I am honoured, humbled and deeply grateful to the World Methodist Council for granting me this award.
I know that this award belongs not only to me, but to the Uniting Church in Australia especially to UnitingWorld; to the many friends and supporters who are here today; to many more of my sisters and brothers from the Asia Pacific region who have risked so much to build peace with justice; to my two blood sisters in the Philippines who are both nuns of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary - Sister Rosario who accompanies me anywhere I go with her prayers, and also to the late Sister Menggay who has joined hands with me from the start of this peace program in trying to sow seeds of peace wherever it was needed; and of course, most of all, this award belongs to God because without God’s blessing and graces this mission would not be possible.
I am very grateful to the World Methodist Council that our little effort in promoting peace in this part of the world is now internationally recognised.
A few days ago I was with a doctor, a specialist who was to perform a procedure on me. Before doing so, he asked me a lot of questions, including what I do.
“I am a peacemaker”, I said.
He said, “Why are there still so many wars around?”
I did not attempt to answer his question with words but only with a smile.
The song Let There be Peace on Earth and Let it Begin with Me kept ringing in my ears as if to urge me to say: ‘Peace cannot begin elsewhere but in each and every one of us.’
In North East India, an area where there are many different ethnic minority groups with a number of conflicts between them, a Church Minister who was a Young Ambassador for Peace workshop participant was asked to share his experience of YAP. He said in front of the many Church leaders:
“I have been a Church Minister for seven years. In every sermon on Sunday I talked about peace but frankly I did not know how to begin to make peace. It is only now with this YAP workshop that I feel more able to work at building peace.”
The world situation is daunting: war, conflict, violence everywhere - more than enough for one to close your eyes and give up. In my Filipino language one would say “bahala na, wala akong pakialam” meaning “I don’t care. It’s none of my business.” But peace and justice is everyone’s business.
Many times I have been asked what motivates me to do this risky peace work? I firmly believe that there is goodness in every person because we all come from one good source, a loving God. But that goodness is covered so tightly in others, loosely in some that the goodness is almost not there. The challenge for every peacemaker is to help one rediscover the goodness in humanity by recognising the blockages and finding ways to clear the way for the goodness to shine again. One can fight darkness only by bringing in the light.
My peace and justice journey began in the Philippines when I worked with the Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace when the entire country was governed by the military dictatorship under martial law. Human right violations were everywhere. It was impossible not to see them happening. Moving to Australia I worked with the Uniting Church on international human rights issues, exposing me to the effects of war and conflict in many places. I responded to requests for help when injustices occurred in many countries. Visiting villages in Burma a few years ago, I was surprised to see only older people were around. Young women, I was told, had risked their lives crossing the border to Thailand where they could be raped, they could be kidnapped and or even sold into prostitution. But they risked just the same to be able to earn money to send back to their parents, who sometimes had to give it to the military, otherwise their lives would be at risk.
In another country I was met by a young boy carrying a high-powered gun. He said he was guarding and protecting his village against armed men who came and abused their women and get whatever they have. In the village I saw many young boys playing war games with home-made toys, practicing how to win in a war. Is violence the only response to violence? Will violence put an end to another violence and bring peace?
Serious violent injustices are also done to our less fortunate brothers and sisters in various forms and ways: through deprivation of one’s own ancestral land as it happened in the Philippines and in Burma; discrimination as in Sri Lanka; or deprivation from living a normal life as a human being like the Dalits in India. These are all forms of violence.
My visits to conflict zones in East Timor, West Papua, Bougainville, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Palestine and other places were very confronting.
Perhaps a turning point in the human rights work was the opportunity to work with women in Bougainville whilst it was in the midst of civil war. The women of Bougainville, who belonged to groups with different political and clan perspectives, but who all wanted to end the war, organised a huge conference where over 700 women walked, took boats and got to the conference in the centre of Bougainville in 1996 to talk about peace. That conference has been seen as a turning point in the war, where women were central to peacemaking leading to the signing of the peace treaty in 1998.
It seemed to me that there was a need to move from just campaigning against human rights abuses when they occurred to actively promoting and equipping people in conflict areas how to build peace. This was where the idea of the Young Ambassadors for Peace program (known as ‘YAP’) came about.
The YAP program grew because people in a number of conflict areas asked for YAP programs once they heard about the possibility. So we went to Sri Lanka and worked with Tamil and Sinhala people, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhists, Christians who could not speak the same language but whose groups were in conflict. Then we went to Ambon in Indonesia which has been torn apart by violence between Muslims and Christians; then to the Solomon Islands where the Guadalcanal and Malaitan people had a war; then to Tari in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea which has been wracked with clan warfare; then Bougainville, recovering from civil war but still experiencing conflict between political groups; and then to North-East India, where different ethnic communities were fighting with each other. In Burma, we worked with various ethnic groups who wanted to build coalitions and end the war with the governing military junta, then finally to the Philippines where Muslim, Christian and indigenous people in Mindanao struggled to live together in peace.
My experiences working on human rights motivated me to try and put my belief in the goodness of humanity to a test. After discussing with various people in countries with terrible internal conflicts, a 10-day intensive workshop was scheduled for enemy groups from these countries to participate. The result to me is a miracle. They came as hardened enemies. They could hardly look at each other eye. But went home genuine friends and vowed to keep the peace and vowed to keep it alive. Returning home, they kept the spirit of peace alive, expanded their groups, organized activities that unite them, had peace treaties signed among warring tribal groups, proving that peace is possible, peace is achievable if we are serious about it. Because peace cannot begin anywhere else but within you and within me. Let the goodness in us come out and connect with all the rest of humanity.
The methodology we used in the YAP program was to work with those in local communities in conflict who wanted to bring about peace. They would work with us in the Uniting Church Young Ambassador Program in a process that culminated in various workshops bringing together those in conflict, mapping conflict, considering prejudices, various forms of discrimination against each other, looking at the history of conflict, working on tools for mediating, community building and ways to work together in the future. We did not run just one workshop, but worked with people in those areas over time and equipped local leaders to extend that work through “train the trainer” type workshops. Seeds of peace were not just planted, but nurtured and in many places are continuing to bear fruit.
I remember well the first workshop in Ambon, Indonesia in 2002 where Christian and Muslim women came together. There was little or no trust, to the point that the Muslim women appointed a “taster” to taste the food to ensure it was not poisoned; and the Christians and the Muslims each appointed a guard at night to watch over each group. But after two days of workshops they embraced, cried and realised that they were all victims of war. The friendships that have been formed amongst these women now over many years will go on promoting peace and opportunities for dialogue and understanding.
In the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, Rev Ron and Margaret Reeson, who worked as missionaries in the area and spoke the local language, worked with me and the people of the warring tribes over about five years, leading to the signing of a treaty of peace in October 2008. Although there has been fighting in the area since then, it is not fighting amongst or between those who have been part of YAP workshops.
A month ago I received an email from the Highlands of PNG saying “Peter Peyape was shot dead” due to some people’s interest in a limestone mountain that Peter’s clan own. Peter was the leader of the Ayako clan, the first to shake hands with the enemy clan leader, Annie and the first to sign a peace treaty for the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Before his last breath, clan members came and asked that they wage a tribal war to revenge him. Peter even on his dying bed said “I am a peacemaker. No revenge please.” Annie, leader of the other clan, the Hawa tribe, two years ago was stabbed and is now semi-paralysed, but he too has not permitted a new tribal war in revenge.
To work for peace, to me, is everyone’s responsibility to restore the original beauty of this world. I believe we can all do our little share of building a peaceful world. Currently I am trying to build a peace community among the Subanen indigenous people in Mindanao. As a Christian, I believe that “small steady steps” are needed, coupled with a strong belief that building peace is a mission not an option, and it is mandated to all of us to do. Christ said “I came to bring peace.” I am positive that eventually we can get there. We might not live long enough to see the glory of a peaceful world, but we can say we took part in the journey for peace.
Peace is indeed possible. Let us all work for it.
Again my deep gratitude to the World Methodist Council for recognising our little effort for peace. My thanks to the Uniting Church in Australia for allowing the Young Ambassadors for Peace to undertake its mission. I thank everyone today for sharing this award with me. There are many colleagues and friends whose support and encouragement has been invaluable that it is difficult to mention everyone. But I would like to give special thanks to a few who have supported and encouraged me through thick and thin from the time my human rights work with the Uniting Church in Australia began: to each of the Directors with whom I worked: Rev Dr John Brown, Rev Dorothy McRae-McMahon, Rev Graham Brookes who is here today, Rev. Bill Fischer also here today, Rev John Mavor and Rev Kerry Enright, the vision of each one of you regarding mission and reaching out to all people has always inspired me. To former Presidents of the Uniting Church Dr Jill Tabart, Rev. John Mavor, Rev. James Haire, Rev. Dean Drayton and Rev. Gregor Henderson, thank you, you have been firm supporters of this workshop for peace and justice.
Could I say this Rev. Bill Fischer - without your support YAP would not have been born. To Rev. Ron and Margaret Reeson, Rev. John Barr, Ted Woodley, Rev Harry Herbert who was always giving us the money, the Sydney Mission Support Group who always campaigned to get money for our little group, and to Ann Connan who nominated me for this World Methodist Council Peace Award, and to all of you here I am very grateful.
To all my friends, the Tibbey family who are here, especially Mandy, Sam and Lyn, Kevin, Eras, Veth, Marissa, Debbie, Delia, Pat, Peter and Tess, Ash and everyone who is here – it’s just impossible to mention everyone – but I thank you very much for coming. Thank you.