It’s a small world after all

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The SPI Conflict Analysis Class of last May at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Imagine the odds.

Last May I took a graduate school course on conflict analysis in the Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) held at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

The 16 students in the class represented several countries, ethnic backgrounds and religions from around the world. Each day we sat at tables in groups of four or five with a different mix of students. We collaborated on dissecting some aspect of human discord, usually in preparation for a class presentation.

We were all in the class for the same reason. We had a strong interest in understanding and resolving conflict by peaceful means.

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Rana and me in the SPI classroom at Eastern Mennonite University.
I couldn’t have imagined how meaningful the class would be. Nor could I have anticipated the events that would unfold long after the course work was finished.

Keep in mind that most of the students were intensely involved in some aspect of peace building in their respective countries. Dangerous conflict was a daily occurrence for many of them. Azerbaijan, Iraq, Kurdistan, Somalia, Syria, Miramar, and Haiti were a few of those places.

Back home the official duties of class participants varied as much as their backgrounds. Some engaged in peace building through non-governmental agencies. Others were pastors, teachers and even politicians.

The goal was to learn how to analyze conflict, and apply appropriate peace building skills constructively. Upon returning to their home country, they would instruct others in what they had learned or directly apply peace aspects in their vocations.

Meeting with new classmates each day provided a global perspective on the too many conflicts around the world. My problems paled when compared to some of the survival stories told to me privately. Their personal, troublesome stories humbled me.

I was especially impressed with Rana, an energetic young woman from Syria. The news out of that country was not good. Aggressive conflict was wreaking havoc on her homeland. Yet she remained upbeat and actively engaged in class projects.

When the course was completed, I tried to gather any contact information that I could. I wanted to stay connected to my new friends. I knew that I would be unable to communicate with some of them simply for security reasons. I certainly didn’t want to compound the risks they already faced.

Once home I did manage to communicate with a few of the students, mostly via Facebook, a popular social media website. Even in the midst of the fighting, I was able to share periodically with Rana. But I kept the messages to mostly short well wishes.

When the fighting in Syria escalated, including the use of chemical weapons, I became rather concerned. Then the last Sunday morning of 2013, I received a message from Rana that she was fine.

I felt relieved as my wife and I headed to church. I knew we had a special speaker that morning, but I didn’t know who or from what organization.

Prior to the service, I was introduced to the guest speaker, Sarah Adams, who was the Mennonite Central Committee country representative to Lebanon and Syria. I recounted my SPI experience, and asked Sarah if she happened to know Rana.

Before I could say Rana’s last name, Sarah happily replied, “Oh, yes. I know Rana well.” She assured me that Rana was safe and still working for peace whenever and wherever she could. I was thrilled.

Imagine the odds of the three of us interconnecting via Virginia, Syria and Ohio. It really is a small world after all.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Viewing the world through different lenses

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The Conflict Analysis class of the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA.

By Bruce Stambaugh

We have it pretty nice here in the Greater Holmes County, Ohio area. I have known that ever since I moved to the area just after the historic July 1969 flood.

Ask locals, and they’ll tell you that it’s the best place in the world to live. I wouldn’t begin to argue otherwise.

That doesn’t mean, however, that this is the only place to call home. Clearly, if it were, the countryside wouldn’t be the same. Pastoral settings would give way to a jagged urban scape and all the trappings that accompany it.

For those who never venture afar from our comparatively protected environs, there is a danger with our self-satisfaction. Seeing the world with only our particular glasses can give us a distorted viewpoint on other cultures, socially, politically, economically and any other way you want to look at life.

At times it can be good to change lenses. That means we sometimes have to get well out of our comfort zone to do so. We have to let go of what we know, and learn anew.

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Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley offers incredible views, like the morning mist rising out of the valleys.

Recently I took an intensive graduate school course at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia’s lovely Shenandoah Valley. It’s a place as pretty as home, only old age mountains backdrop rolling, fertile foothills.

Of the 16 participants in the class, I was one of only three North American students. The others came from places like Azerbaijan, Thailand, Iraq, Kurdistan, Belgium, Ghana, Nigeria, Syria and Haiti. I would have struggled to find some of these countries on a globe.

The students ranged from young adults to grandparents like me. Their given names were Amstrong, Yvon, Nurana, Carlos, Rana, Aunt, Ray, James, Oscar, Henry, Nameer, Ernest, Amina, Khant and Salar. They were pastors, government leaders, workers for non-governmental aid agencies, interpreters and teachers.

Though our cultures, races and geographic origins varied greatly, we were there to learn about the various ways to analyze and understand conflict. Given the current situations in the countries represented, much useful information was certain to be shared back home.

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Much of the class time was spent in small group discussions and activities.

In the classroom, we sat in groups of three or four, each day a different configuration, each day new and fascinating stories intertwined with the professor’s lessons. Their personal stories, shared privately, were compelling, if not fearsome.

A pastor from Haiti called his wife every night and spoke to her from midnight until nearly dawn just to ensure his family’s safety. The consequences of war had destroyed the home of a young woman from Syria. Yet reconciliation, not retribution, was the aim of these devoted, considerate, inquisitive community leaders striving to promote peace.

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The dynamic women of the Conflict Analysis class of the Summer Peacebuilding Institute.

Instead of focusing on how bad it was in their country or blaming other governments, these men and women were glad for the opportunity to learn how to dissect and resolve conflict. They would take what they had learned and apply it as best they could. Their goal was to improve the world around them, even if it was one person at a time. Where there was despair, they saw hope.

When the Haitian pastor asked me if my home was safe, I hesitated before answering. I looked deep into his dark, wondering eyes, and simply said, “Yes, I live in a very safe place.”

“You are very fortunate,” he replied softly. I was humbled.

All of us who live in our lush, agrarian area are fortunate. Occasionally it takes looking through other life lenses to fully appreciate our own home view.

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A typical springtime view in Holmes Co., Ohio.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

A change of venue for the grandkids

By Bruce Stambaugh

When our daughter told us that her husband had accepted a new job in Harrisonburg, Virginia, we were ecstatic. Although we enjoyed our visits to Texas with our family and their neighbors and friends, we found the flights from Ohio tedious.

With the move to Virginia, our grandchildren would be a quick six-hour drive away. I mean quick in the most liberal sense.

We enjoyed flying but to fly three hours to Texas without a direct flight really consumed an entire day. Add together the drive time to the airport, check-in, security navigations, waiting at the gates, and flight connections and a good day was gone.

Driving to Virginia would be a whole lot easier. To be sure, we knew the route by heart. We drove it often to visit our daughter in college in Harrisonburg. She had met our son-in-law at Eastern Mennonite University, and they had lived and worked in the city for a couple of years after their graduation and marriage. Now he works for the school.

There were multiple ways for us to get to Harrisonburg, an expanding city in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley. As long as the weather was good, our favorite route was also the most demanding, climbing and descending eight mountain passes. It was a scenic, curvy drive.

Last week, we made our first trip to Harrisonburg in a decade. Our daughter and her family had moved from Texas, but settling in with three youngsters and a husband who works full-time isn’t the easiest thing to do.

Our excuse was to help our daughter and her husband unpack and to get organized in their Virginia home. Our motive was to see the grandkids. The ever-thoughtful Nana packed up containers of frozen sweet corn and applesauce and we headed southeast.

It was fun to travel again through familiar towns like Elkins, Harman, Franklin and Seneca Rocks, all in West Virginia. Not surprisingly, little had changed in those 10 years. But once we hit the mountains, the road seemed windier than I had remembered, even though it was clear some of the curves had been softened and widened.

I would have gladly crossed 18 mountain passes for the chance to see our two grandsons and granddaughter again. I last saw them in Texas at the end of February.

I was amazed at how much they had matured, if indeed you can say a six-year old, a four-year old and a nine-month old mature. But there were definite differences. The two boys, Evan and Davis, played together well, yet were equally content to play independently, too.

Evan surprised me with how well he could read, even though he had just finished kindergarten. Davis, too, showed his inquisitive prowess with delving questions. When we weren’t watching the World Cup on television, we played soccer on their expansive wooden deck.

Maren cuddled right up to me. She seemed more intrigued with my beard than my conversation, however. When the discussion went sour, Nana was the designated diaper changer.

Maren is crawling, curious and exercising her best operatic voice, although not always in harmony with her energetic brothers. She is one adorable little girl, and has saucers for eyes that match the same Paul Newman blueness of her brothers.

Our stay was much too short. You can be sure that now that they are only hours away, there will be many more visits to come. After all, we have the drive down pat.