My Next Three Months: Stories of Reconciliation
Newark Airport – This is the sixth time I’ve done this—leaving the country for three months. Fall of 2008 was my college study abroad in Vienna. In the summer of 2010, I lived in the West Bank volunteering at the Al Basma Center for the Developmentally Disabled. Winter/Spring of 2012, I returned to the West Bank with Christian Peacemaker Teams. In 2012 and 2013, I spent back to back semesters in Belfast studying conflict transformation and reconciliation. Today, I am leaving again.
In February, I received word from the Fulbright Scholarship program that though I was a finalist, I did not win one of the five fully funded slots in the new Fulbright-National Geographic Fellowship in Digital Storytelling. At a speaking engagement at Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, Texas a few months prior, staff in their award-winning QEP program expressed intrigue in following my project were I to win one of the fellowships. When the official Fulbright rejection came, I contacted the folks at TCU to see if they had any interest in funding a shorten version of the original 9-month proposal. Now five months later, everything is finalized, and I’m taking off for a three month storytelling journey to Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Rwanda.
TCU is calling this “Stories of Reconciliation,” and we are attempting to pioneer a new pedagogical model of Visiting Scholarship. Traditionally, Visiting Scholars spend their time on the university’s campus; in our experiment, the Visiting Scholar (me) will go abroad to engage with students. Partnering with three TCU faculty members and their classes, I will film interviews with individuals in each country who have suffered through occupation, terrorism, sectarianism, apartheid, and genocide; explore the problems and possibilities with pursuing reconciliation; tell stories of individuals who have sought reconciliation with their enemies; and use social media (Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook) to narrate my travels and insights. The week before Thanksgiving, I will visit TCU’s campus and speak in the classes with whom I have partnered during the semester.
This trip is my dream job: a fully funded exploration of the subject (reconciliation) I’m most passionate about, through the medium (storytelling) I find most compelling, in countries I love (Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland) and in places I’ve longed to visit (South Africa and Rwanda). The only problem with this journey is the company—I travel alone. As I’m a thorough ENFP, solo sojourning is not my cup of tea. I wish I had someone to experience these stories with. But I have close connections in most places I’m going, and my job is to engage people all over the world and tell their stories, so I anticipate much of my extroversion will be satisfied. Still, if anyone wants to meet up on this journey, I’ll buy you a pint.
I am hopeful for this trip. Incredible opportunities await. In Israel-Palestine, I will speak with Palestinian students and professors, reconciliation practitioners, members of Combatants for Peace and Parents-Circle Families-Forum, settler peace activists, former Israeli soldiers, and more. I’ll travel to Jerusalem, Hebron, Nablus, Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, Galilee, and anywhere else I can find people who will talk with me. In Belfast, I will partner with the Corrymeela Community for Reconciliation and in Cape Town, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. I’ve been told I have a tea scheduled with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, one of my heroes. This will be a highlight of my life if it happens. The details for Rwanda are still being finalized.
But why do all this? Why leave friends and family behind and travel to these places to write on reconciliation? In the last year, headlines have featured the horror of ISIS, the bombardment of Gaza, the uprising in Ferguson, and countless other local, national, and international crises. Violence engulfs the world, and with so many stories of conflict consuming us, we can grow skeptical of the possibility of peaceful relationships triumphing over profound animosity. This storytelling project will tell the stories of people building peace within four unique and deeply divided societies. In each location, antagonistic peoples must find a way to live together in peace while continuing to dwell side by side.
Northern Ireland, South Africa, Rwanda, and Israel-Palestine are possibly the quintessential images of civil conflict in the last 50 years. People asked the same question about the Troubles and South African apartheid as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “How can this ever end?” But in 1998, Belfast leaders signed the Good Friday Agreement, and in 1994, disenfranchised South Africans voted in their first free elections while the TRC helped guide the country away from the expected retributive bloodbath. Today, as the potential for violent conflict often simmers beneath the surface of these societies, groups and individuals commit themselves to disrupting the spirals of vengeance and animosity. These are the stories the public needs to hear.
The stories we tell significantly affect the breadth of our imaginations. Paraphrasing Oliver Wendell Holmes, once the mind is stretched by a new idea, it can never again shrink to its original size. Stories can foster creative and prophetic imaginations; they help give order and meaning within chaos. To hear tales of impossible reconciliation and forgiveness in the midst of violence stretches the mind’s imaginative capacity, redefining preconceptions of the possible. In times of conflict, the people’s collective imagination often seems suspended, and retaliatory violence is assumed the only option. Evident in the dynamics of the U.S. justice system, mass incarceration, and the gun ownership debate, Americans tend to believe in retribution and redemptive violence. Historical narratives—like those of the invasion of Normandy—and modern folklore—like that of Batman—form our paradigms that suggest “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” I want to share narratives that challenge such paradigms, and the stories of peacebuilders in South Africa, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, and Israel-Palestine can accomplish this, showing that, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has often claimed, we have no future without forgiveness.
I hope you’ll join me on this trip.