When you look at a tapestry or a beautifully woven rug, the first things you are likely to notice are the intricate patterns, rich colors or plush fibers. But underneath lies an important structure. Tightly strung threads, called the weft, run throughout to provide structure during the weaving process and long after the finished piece is taken from the loom.
Like those strong threads, peace is a foundation to all that MCC does. On the surface you see emergency food provided after a disaster. Under the surface is a plan to do the distribution with local partners in a way that reduces conflict. Or at first glance you might see trainings and supplies to help farmers increase their income. What you don’t see is that in a region marked by armed groups and conflict, that project is only possible because of the nonviolent witness of a local church partner.
From disaster relief to education to agricultural development, that dedication to peacebuilding, rooted in the Anabaptist vision of MCC and Christ’s way of peace, is woven throughout MCC’s work.
You can see that commitment to peace in an agriculture program in the Chocó region of Colombia. For many communities living along the banks of the San Juan River, the river is the only way in or out. Yet between the government and illegal armed groups, transportation on the rivers is heavily controlled. It’s not always possible or safe for farmers to bring their harvests to market.
Fifteen years ago, armed groups expanded into the region, along with illicit activities. As the Mennonite Brethren church saw their communities struggle, they imagined a future where people had a dignified way of making a living. For the church, this is a part of their work for peace — a peace that isn’t just an absence of war and conflict, but a world where everyone has what they need for a good life.
Church leaders founded Fundación Agropecuaria Tejiendo Esperanza (FAGROTES or Weaving Hope Agricultural Foundation) and set out to make that vision a reality. They began with building a rice processing plant and committing to purchasing farmers’ harvests. Since 2010, MCC has supported the project, including in some years through the U.S.-based Growing Hope Globally (formerly Foods Resource Bank).
Growing Hope Globally photo/Alex Morse
Then they taught farmers to grow cacao, the plant that produces the base for chocolate. And now, despite a pandemic that has cut off their region from the rest of Colombia and led to increased violence, they have taken the next step and opened their own chocolate factory so farmers like Luis Norberto Mosquera can grow the cacao and produce chocolate to sell.
Doing this meant shipping machinery across multiple mountain ranges, functioning in areas where armed groups are active, moving trainings with agronomists onto Zoom despite unreliable internet connections and securing the only potable water certification in the entire region for their factory.
Around the world, MCC relies on local partners who know their contexts and can work in ways that minimize conflict. Relying on close relationships with the communities they serve and remaining fiercely independent are key.
"For the church, this is a part of their work for peace — a peace that isn’t just an absence of war and conflict, but a world where everyone has what they need for a good life."
In Chocó, for instance, the Mennonite Brethren maintain autonomy from both government agencies and armed groups. They get the required government permission to transport things like fertilizer (which can also be used in cocaine production) into the region. But they refuse all military escorts, relying instead on direct communication with community leaders to know when it’s safe for them to travel.
This insistence on being seen as a neutral, pacifist group serves as a form of protection. “By consistently presenting a peace witness and abstaining from affiliations with armed groups and the military, the Mennonite Brethren can adeptly serve their communities and work towards their vision of increased economic opportunities in this challenging context,” says Elizabeth Miller, an MCC representative in Colombia. (Read more about the work of Miller and her husband Neil Richer, who are from Goshen, Indiana.)
The importance of local partners’ knowledge and commitment to building cohesion in communities is critical to MCC’s responses to disasters and emergencies as well, says Bruce Guenther, MCC’s director of disaster response. “These local partners know the best way to reduce potential for conflict in distributions, and how to build relationships across groups for a peaceful future.”
For example, in Syria in the fall of 2013, only a few years into the conflict, an armed group attacked the city of Deir Attieh in the Qalamoun region. The militants went through the city, taking control of vehicles, buildings and churches.
MCC photo/Emily Loewen
Then, when they tried to enter the sanctuary of a Syrian Orthodox Church, they found a resolute group of Muslims who weren’t willing to see the church of their Christian brothers and sisters destroyed. “If you wish to defile this church and harm these people,” they stated, “you will have to kill us first!”
This kind of interreligious solidarity is not a given in the middle of a civil war. But Christians and Muslims had coexisted peacefully in Syria before the conflict, so when planning emergency food distributions, MCC’s local partner Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD) intentionally worked with both religious groups to build a trust that could hold fast in the midst of violence.
The purposeful inclusion of both Christian and Muslim partners in this process allowed not only the successful distribution of assistance to displaced families, says the Rev. Riad Jarjour, FDCD president. It also helped to establish trust and cooperation between different faith groups.
"But the way that the core value of peace is woven into all MCC projects serves to make the whole of MCC’s work stronger..." - Ann Graber Hershberger, MCC U.S. executive director.
This project provides monthly packages of food for 6,000 families throughout Syria. The local volunteers and relief committees who distribute supplies and select recipients come from both religious groups. This creates relationships between the volunteers while also showing the wider community that Christians and Muslims can work together.
The power of that unity was on display when the church was invaded. Jarjour notes that it is reasonable to assume that the consequences of the Battle for Qalamoun would have been far greater than the mere destruction of property without the network of inter-community and interfaith partnerships facilitated through the distribution of humanitarian assistance.
Of course, sometimes peace is a more visible part of the tapestry of MCC’s work.
For example, in Zambia MCC supported the formation of peace clubs, which brought students together to learn peacebuilding skills. The program is so successful that it has expanded around the world. More than 21,500 people took part in MCC-supported peace clubs last year.
MCC photo/Silas Crews
Now a new project is establishing peace clubs in 65 correctional facilities throughout Zambia and working to restore relationships. Through the program, people like Luka Phiri, a mechanic who was caught with stolen car parts, have been able to reconcile with victims of their crimes. By teaching peacebuilding and restorative justice skills, the program hopes to reduce conflict inside the prisons and help people better integrate into their communities once they are released.
The threads of MCC’s commitment to peace may not always be as visible as clubs and workshops dedicated to the skills of peacebuilding.
But the way that the core value of peace is woven into all MCC projects serves to make the whole of MCC’s work stronger, whether in disaster response, education, agriculture or other areas, says Ann Graber Hershberger, MCC U.S. executive director.
MCC photo/Alouny Souvolavong
“Over decades of work in communities around the world, we’ve seen that when people from different backgrounds find new ways to work together and long-standing conflicts are resolved, all of our efforts bear more fruit, moving people closer to the abundant life that Christ has promised.”
Emily Loewen is the marketing and communications manager for MCC Canada.