In a nation of mass shootings, tensions in the church and racist posts on social media, it is clear to me that in the United States we are not living in a peaceful time. The air often feels tense and volatile in environments where people are bold and vocal about their anger.
While observing these strong displays of racism, hate and violence in our country, it feels foolish to stand by and do nothing. I believe that this is the time for Christians to boldly shine God’s light, love and peace in the world.
As Christians, we are called to be peacemakers and to shine God’s light in a dark place. Matthew 5:16 says, “In the same way, let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your father in heaven.”
As the Philadelphia program coordinator in Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)’s East Coast region, I decided to be a peacemaker and shine God’s light through teaching peace education to third graders as part of an after-school program at Laura H. Carnell Elementary School. The Philadelphia-based after-school program is connected with Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association (OCCCDA), one of MCC’s partners.
On a warm October afternoon, I walked into my first class with 24 third graders. The students were curious to see a new face and had a lot of questions and requests. The classroom was hot, and the kids were hungry.
I had the perfect lesson plan and had rehearsed it a few times. I have facilitated groups in peace education in the past, so I wasn’t naïvely expecting all my third graders to be perfectly seated, engaged and ready to learn. But I figured it couldn’t be too bad. After all, they were only third graders. It would go well. It would be fun.
As I got ready to start my class, complaints of hunger started to grow, and the students became restless. I was eager to start my perfectly crafted lesson, but the kids were not mentally ready to learn in that moment. They were physically hungry and soon started to murmur, complain and quarrel amongst themselves.
I decided to proceed with my lesson knowing I would have to take a break when the snack, provided by the school, arrived. As I was growing impatient waiting for the snack, which would provide some sanity for all of us, it arrived! The kids were satisfied, and I was relieved. It was a rough start for our first class, but I was determined and looked forward to the following weeks.
MCC photo/ChiChi Oguekwe
In the classes that followed, we did fun activities like “Whisper Down the Lane” to emphasize the importance of communication and teambuilding skills in creating peace. We had role plays in solving conflict, practiced expressing emotions by using “I” statements and learned active listening skills.
For one class activity, I brought cake ingredients. Each ingredient represented an attribute for creating peace. Flour represented love, oil and eggs signified resisting violence, sugar for justice, etc. And while we didn’t have an oven to bake our “cake of peace,” we got to decorate cupcakes and eat them. The kids were excited and so was I.
I remember one class in particular where two of the boys were yelling and physically fighting each other. We used it as a teaching moment, but the class didn’t seem to care. They were bent on bickering and chatting with their friends. I started to use the well-known attention signal, “One, two, three, eyes on me,” but I felt my voice starting to weaken— I felt like I was losing my voice.
I thought of my lesson that was so carefully designed, but nothing could have prepared me for this moment of chaos. I visualized myself hitting a huge Gibraltar gong on a stand to say, “Silence!” On days like that, all of my work felt meaningless and impossible.
How could I teach peace in a class that felt anything but peaceful?
Towards the end of the semester, I decided to do a recap of all we had learned. The students and I were now accustomed to one another. I asked them to tell me what they had learned about peace over the course of the semester. I wasn’t expecting much, because at this point I knew that learning peace and actually practicing it was hard work.
But to my surprise, they had a lot to say—not eloquently, but simply. One of them said, “Peace is when you want something, and the other person also wants something, and you want to fight but you don’t.” Then, the rest of the class started to fill in the gaps. One said “You gotta say how you feel,” then another, “You gotta be nice, not rude,” then another, “You gotta listen,” and then another, “You gotta rephrase!”
I was stunned! In the chaos, or what seemed like it, they were listening. Even the group leaders’ eyes widened as we looked at each other in disbelief. I was so thankful. It was a reminder of faith.
MCC photo/ChiChi Oguekwe
MCC photo/ChiChi Oguekwe
Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” My faith was tested a few times as I taught the class and I had occasionally lost fervor, but God was using all the ups and downs as teaching moments for me and the students.
Building peace is the same way. It takes a step of faith, one at a time, through life’s ups and downs and twists and turns. Building peace in our communities can feel daunting, but we must remember that God called us to be peacemakers. He will walk with us, provide for us and guide us as we do His will. We can build peace together, a step by step process of faith, and one day we will reap a harvest of righteousness.
ChiChi Oguekwe is the Philadelphia program coordinator for MCC’s East Coast region. Through her position, Oguekwe connects with Philadelphia churches and partners like Kingdom Builders Network (KBN), focusing on peace and justice issues in the Philadelphia area.