The Peacemakers

The Peacemakers
Vigil for peace in Iraq in Stamford, Conn., April 2007. Left to right, Lisa Swett, Jeanette Kraus and Elmira Nazombe. Barbara Wheeler.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. --Psalm 85:10

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of the Mississippi Episcopal Area shares a scene from her childhood when describing her work with the JustPeace Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation.

“My mother often said to her five children, "Blessed are the peacemakers."  She had no need to say more. The four words were — and are — powerfully sufficient!” said Bishop Ward, chair of JustPeace’s board.

Not unlike Bishop Ward’s mother’s actions, the United Methodist Church created the JustPeace Center as a needed word of peace to the church. It started in 1999 with the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration and was approved by the church’s 2004 General Conference to become an independent entity offering tools for peaceful conflict resolution that addresses pertinent issues, calls for accountability and heals rather than destroys. It fosters the growth of peacemakers by preparing and assisting United Methodists to engage conflict in ways that promote justice, reconciliation, resource preservation and restoration of community in the Church and in the world.

JustPeace works with agencies, churches, organizations and individuals within the United Methodist Church. Training and coaching are available to lay people, clergy and church leadership for creative conflict resolution and peacebuilding. The center trains hundreds of leaders in conflict transformation ministries each year.

“JustPeace is a renewing and nurturing force in my life and ministry as I seek to draw the deep waters of God's grace for life together — in the United Methodist Church and in every other community in which I engage,” Bishop Ward said.

The Reverends Thomas Porter and Stephanie Hixon are co-directors of JustPeace Center and co-authors of United Methodist Women’s 2011 School of Christian Mission Spiritual Growth study book, The Journey: Forgiveness, Restorative Justice and Reconciliation.

Mr. Porter is a United Methodist minister, teacher, mediator and trial lawyer. He’s a lecturer at Boston University School of Theology and a founder and former president of the Council of Religion and Law, an association of legal professionals, theologians and ministers.

Ms. Hixon is a an ordained elder in the Susquehanna Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church who has served congregations in Pennsylvania and West Virgina and also as a member of the general secretariat of the United Methodist General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Ms. Hixon holds a certification in Alternative Dispute Resolution from Hamline University School of Law.

Both are deeply committed to the work of reconciliation and conflict resolution.

Mr. Porter’s experience as a trial lawyer in the secular legal system drew him to the work. “I was interested in trying to create a different culture that involved more compassion and imagination in resolving disputes,” he said.

Ms. Hixon’s interest in conflict resolution came after studying issues of women and children.

“My experience had to do with the journey of ministry related to women and children,” she said. “I served for a term 12 years on . . . the Commission on the Status of Women. One issue that was emerging was the increased awareness of misconduct perpetrated by religious professionals. Women were the most often harmed.”

Ms. Hixon found the processes in place rooted in a Western legal system that focuses on punishing perpetrators but is largely unresponsive to the harm done to the victim.

“The voice and needs of the victim were not in the process,” Ms. Hixon said. “Observing how painful this was for people… we began to ask as a church, ‘How can we do that better?’”

Ms. Hixon said the center aims to foster a culture of just peace. There isn’t one permanent approach because in conflict resolution the context of the discord is important.

“Our mission and focus is to help United Methodists address conflict well,” Ms. Hixon said. “Our job is not to come in and solve problems. For integrity’s sake, it is so important that people are emboldened to solve their own problems and find their own meaningful resolution.”

The JustPeace Center helps the church in that process. For example, JustPeace works on grievance procedures against ministers when issues arise in the congregation. The center helps the faith community to develop a just resolution that can require accountability of the minister to the people and healing for all involved.

JustPeace has mediated cases where groups within a congregation are dissatisfied with the church and are leaving the church.

Another example is the center’s worked with a church that had been vandalized. Confounded church leaders and members reached out to JustPeace to help them engage young people in the community, and to help the young people understand that they, too, could be ministers of reconciliation.

JustPeace also works with seminarians, introducing the concepts of mediation and peaceful conflict resolution to future ministers and lay leaders. Workshops and training happen at all levels of the church to teach people to resolve conflicts with compassion for everyone involved.

Mr. Porter and Ms. Hixon believe local churches can be centers of mediation and conflict resolution.

“One of our wildest dreams is that every neighborhood church becomes a reconciliation center, a place where issues of the church members and the community can be resolved in a creative way,” Mr. Porter said.

“What if people could come to a church knowing their disputes would be heard in a way that supports both sides?” Ms. Hixon said. “Where the space the community meets at is seen as a safe nonviolent zone; where people can bring difficult conversations in their community and be provided opportunities to engage in constructive ways?”

A call to action

United Methodist Women can help increase the peace and forge meaningful dialogues with their neighbors or between disagreeing factions in their community.

“I have seen United Methodist Women on this path my whole life growing up in the church,” Ms. Hixon said. “So many United Methodist Women members work toward the goal of inclusiveness and creative problem-solving every day.

“I would encourage United Methodist Women to look at some of the things that are going on now and to engage in the Schools of Mission this summer, to start conversations based in our faith and our lived experience, to answer a call to ministry, participate in a Bible study, and engaging others in their congregations to seek new ways of resolving conflict.”

Ms. Hixon said United Methodist Women can promote the work of reconciliation by helping the church reflect on questions like:

  • How do we initiate conversations with people who are different from us?
  • How do we engage around principles of restorative justice?
  • How do we address others when there has been great harm, violence, or loss?
  • Do we reflect on the U.S. system of incarceration and the impact on families, especially children who are affected by absent parents?

“As Christ followers we ought to be committed to solving problems in creative and transformative ways rather than in adversarial ways — in the church, society, in the justice system,” said Jo Harris, a United Methodist Women member at First United Methodist Church in Sioux Falls, N.D., and a founding board member of JustPeace Center. Ms. Harris is former director of the conflict resolution center at the University of North Dakota and taught mediation in the law school at the university.

“Our call is to learn the ways to solve problems that transform human lives, rather than destroy lives and families. That is my life’s work — even before JustPeace — creative conflict resolution and leadership development for women,” she said.

Mr. Porter sums up the centers work by referencing Psalm 85:10.

“We can say there can be no peace without justice, no justice without peace — the two are integrated together.” 

Mary Kate Sweeney is a freelance writer and mother living in Aurora, Ill. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School.

Posted or updated: 5/31/2011 11:00:00 PM
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