PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


Hope by peaceprobe
May 1, 2008, 2:43 pm
Filed under: Peacemaker spirit, Philippines

Some years ago I led a delegation of North American church people, professionals, young and old to the Philippines to explore the realities people face there. 

One day we spent time in the Manila’s urban poor neighbourhood of Tondo where we met families, community groups, and an organizer – leader.  We also walked in the nearby stench of a mountain of garbage where thousands of people filtered the waste of Manila’s middle and upper class in search of recyclable items that could be sold.  Wherever we went, people found time to talk.  

A garbage collector told how her landless family migrated to Manila from a remote island to find a life in the urban world.  Her face was covered with a cloth to ward off the smell as she excitedly told her story to visitors.   The energy in her voice was partly enlivened by the news that her squatter housing had evaded demolition for another two months.  In Tondo’s filth, and discarded stuff, stink was everywhere except in neat rooms where whole families including relatives survived.  Our hostess at the garbage site would have regaled us with stories of tiny victories all day if our local facilitators had not moved us along to keep to our busy schedule.  

On the same trip our delegation visited a remote rural village that rarely hosted visitors from anywhere.  The children showed signs of malnutrition – distended bellies, discoloured hair and vacant looks.  And yet, our hosting families gave us their best in conversation and cuisine. From somewhere in the 400 years of colonial influence the villagers learned that we must be served meat.  So they served us the only available meat, stray dogs.  The hard to chew meat meal was completed with a little bit of rice and a fried egg.  The evening conversation about life was animated and lasted long into the night.   They told us how they rebuilt after typhoons, and shared meagre resources among families when the rains failed to come.  Do you have any idea how we might improve our life, villagers inquired after recalling another story of disaster and tumult told with a humorous twist and ever present hope? 

Later our delegates gathered to reflect and sum up what we learned.  Every participant expressed awe at the hope they had seen in the people they had met despite their desperate situations.   Was this just a misunderstanding of this advanced culture of hospitality where we could not read the signs?  Did these folks know something we could not know in their day to day life of toil and survival?  I have experienced this shocking juxtaposition of tragedy and  hope in  communities around the world including North America.  What is this hope that some people know and others of us find so hard to understand?  We owe it to ourselves to understand it better. 

What we experience in these conversations is not a hope of optimism based on economic models,  political stability or easy access to ministries of faith. Nor is hope to be confused with exhortations to positive thinking, an emotional stance that can sometimes be coaxed into being by will power.   Hope is not based on confidence that peoples above or outside will deliver on aid and development promises or forsake the bulldozers that may level houses or apartment buildings to make way for schemes of modernization.  Hope is not dependent upon a mushy notion that everything will get better.

In my fast pace of building systems for learning and action I did not take enough time to understand hope. The Christian scripture places hope inside a trilogy, faith, hope and love, the combination of which leads to new life.   Identification of hope should not blind us to depressed, despairing, worn down people who are also present.  But, how do I explain the hope?

There is a common thread in the story of hope.  When people are really engaged with others in the business of constructing a fairer, more just world, the language of hope appears.  It is not hope based on the next election, a windfall profit or success in one of the various lotteries of the world.  It’s a zero sum hope based on confidence that there is a way.  In fact, people of hope have learned not to place too much confidence in the ideal job or next grant cycle.  Hope cannot be measured in monetary graphs.  Hope is present when people take control and responsibility, which is not to say that all of us don’t lose the way from time to time.  That is why real hope is usually sustained by a larger movement.  People of hope live fully in the present moment.  Hope includes the future but does not depend on how the immediate future unfolds.  

I learned from the people who joined in the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT).  They too reflected a healthy dose of this kind of hope.  I noticed the absence of cynicism which might be the opposite of hope.  With very little compensation and considerable danger, people were invited into a journey of risk and away from despair.  It is this hope that gives courage for the methodology that nonviolent love will overcome.  It is hope that gives space for individual, national and racial diversity and allows us to claim unity.  Nevertheless, some of us may be overcome by stress after long periods of being subjected to personal danger or situations of war, cruelty, betrayal or just plain disappointment.  That means it is time to make some space in our schedule to rebuild.  

In the work of CPT daily and weekly I was asked if the financial support was adequate.  We regularly prepared financial reports with as much transparency as could be practically engineered.  Over time I could see that the financial reports never fully created a complete picture of our common life which was part of what people were asking. Of course they did not have language to request information about our current hope index?   We needed money but all the money in the world could not buy the character of hope that held us together on the way.  And, when our hope was clear we could overcome our differences, recreate our faith, and refine our tactics.  The money would come.  When hope was replaced by despair, the money could not save us.   

As I became more attuned to the depth of hope between us and in all communities I realized that our world had a little acknowledged resource, rooted deeply in our DNA.  Sometimes it is expressed in voluntarism and sacrifice. It sustains us over disappointing events and helps us overcome suffering.  Some day I suspect someone will try to quantify hope in individuals, communities, nations, organizations, and religious institutions.  When that happens, we will know with even greater precision the distinction between hope which arises from a deep place within our common life and other forms of optimism which rely upon outside events. 

Hope is that special ingredient that sustains us in ordinary times and keeps us focussed and on track during ridiculous times.  Hope nurtures the courage that is essential when leaps arising from imagination are required.  It gives us energy when wide margins of extra effort  are needed to connect today’s efforts to a broader vision that includes the future and the past as it is lived in the present moment.

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