This summer, I spent a week in the Republic of Georgia with young YMCA leaders from the Southern Caucasus area as part of the Roots for Reconciliation project. Participants were present from the USA, Armenia, Ukraine, Russia, and Georgia. For those of you unfamiliar, the Southern Caucasus area is an area that has long standing historical conflicts. All participating countries were a part of the former Soviet Union and some participating countries (i.e. Ukraine and Russia) have current or very recent histories of conflict with each other.
Let me stop there with the history of the region—because the point of the trip and the program was not to learn about historical and present conflicts. The point was this: to bring young leaders together and to build peace by giving them the opportunity to build relationships with each other.
What I saw and what I experienced were people learning to see each other as people—not as stereotypes and not as the country they are from. On day one, when 50 of us had just arrived from 5 different countries speaking 5 different languages, we all went to the beach. We were friendly with each other, but I noticed that we mostly kept to the people we came with. By day 5, an entire peace-building workshop later, I could no longer even tell you who was from where. We were all mixed up, and they were all my friends and my inspiration.
What I learned through the workshop is this: Peace is a process of baby steps. And peace starts with relationships. Because relationships allow us the powerful experience of knowing someone beyond our preconceived notions of who they are and what they represent.
Now, let me bring this message home. Often, when we say “peace” people instantly think global. But as I stood discussing peace with leaders from countries currently at war, I found myself trying to explain to them that we, Americans, are still actively struggling for peace, reconciliation, and understanding in our own country and communities.
Currently, I live in one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. The lines of race and social economic status are clearly visible in my city. The stereotypes people hold about those who are different from themselves are real. They are real, they are damaging, and they are limiting to our ability to build peace.
I came home from my trip to Georgia, after a week of talking about peace, to find that my community was struggling for peace. While I was gone, an unarmed black man was shot and killed by a police officer. My city was on the verge of chaos and unrest with racial tensions boiling. It is a storyline that is becoming too familiar and unfortunately, is not a storyline that my city is unfamiliar with.
I came home to reality. And I had to ask myself some serious questions. I consider myself a leader for our YMCA in Diversity, Inclusion, and Global work. I now have a sharpened understanding of how building relationships can contribute to peace. I work hard each day to empower young people, of all different backgrounds and circumstances, to be their best selves. But what am I actually doing to build peace? What am I actually doing to get the youth in my city to walk across lines, stereotypes, and cultural boundaries and learn to see each other as people? It sounds so small and trivial, and yet it may be what saves us. That one at a time, we teach our young people to respect each other for their differences and similarities, by pursuing opportunities for them to build relationships. I came home from my trip and this is what I wrote in my journal and what I would like to ask you:
Will you join me? Will you join me in teaching our young people to love one another? Will you join me in helping them learn to overcome differences? Are you willing to sacrifice your own feelings, biases, and fear to act only as a catalyst for their well being? I think I am ready, but I cannot walk alone. I have watched others walk the path of commitment to social justice and peace. I have learned that this commitment is a part of the YMCA. We are here to serve our community. Our community needs peace. We can build that peace through young people with enough energy being put into it. But it has to start with us and our hearts. And the understanding that this is our problem and it is our work. Peace is a part of the YMCA mission.
What are you doing to build peace and understanding in your community and city? What are you doing to build bridges between the people in our city and help us to work past conflict and misunderstanding? It’s easy to hide behind excuses and politics. It’s easy to place blame. It’s hard to step out of your comfort zone and do something. But I’m inviting you to join me and to support each other in doing something bold to build peace and social justice in your city. I believe that you can do it. I believe that WE can do it.
By Kristi Rohrkasse