Peace is more than a wish with some love for enemies

Mattresses in an empty room
Mattresses fill the sanctuary of a southern Mexico Catholic Church in Salto de Agua, Mexico. Almost a thousand Central American migrants pass through a month. The church provides food and a place to sleep for migrants on their journey north. MCC photo/Anna Vogt

The day after the U.S. presidential elections in 2016, I took a week-long road trip from Guatemala to Mexico with human rights advocates to learn all about migration dynamics in the region.

It was depressing and exhausting. At every stop, we heard stories of horror: of kidnapping, of violence and of missing family members.

In between stops, we speculated about how the results of the election would impact the dynamics we were witnessing. The constant political conversation was only interrupted by our guides pointing out the window at the palm, banana and pineapple plantations forcing people off their lands and creating new waves of violence.

Near the end of the trip, we pulled into Salto de Agua, Mexico, a tiny town filled with Central American migrants seeking shelter and food on their journey.

Due to a complicated history, Catholics and Evangelical Protestants often view each other with suspicion in Latin America. Among Evangelicals, Catholics are often seen as aligned with the state and traditional power. Some Evangelicals view Catholics as holding to empty traditions and rituals, rather than true faith. Catholics often view Evangelicals as closed-minded fanatics who don’t care about meeting the real needs of hunger and injustice. They are often seen as aligned with the interests of big business.

The history of conflict and suspicion between both groups means it is often hard for them to come together to address the very real challenges their countries and communities are facing.

All those dynamics were in the back of my mind as we walked, exhausted, inside the Catholic church in Salto de Agua. Sister Kati led us past the mattresses in the foyer where migrants slept, into the sanctuary. When we asked about threats she faced in her work from nearby armed groups, she acknowledged them but didn’t dwell. Instead, she focused on the practical details of her hospitality, telling us about the thousand migrants the church cared for each month and the donations of food provided by members of the local community, themselves at risk of forced displacement.

In the same way, the priest didn’t linger on the challenges. Instead, he passed around a photo of a church mass, attended by migrants, the vast majority of Evangelicals from Central America, and community members.

“This is the year of misericordia (mercy) in the Catholic church,” he explained, his voice filled with wonder. “This was my mass of mercy. I had to change the service to include all our Protestant brothers and sisters. But together, we learned from each other as we worshipped, in recognition of our shared humanity and faith. That is what mercy is all about.”

In a context where division served to maintain the status quo of death, the words of Sister Kati and the priest, and the hospitality of Salto de Agua, sunk into my soul like hope. To welcome a stranger and, in this case, to actively include those often portrayed as enemies, the Evangelicals saw an invitation to see something different.

The more I talk to peacebuilders, the more I hear that peacebuilding doesn’t require a master’s degree, advanced mediation skills or the right personality. To be a peacebuilder simply starts with a willingness to be curious about where God could be present in the faces of everyone we meet. It means paying attention to where something different could be taking place.

I remember the feeling of wonder that settled in the room as Kati and the priest spoke, not because they were superhuman, but because their act of seeing God in strangers and letting themselves be changed presented a different vision for the region's future.

But it was hard for our group to focus on that more hopeful vision. We desperately tried- but ultimately failed- to avoid panic and despair. Back in the van, we didn’t discuss the awe in the priest’s voice as he talked to us and what it could look like to also approach our work in ways that would allow us that same sense of wonder. We never really talked about what it could look like, just like the priest and Sister Kati did, to include those we disagreed with or perhaps distrusted to work with us together for a way forward. Ironically, we were so focused on how big and pressing the problems we saw were, to stop and wonder if we could be seeing a different way.

I’ve found myself drawn back to this story these days as I think about peace in my personal life and more broadly here in Canada as we face provincial elections and continue to recover from the pandemic. It is too easy to categorize other people as the problem instead of part of the way forward. When I feel panic, instead of reaching for despair, can I see my panic as an invitation to pause, to breathe deeply, and to look again at where God is already at work in unlikely places? Sometimes it takes pausing to recognize God’s hand and to take a small step forward of welcome in response.

What could it look like for our churches and communities to be places of mercy and welcome for those we don’t agree with? What if the role of our communities is to welcome and work with those who make us the most uncomfortable? What if we believe this is how God will be revealed, filling us with wonder rather than despair?

Jesus’ invitation to love our enemies is an invitation to mercy and, more than that, to abundance.  Loving our enemies means we get the opportunity to encounter God right in the midst of conflict. So, this month, I want to keep building those practices that allow me to pay attention to wonder in the midst of overwhelm. Perhaps this is what mercy is all about. 

Questions for reflection and action:  

Are there any situations in your life where you see differently or can look back and see God at work, after some time and distance? What changed to allow you to see differently and are there spaces where you can apply those same practices to spaces of conflict?

When you think about polarization and some of the challenges we face here in Canada, are there people or groups that you would consider to be part of the problem, in a similar dynamic with Catholics and Evangelicals in Latin America? Why or why not?

During the next month, pause and spend some time in prayer, either individually or with others in your church, asking God to open up spaces for wonder where there is currently mistrust. Pray and reflect on what it could look like to replace suspicion with love.