On June 16, 2017, I had the privilege of participating in the 37th Annual Peace Walk. We met at the Manitoba legislative building and walked through Osborne Village before returning for snacks and a closing program. This was my first time joining the walk, not knowing the importance of this event in our Winnipeg Mennonite history. To my surprise, there were many other groups represented as well.
As we walked, we held signs saying “Peace, Not War” and sang songs like “This Little Light of Mine” and “As I Went Down to the River to Pray.” Cars honked, people waved, and despite the fact that we held up traffic, I got an overall sense that people were on board with our public display in support of peace, even if it’s an ideal that we strive towards without ever experiencing it perfectly.
Christians in general, and Mennonites in particular, have believed for a long time that the way of Christ is also the way of peace. It’s love for our enemies, turning the other cheek, praying for our persecutors, and working for justice. It’s a belief that Jesus actually meant for us to live in the way He prescribed. That is the way to life in the new kingdom.
But what does that actually look like? We can talk about ideals, “what-ifs,” or dreams for another world. But what does working for peace and justice actually mean in everyday life, with difficult issues that affect us, our society, politics, and pocket books?
I took a few minutes after the walk to ask some of the people I met about how they would answer this question. This is some of what they said:
There’s no doubt that questions of peace and justice are not always as simple as we might hope. It’s usually never just a two-sided issue with one side in the wrong and one in the right. We are dealing with long histories, intentions, beliefs, differences is societal, economic and cultural status, and much more. Sometimes these issues seem too big and messy to get mixed up in.
But the common thread that stood out to me from the people I interviewed was the belief that working for peace starts by simply showing up. Offering someone our presence and our time is one of the most validating acts we can do. And it’s not necessarily about being educated, having a plan or the right experience. It’s about being present and walking alongside those who are victimized and oppressed.
When we read about the life of Jesus recorded in the gospels, we often find Him hanging out specifically with those people who were cast out by society. These were the unclean, the sick, the cheaters, and the traitors. Normal religious people stayed away from them, but Jesus ate with them, listened to them, and validated them as real, beloved human beings.
Jesus walked alongside the victimized and the oppressed. He offered them His presence, and by so doing, changed their lives. He demonstrated love for enemies, prayer for persecutors, and sacrifice of self for the sake of others. Jesus was the greatest peace-maker, bar none.
Now, we aren’t called to be Jesus, we’re called to follow Him. When we do so, we allow God to work through our lives so that others might also see and know the life-changing gift of Jesus. What better witness could there be to the marginalized and the oppressed than showing up, being present, listening, and walking alongside? It’s the start to great peace building.
Over the last five years, a group of churches and church leaders have tried to embody this in our relationship with Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. This is the community from which Winnipeg draws its water. However, that community has been under a boil-water advisory for over 17 years. Our free source of water came at the cost of their forced isolation, and they’ve been trying to get people to listen for decades.
For too many years, people have seen them, but said things like “Just get over it and move,” “We won, and if they just worked like us, they wouldn’t be in this mess,” “These people can’t get everything from me for free,” and “I have to boil water if I go camping, so what’s the big deal.”
When I visited the community and talked with the residents, I realized that these opinions have more to do with prejudice than fact. I realized that what the community was fighting for was what was promised to them by our governments. And we’re not talking hundreds of years ago, but 1989. I also realized that when it comes down to it, we would never be okay if our family or friends lived in those conditions. Period.
When we first met the leaders from that community, I had all kinds of ideas about what we could do. But as I listened, I realized that more than anything, they just wanted us to be present with them. They knew their situation best; they’ve lived it all their lives. They knew what their community needed. They were just asking us to walk with them, because no one was listening to them when they did it on their own.
Our first course of action was to be present as their leaders and our government officials met at the Manitoba legislative building. We were so amazed at how many others showed up too. It was out of this that people started taking notice which put enough pressure on our government to actually do something this time. Construction on a road to end their forced isolation is now underway, and we are excited to see its completion.
As I look back, I don’t think I really did much other than show up, listen, and walk. However, that has been one of the most rewarding experiences for me so far. I believe that’s how God works sometimes, using the little we all bring to make something huge.
So what’s on your heart when it comes to peace and justice? Who are the people in your community that are marginalized or victims of violence? What are the issues that seem too big to change? I believe we all want to do something, but often don’t know where to start. As small as it may seem, the best way to start is by showing up. Start relationships, listen to stories, offer people your hand in friendship and walk together towards the kind of peace building that God longs to bring.