCC in Israel and Palestine is one initiative.

Economic injustice and violence against creation were also on the agenda, giving expression to the opposition of the WCC to economic exploitation of the poor and the desecration of God's world.

Many of the projects were designed to address and deal with the root causes of violence, poverty and injustice.

In May this year, the WCC organised an eight-day International Peace Convocation on the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies, in Kingston, Jamaica. One thousand delegates attended from more than 100 countries.

We gathered to report back on the "decade to overcome violence" and to plan together for the future.

Unlike here in Dunedin, security is high. Access to the campus is via guarded entry points and the campus is surrounded by fences topped with barbed wire. Each hostel is similarly encased.

Kingston is a violent city, which is why the decision was made to hold an international peace conference there, so that we could see at first hand what the churches are doing to address the root causes of violence and to overcome violence in their communities.

On the first day of the convocation, we had the opportunity to visit church- and community-based "overcoming violence" projects in the city.

I chose to visit Boystown, an educational and employment training community established by the Methodist Church in the 1940s in the midst of a poor and disadvantaged area of the city. It is an oasis of peace and hope.

It was inspiring to meet some of the students and staff.

This project is one of many in Kingston which is helping to build peace and to give young people hope and prospects for the future.

The opening plenary address of the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation was delivered by Canon Paul Oestreicher. Paul received an honorary doctorate of divinity from the University of Otago a few years ago.

His address was entitled "A new world is possible". He declared that Christians must dare to implement the teaching of Jesus, to love our enemies. He presented a vision of a world where war, like slavery, is internationally condemned and rendered illegal; a world where war is no longer an option for solving conflicts - an inspiring vision.

Each day, we explored a different dimension of peace: peace in the community, peace among the peoples, peace with the Earth and peace in the marketplace. One hundred and sixty workshops were offered.

Each day, we divided into 50 groups of 20 for Bible study. Each day, we worshipped together in a huge tent on campus, and heard inspiring addresses from peace-makers from all around the world.

We heard inspiring "overcoming violence" addresses from the Congo, from Iraq, from Indian women, from Martin Luther King III, from a Christian Palestinian doctor, from an Orthdox bishop from Baghdad, from a former prime minister of Norway and from many others.

Coming back to Dunedin, I wondered what difference I could make, and what difference our churches here are making or could be making to overcoming violence in our community?

First and foremost, our churches, if they are being true to their faith, will be modelling a lifestyle based on justice and peace within their own faith communities.

Second, our churches will be seeking to influence the wider community for good by addressing the root causes of violence in our community. I see this happening in many ways.

As in Kingston, the churches here in Dunedin, and individual Christians, are involved with a wide range of community groups, working at every level of society to overcome violence and to model more peaceful and respectful ways of living. This is happening institutionally through the work of wonderful organisations such as the Methodist Mission, Anglican Family Care, the Salvation Army, Presbyterian Support and Catholic Social Services.

Working towards and expressing a commitment to peace and justice is also happening when tertiary students and others march down George St to protest against sexual violence. It is happening through the Sophie Elliott Foundation.

It is happening through the Dunedin Night Shelter. It is happening through our New Zealand Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies based at the University of Otago.

It is happening when the Muslim community invites people who are not members of their faith to join them at the mosque to share an evening meal during Ramadan.

It is happening whenever we care for creation, whenever we choose ethical investments, support Trade Aid, and prioritise spending on early childhood education and nurture.

Overcoming violence is happening whenever we choose to reach out compassionately to support and care for our neighbours, whoever they are, wherever they come from, whatever they are doing and whatever they have done.

Overcoming violence is happening whenever and wherever we dare to model, nurture and encourage more peaceful and just ways of living.

The Rev Greg Hughson is an ecumenical chaplain at the University of Otago.