Peace is not a Fairytale…

Barbara Forbes reflects on the Church & Peace conference which took place at Bull St Quaker Meeting House on 23rd February:

“Peace is not a fairy-tale – we have to work to make it happen”.

This statement, by the late Kenyan peace-maker Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, was the inspiration for our Britain & Ireland regional meeting in Birmingham in late February. Planning the programme together with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, we under-pinned our approach with Romans 14,19 – Let us do what leads to peace and builds our common life.

And our “common life” was very much the theme of our keynote speaker, local Anglican vicar Al Barrett. Having lived for the last nine years on an estate on the edge of the city, his ministry focuses very much on building community and overcoming the effects of material poverty, which he identifies as poverty of relationships, poverty of identity, and poverty of resources. He works to encourage those who live on “his patch” to re-shape the dominant narrative, which would condemn them to being further forgotten, and instead, to claim the right to tell their own stories and build a strong and vibrant community. He threw out many challenges to the mainly white and middle-class participants, in particular about the temptations of being seduced by different types of power – the “power of the  provider” (which sees “the other” only as a recipient); the “power of the performer” (which sees “the other as an audience to be impressed or to have their opinions changed); and “the power of the possessor” (which sees “the other” as helpless subjects who are to be helped by “our” projects). (More detailed examples of Al’s thoughts and challenges can be found on the internet by googling Rev Al Barrett.)

This was a thought-provoking start to the day, which continued with further reflections on building a network of Churches of Sanctuary (not churches which offer physical sanctuary to asylum-seekers, but churches which develop a mission of hospitality, welcome, and, where necessary, advocacy); interfaith work on climate change; and difficult dialogues after the Brexit referendum – building friendships between regions which were at opposite ends of the voting spectrum.

The afternoon workshops continued the discussion on those topics, as well as allowing the opportunity for the first-ever pilot run of a workshop on “Everyday Civil Courage”, developed by Oliver Robertson, formerly national coordinator for FoR Britain and soon to be Head of Worship and Witness of Britain Yearly Meeting (Quakers). Between them, the day touched on aspects of “living on the edge” which Al had identified in the morning – being open to unplanned encounters; creating “edge-spaces” where we meet people who are different from us; building up our common humanity and creating our common home; taking small steps to heal small divisions, when some divisions are currently too deep to be easily healed; and changing dialogue from oppression to cooperation.

All of this is essential in the broken and divided UK, a country riven by division to an extent which none of us has ever experienced before.