What You Honour Tonight

Nov 30, 2010

Editor’s note: The following is taken from the transcript of Lee McKenna’s spoken acceptance of the YMCA of Greater Toronto’s 2010 Peace Medallion award. 

It is an honour to be the recipient of an award with such a rich history and to find myself in the company of some remarkable and passionate peacemakers. It can often be lonely work in a world in which there are endless resources available, it seems, to prepare for and make war and so little dedicated to the search for other ways to make our planet secure in the best sense of that word.

I stand on the shoulders of many, some of whom are here tonight. I must begin with my mother, Barbara Starr McKenna, whose untimely death means that she is not here amongst us tonight—as least in the way I would have liked her to be. She underwrote my initial foolishnesses in war zones and then began to write her own story in places like Eritrea and Rwanda and Brasil and Bolivia and El Salvador. I am grateful for her nurturing in both church and the gospel of peace.

I am grateful for a church history professor, Paul Dekar (a former BPFNA board member) who first introduced me to the gospel of peace and to the revolutionary Jesus, who asked that, in loving our enemies, we might find ourselves without enemies. I am grateful, as well, for the friends of colleagues of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America within whose womb so much of my peacemaking has been nurtured.

I have a ton of books and a long list of influencers who have helped to shape my thinking and grounded me in my faith, made me a practitioner of yoga and shaped the ideas of politics, economics and the human mind that undergird my work of peacemaking. But the container in which I settle, that reminds me of who I am and what I am made of and why and how the world needs changing, is that provided by my family—inheritors of the earth the rest of us leave behind, daughters, Emily and Gillian, and grandchildren, Owen and Morgan.

They, together with brothers, a sister-in-law and a niece and a nephew, together make up the treasures of my life.

And friends, whose love is beyond precious.

Lee with family at awards ceremonty

But how did I get here? My daughters, my colleagues will tell you, planning ahead is not my strong suit. It goes well with a total lack of spatial logic, I suppose. This was not part of any five- or twenty-five year plan. I look back and see it all as doors—ones I didn’t knock at—opening, opportunities to attempt the off-the-wall, off-the-track thing, to consider the road less travelled.

It was an odd path. After 16 years at home raising my babies, I tripped into Latin America somehow, went from small-town stay-at-home mum discussions of drapes and macramé, recycling, recipes and kitchen-table Bible studies, straight into the stick and burlap dwellings of the slums of Bombay, Hyderabad, Kakinada and Delhi—and, eventually, the worst offensive in more than ten years of civil war in El Salvador. I came home from that particular experience, 21 years ago, a bent-over woman, a woman with an issue.

Over the years that followed and from the threshold of life—in places like Burma, Sudan, Mindanao, Chiapas and Colombia—I peered into worlds rather different from the one I called home. I stood over the world to get a glimpse of it, perhaps as God sees it: happiness, sadness, brokenness, violence, poverty and wealth; to see children, all children, and wonder why mine were clean and well-fed and confidently considering a future of endless possibilities.

I remember being in Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams in 2003, not long after the initial invasion ended. I was in Basra at a children’s cancer hospital. The temperature outside was 49 degrees Centigrade. Inside the hospital, thick with heat and an air of unreality, I spent some time trying to scale the multiple barriers of language and culture that separated me from a beautiful dark-haired young woman.

Kurdish mother with child

She was a Kurd, far from home, with her five-month-old boy. His belly was protruding in purple balloons of skin over a long and black suture, a puny bulwark against the depleted uranium-induced cancers that would, before too long, claim his life. Five months earlier, I had watched in awe as my own grandson emerged into the world from the sectioned belly of his unconscious mother, my daughter: blonde, blue-eyed, perfect. Unlike this Kurd boy, he would be unlikely to stumble across unexploded cluster bombs, landmines, grenades or sandboxes unalloyed by the silent silts of depleted uranium.

Owen, 2005

With this award, you are honouring amazing work that is going on in places like Sudan, where, against stultifying odds, people are building spaces of hope, defying the powers of violence and oppression, creating the very real possibility of peace. It’s called third-party nonviolent intervention. But the real work is about consciousness, understanding self, understanding the other, motivations, interest.

It’s about asking the right questions—in an era in which we are deeply reluctant to risk the vulnerability of having our motivations, interest, story, history, attitudes, cultural norms, political or economic orthodoxies questioned.

Better to tell a story. Imagine this. We’re gathered in a circle, west of Ombdurman, east of al-Fashur somewhere, the participants are mostly strangers to one another, feeling discomfitted perhaps, wondering what they’ve got themselves into. Most of them are from Darfur, west and south, three from an Internally Displaced Persons camp on the Chad border west of Nyala. A couple are from the oil regions of Malikal, one from the disputed border zone of Abiyei. One is from the north, where the government is proposing to build yet another dam on the Nile River to fuel the needs of Khartoum’s elites—hydro-electric wires passing over the heads of the displaced, south to the capital.

Workshop participants form a "Human Knot"

Half of these gathered are women, half men. They are evenly divided between Muslim and Christian. They are Baggara, Fur, Massalit, Nuer, Dinka and Shilluk. Their clans have stories to tell about the other, stories of slaughter, starvation, enslavement—herders and tillers caught in primordial vortices of hatred. And yet they are here.

There is no one else in Sudan, no organisation that is doing work just like this. This is not the death-defying work of humanitarian aid workers attempting to deliver food, shelter and medical care to the displaced, desperate and dying. This is the history-defying, social norm-, cultural-, religious- and warrior-defying work of non-violence training. The participants have taken risky journeys to get here, as the edges of multiple conflicts overlap and spread across the map of this country.

We gather in a church compound layered with the red dusts of that weather phenomenon peculiar to the desert, the haboob (sand storm). It is a place that the Bishop has declared holy ground–for both Christians and Muslims. This place has been targeted by the government and attacked by the Justice and Equality Movement, one of several Darfurian rebel movements. News of a recent gathering here was embargoed until all participants had arrived safely.

We begin by talking about what we will do in the following weeks together, some idea of how the days will flow. I explain my role—not answer-person, not expert. I do not come with the answers. The wisdom already lies within you. The knowledge of the way forward into peace already gestates within you. I am merely your midwife. I will do my best to provide a safe place and all the tools and encouragement you need, but the work, the birthing, is yours.

Emzarah mother of life, carved wooden statue

I carry with me a carved figure of a woman whom I call Emzarah, from the Ge’ez language, meaning “mother of life.” She is doing four things: kneeling, weeping, praying, expecting.

This is you, I suggest to the circle. You are in a posture of prayer. Your hands are raised to your face, hiding tears of grief, wounding, perhaps regret, surely yearning. You are also expecting.

At this point, I then hold my hands out in front of me, cupped, describing a stretched-out belly and affecting a late-term waddle. You are all pregnant! The women giggle as I walk round the circle, my hands clasped around this imaginary bundle, making eye-contact with each one.

The men smile, discomfitted, not quite sure what to make of this. They’ve never been called pregnant before and, here in this culture—where women are confined and hidden and struggle against profound derogation and marginalization—it’s a provocative epithet.

Pregnant. Like all birthing, it will be painful. The path from here to the arrival of the new Sudan will no doubt be punctuated by pain of all sorts—but it is the kind that issues in new life. Then, the words having made their way through the chasm of translation, the participants erupt in laughter, creating gaping holes in fences of race, religion, tribe and gender.

In the weeks that follow, we will push one another to our respective outer edges, where nothing is not up for interrogation: history, land, ways of life, culture, gender, religion, tribe, civics, history and heroes, all to be examined under the lens of our questions. What in our every day lives drives violence in a warrior culture? What makes for peace?

We will role-play the pillars, postures and dynamics of power; we will play simulation games in order to draw out the economic roots of violence. We will talk in “fishbowls” to provoke women and men, Muslims and Christians to vent and examine their stereotypes of the other. We will marvel at the exposure of ourselves to the other, the daring with which we have examined all of the strictures that divide us and make us uncomprehending xenophobes and warriors towards one another. We will imagine our return back home, what it will be like to put into practice out there what we have learned in here.

The questions, once left unknown and unspoken, will be tested in here and, before too long, played out, whether in the mosque or the church, the street or the school, the marketplace, the commons or the kitchen. Who wrote the rules? Who benefits from the rules? If only a select few, only one gender, one race, one class, one tribe, one village or region—and not another—then maybe this is a rule that needs to be questioned, changed, broken.

Each day ends in a kind of exhaustion, amazement that we have made it this far; that the stranger, the enemy, has become so beloved; that the microcosm of this country being played out here is discovering peace, yearning for birth.

One more story.

The room is cacophonous with role-played debate and argument, hands gesticulating, brilliant clothing flying, faces wide open with passion and heat. Abruptly it all ceases with a signal from the trainer (me). Laughter, some of it nervous, ensues. Two lines re-form to face one another. The trainer trawls up and down the corridor formed by bodies, probing, questioning. “So what happened? How did you feel? What worked? What didn’t?”

It is a provocative scenario. The two lines of equal numbers are made up of 20 people, 11 women, nine men, 10 Muslims, 10 Christians, one side assuming the role of a daughter, the other, that of her father. The latter has returned late for his tea, which his daughter has laid out for him. Once finished, he asks his daughter to remove his dishes, wash them and put them away. She refuses.

The participants are invited to take some time to settle into their roles, imagine themselves into a scene and a perspective that feels perilous. The composition of the two lines is purposefully random, with the result that some men are playing the role of the daughter, some women that of the father. After sixty seconds of simultaneous role-play, they halt abruptly to reflect on what happened. They switch roles and the drama begins once more.

“So, daughters, what worked? What did you say? How did he respond? How did it make you feel?”

Ilham responds quickly: “I told him that I was sick.”

“Were you?”

“Not really, but it worked; he felt sorry for me. Just this once, he said.”

Abdul’s response is accompanied by giggles: “I am busy sewing up a hole in your gumsaan. I can’t do it now; you do it.”

Fatima, her sky-blue headscarf slipping to her shoulders, says, “I told him that he had dirtied them and he should clean them!”

“So, fathers, what worked? what did you hear?”

Masmino shoots up his hand. “I told her I’d had a hard day and didn’t need this kind of back-talk, but she said, well, she’d had a hard day, too. And why should my hard day be more important than her hard day?”

“What did you do?”

“I did my own dishes.”

“How did it make you feel?”

“Strange. A little worried.”

“Worried? Worried about what?”

“About being seen.”

“Why? By whom?”

“Well, by people; people passing by. There I am washing the dishes. What would people say?”

“What would people say?”

“They would see me doing women’s work.”

“So, you would be seen to be a woman. How does that make you feel?”

“How would it make you feel? To be seen as a woman?”

To be seen as a woman; doing women’s work. Why is that a problem? I ask. Because women are not like men, not as valued as men. In Zahra’s Beja culture, when baby boys are born, the news is accompanied by ululation, joy, music; when a girl is born, there is silence. Women are nothing. Compared to men, they are nothing. It is not being seen as a woman that is the problem; it is to be mistaken for nothing.

The room is quiet as they contemplate their own words.

Going out from this life-disrupting, soul-marking training, men leave, conscious bearers of a dissenting word, ready to risk all for peace, to ask and act upon the once unaskable questions. Women leave determined to no longer participate in the raising of warrior sons. They will interrogate their lives, raise the question of rules. Who wrote them? Who benefits from them? Why should I comply with my own enslavement?

What is perhaps most remarkable is the extent to which the participants are taking up the tools gained in the weeks together. They emerge as trainers, prepared to multiply their learnings back where they came from, prepared to risk their lives in non-violent resistance to the forces that drive the destruction of their lands, their children, their livelihoods and their lives. The arithmetic is truly startling. In six years, I have trained fewer than 150 people; they, trained as trainers, have trained more than 27,000 in 69 tribes throughout the country.

Sudanese people have been victims of proliferating peace agreements, none of them enjoying the intention of the parties to observe the commitments made within. And peace eludes their grasp. Repeatedly.

Peace will be theirs when political, diplomatic, high level initiatives are laid on a foundation of a people yearning for peace. Nothing, said another African, Bishops Desmond Tutu, can then stop them from being free.

This. This is what you honour tonight.


Muslim-Christian Trainings
Mindanao / Philippines Conflict Transformation
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Sudan third party non-violence intervention