Twenty years ago, my friend Susan LaTour gave me the story of a grieving Elizier Bouffier, The Man Who Planted Trees. The story is of a man who planted acorns in a region of France for decades to help him deal with the loss of his family in a tragic accident. Over decades, the region was transformed by Bouffier. A once desolate territory now was verdant and green with the trees, the fruit of Bouffier’s decades of work.
Inspired by Bouffier, when the first Persian Gulf Resolution passed in the Security Council at the United Nations in New York City, I felt compelled to get on a train and go to the United Nations. I knew nothing about the United Nations other that what I had studied in school. I made a covenant with God that I would do everything in my power to end the use of armed force as it was being used in that resolution. Little did I know of the difficulty nor the political ramifications of my covenant.
Traveling with my two new friends, Mary and Elmira, we took our seats in the train from Old Saybrook to New York. A woman sat down next to me after she got on the train in Westport. She opened a book about the United Nations.
I struck up a conversation. “What is the book about?”
The woman looked at me. “I have worked at the United Nations for almost as long as it has existed. This work is my vocation. I read every book that is written about the UN. May we introduce ourselves? My name is Ruth Steinkraus Cohen.”
I was delighted with the synchronicity of our meeting. Introducing ourselves in turn, we told Ruth that we were on our way to New York to visit the United Nations and attend a meeting. I was aware that a window was opening even as a door closed. Could this be a new focus for my work?
We said goodbye outside Grand Central. Ruth hurried off to her appointments and we to our meeting. We met up with a man named Michael Wyman and others who had a special calling to visualizing the pacific resolution of disputes in the United Nations.
Michael’s group was called “Mystics of the Roundtable.” We talked around a table in a small conference room in the basement of the UN, visualizing the pacific settlement of disputes around the world. Michael led us in a strong verbal visualization process that allowed us to open to new possibilities for national in our consciousness.
We visualized the resolution of a dispute in Russia, newly emerging from the Cold War. We visualized that the people were freed from this trauma and that the guns were buried in the earth.
Michael suggested that we be alert for confirmation of work, outside of the conference room. Back home, the next morning, the headlines in the papershowed the resolution of the situation in Russia! We believed that we had had an effect on that resolution.
Much later I learned of the need to add historic and pragmatic dispute resolution methods as well. But this was a start.
Three days later, on June 30, I was invited to Ruth’s home in Westport Connecticut. My companion on the train hosted a city-wide open house for the United Nations every year for thirty years. People were enjoying Westport’s hospitality as every restaurant, golf course, school and hotel opened doors to the international civil servants at the United Nations. I couldn’t tell who was the Secretary-General or who was a janitor. Everyone was in shorts, with their families, enjoying the seaside Connecticut suburb.
I learned the true power of being led to the United Nations when I experienced how quickly all the pieces of my credentials were put into place. I met a man at Ruth’s home named Joseph Eger who invited me to represent his non-governmental organization at the United Nations. Since his NGO was connected to the United Nations’ Department of Public Information, theircharge was a public relations agent for the United Nations. I wasprovided with a pass to get into the UN. Although the paperwork took some weeks, I was finally able to go the United Nations to work as a volunteer.
I stopped by the meditation room just off the visitors entrance.
Outside the door is a magnificent Chagall window with a simple plaque that begins with the words of Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General.
“We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence. There is an ancient saying that the sense of a vessel is not in its shell but in the void. So it is with this room. It is for those who come here to fill the void with what they find in the center of stillness.”
Inside, there is a Swedish stone with a shaft of light on it. Hammarskjold’s intention was that there are simple things which speak to us all with the same language. We have sought for such things and we believe we have found them in the shaft of light striking the shimmering surface of solid rock. In the middle of the room, we see a symbol of how, daily, the light of the sky gives life to the earth on which we stand, a symbol to many of us of how the light of the spirit gives life to matter. The shaft of light strikes the stone in a room of utter simplicity. There are no other symbols, there is nothing to distract our attention or to break in on the stillness within ourselves. When our eyes travel from these symbols to the front wall, they meet a simple pattern opening up the room to the harmony, freedom and balance of space.
Hammarskjold believed that the stone be seen as an altar, empty not because there is no God, not because it is an altar to an unknown god, but because it is dedicated to the God whom man (and woman) worships under many names and and in many forms.
The stone in the middle of the room reminds us also of the firm and permanent in a world of movement and change. The block of iron ore has the weight and solidity of the everlasting. It is a reminder of that cornerstone of endurance and faith on which all human endeavor must be based. The material of the stone leads our thoughts to the necessity for choice between destruction and construction between war and peace.
Of iron, man has forged his swords, of iron he has also made his ploughshares. Of iron, he has constructed tanks, but of iron he has likewise built homes for man. The block of iron ore is part of the wealth we have inherited on this earth of ours. How are we to use it?
An abstract painting illumines one of the walls. Otherwise, only wicker backless benches furnish this simple room.
The meditation room became my spiritual home at the United Nations.
Next, I stopped off at the preparation meeting for the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development, informally called UNCED or Earth Summit. I quickly learned the confusing acronyms were part of this complex international organization. I wasn’t sure how I could contribute to this conference, but soon I was in conversation with some African delegates. They were just off their plane and were terribly disoriented by New York, the United Nations’ fast pace, and finding their way in the sprawling building.
I identified myself as a former Peace Corps Volunteer, stationed in Liberia, but one who had traveled widely through the continent. Soon I was getting the Africans to meet other delegates. In that way, I discovered I could be a bridge between the southern hemisphere and the northern hemisphere, understanding the different pace and rhythm of life, having livedin both.
After a few days of working there, I realized I could do some good team building to work on the issues of the environment and development that were going to be raised in three months’ time in Brazil. It hadn’t occurred to me to go to the Earth Summit conference myself in Rio.
Talking with the speaking Voice of Love within me about this, it came to me in my quiet time that I was being invited to attend that meeting. Going to Rio de Janeiro meant representing people and taking on the responsibility of working to bring balance and changing behaviors to preserve the earth’s resources.
Surprised, I talked it over with the priest in my church. He offered to help by writing a letter of support and hosting a fund raising on my behalf. The letter’s response was electric: $2,500 was raised.
Miraculously, I had the required money to go and a group of clergy and lay church leaders with whom to travel. Everything fell into place very quickly.
I set off for Rio. Images of homeless children stopping taxis at red lights to beg, juxtaposed with people from the jet set vacationing along Copacabana Beach still linger in my mind’s eye. Forty thousand serious, committed people came, representing every division of society. Untrained Brazilian soldiers carelessly pointed loaded machine guns at Global Forum participants, while they were “protecting”us. In this capacity, members of our Global Environment Team, 75 inter-denominational church leaders, stayed in a convent together and met nightly to process and plan the next day’s activities.
The opening ceremony was held on the beach to await the arrival of the ship “Gaia,” a copy of a tenth century sailing boat which had left Norway in May, 1991. It brought messages and pledges of commitment to preserve peace and the environment from thousands of children from all over the world. Two thousand homeless children welcomed the ship with the children’s Earth Summit song. I walked along the beach toward the two thousand children. Suddenly, I was engulfed by them. Had they mistaken me for a celebrity or did they see something in me that I didn’t?
They asked for my autograph, hugging me, asking me to speak to them while I was in Brazil.
At the ceremony, I met some homeless children and understood poverty in a way I never had before. One young girl who had come with others to sing the Earth Summit song again was particularly unforgettable. I had spontaneously handed this child one of the Wings of the Heart–the Flags of one Family on Earth, www.Flagsofonefamily.com, made by Linda deHart, an artist friend from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The child clung to me in a hug, telling me through an interpreter that she was hungry. And yet, her joy in holding one of the flags came through in her beautiful smile. At least one child escaped the concentration camps designed to spare the conference participants the sight of such poverty, such need.
Her eyes were wide as she looked up at me, still in our great bear hug. Through an interpreter, I listened, my heart in my arms as she told me of her hunger. I couldn’t bear to pry the flag out of her hands to reclaim the celebration flag. Her joy erupted in a giggle as she carried her flag that I had brought from America, the flag of one family on earth. I was amazed. How could she be able to feel this joy and her hunger at the same time?
My new friend, Susan Peacock, told me of her work in South America. She was forever changed when twice, a child died of starvation in her arms. I had not known this kind of life in my American “remember the starving Armenians” dinners. There was plenty of food every meal, even leftovers.
During our two-week stay, our days began with worship. After breakfast, we took an hour-long bus trip to the Global Forum in downtown Rio, where we went our separate ways, depending on our focus. Meeting again at 6:00 p.m. for the bus trip home, we ate dinner and shared the day’s events. After our large group meeting broke up, I continued to meet with others who participated in the UNCED conference to strategize how best to participate as delegates to accredited non-governmental organization representatives.
In a moving event, the Global Environment team participated with other representatives from the world’s religions in a “Witness for the Earth” service by the gates of the UNCED conference. We sang hymns, spoke and prayed for cooperation and unity at the conference.
The Hope Drop Balloon was also launched to circle the earth for two years filled with the messages from the Gaia. The slogan of the Global Forum—Together We Will Make It Happen—appeared everywhere.
Many people asked me if I thought the Summit was a success.
I always asked, “How do you define success?”
Yes, it was successful in that the awareness of the problems of the earth were highlighted by the participation of 40,000 people who came to Rio in their commitment to find new ways to solve the world’s problems. It was a beginning of working together in a different way. I was disappointed by the watered-down conventions and treaties. Still it left me with so much hope garnered for the community of people from all over the globe committed to work together in cooperation from that time forward.
Alliances and teams formed. In the NGO (non governmental organization) community at the Global Forum, commitments for the future included thirty-eight treaties in NGO cooperation and institution building (Earth Charter, Treaty on the Search for Alternatives, Treaty on NGO Global Decision Making, Initiative of the Peoples of the Americas, Treaty on Technology Bank, Treaty on the Sharing of Resources, Charter of the Code of Ethics, Treaty on Poverty and Affluence and Communication), Alternative Economic Issues (Treaties on Trade, Transnational Corporations, NGO Dept Treaty, Alternative Economic Models); Big Environmental Issues (Treaties on Biodiversity, Toxics and Nuclear Waste, Climate, Oceans, Forests, Energy, Sustainable Agriculture, Food Security, Fresh Water, Fisheries, Women and Population, Treaty with Indigenous Peoples, Education, Militarism and Environment, Urban Question, Racism, Children and Adolescents). These treaties were used to lobby national governments.
Among the governments’ conference achievements were 158 nations signing of the biodiversity convention (the U.S. did not sign this), a global warming convention, the Rio Declaration (a modified vision statement), Agenda 21 (an 800-page blueprint of the solutions to the problems) and a Forest Principles statement. The room where the Heads of State were to meet was closed off to the public. It held a circular table large enough for 170 chairs, all equal to one another.
When I was quiet, my inner Voice of Love asked me to go into the room and pray for each delegate to have the strength to work for cooperation and community for all nations and to let go of their sovereign, cultural, and geographic boundaries for the common good and unity. Because of the Voiceof Love’s invitation, it was not difficult to get into the room.
When I prayed, doors always opened. While I was praying this time, someone came in and excused themselves for interrupting me. To my surprise, my spiritual task was taken seriously.
I attended an all-night vigil of the World Religions with a friend, Tom Hansen, who had been in the Peace Corps with me. Sitting beside him, I noticed he was crying. Asking him what was the matter, he replied that Christ had just spoken to him and it was with such love that he was overwhelmed. He said that as each representative of a religion came onto the stage, I was mentally hearing that they are to be thanked for the work they have done over the years. This is a time when each person’s work would come to an end, for each person would know their own Divine self. They didn’t need to try any more.
In the southern hemisphere, singing and dancing is a great part of religious life. We walked from tent to tent to worship in all the world’s traditions.
At dawn, we had five minutes of the deepest silence I’d ever experienced. After the silence, one person in the 40,000 made a sound. And then another. And still another. All of us joined into the sound, it sounded like one human voice.
The Voice of my work grew from the sound of one human voice from 40,000 voices—to create environments where human beings could feel their connectedness to each other and create one sound out of all their diverse sounds.
I then joyfully gave more of Linda de Hart’s Wings of the Heart to participants. The colors of these lovely Wings of the Heart drew people even closer to one another. We danced through the day.
Once home, I had a very difficult re-entry after the Earth Summit. I couldn’t speak for a week as I processed all the events, impressions and feelings I had. On the way back from the airport, I was hit from behind in my car, as I got on the Merritt Parkway.
The whiplash injury I sustained was a metaphor for the spiritual jarring I had received in Rio.
I arranged to facilitate a debriefing session for July 15 at the United Nations for those in the New York area who returned from Rio de Janeiro. As facilitator, I asked the group what our mandate was?
As nation or as individuals? What child would come forth from us?
Getting a conference room in the United Nations was facilitated, I believe, by my intention. Normally, it is very difficult for a civil society individual to get a conference room.
For me, I knew forever that the mother of peace had to change from armed force to knowledge. We must find the parts of us that the little nine-year old girl represents: hunger and thirst. Maybe we need to spend more time in nature, recapturing the child in us that knows the mystery, the awe and wonder. Maybe we need to find a new avenue of work. Maybe we need a change of heart that affects our lifestyle and buying patterns. Or maybe we need to find and feed the parts of us that honor all of creation.
What can one person do to make a difference in a world where 200 million people lack safe water to drink; 800 million don’t have adequate sanitation; 97 million children are born each year with catastrophic social and environmental consequences?
I set out to find the answer to that question, believing that “I” can become “We”. With the vision I experienced in Rio of one person’s Voice becoming a collective Voice and sound, I began right away to plan a similar event at the United Nations in New York. I had almost finished my master’s work at that time, understanding the United Nations as church. I began meeting with the people who had attended the conference. We formed a steering committee around my vision of one sound of humanity from the vigil.
I spent the next six months planning the Celebration of the Children of the World, an event designed to bring attention to the plight of street children around the world through celebration, a unifying experience of connection and joy. The Celebration of the Children of the World was very successful.
The Celebration model provided a template from which political will could be built around issues of our common humanity. From her vast experience in the United Nations community, Ruth Steinkraus-Cohen told me I wouldn’t be able to accomplish what I wanted to do. But I remembered what Christ told me: whatever I did in his name would be blessed.
I wrote my thesis and was stopped by the speaking Voice from getting a job in New York City. I was advised to wait and go to my graduation for the next direction of my life. I was full of satisfaction for the work I had done to bring people together from the different sectors of the United Nations: representatives from international civil servants, non-governmental organizations and member-states. I had a Master’s degree in Community Building in Organizations, in organizational development and international peacebuilding.
I decided to celebrate the fruit of my work, in greatest gratitude to my inner Voice. I had completed my Master’s work and made a significant contribution to community building in the United Nations.
Over the next twenty years, I developed the Celebration model as a Peacebuilding Process of Reconciliation to Develop Political Will that could be widely used in local and international settings as a way to make peace using soul force not armed force.
That work grew into case studies for a Global Mediation and Reconciliation Service where the use of soul force trumps armed force.
Bouffier taught me one person can make a difference! He inspired me to take my first steps–now twenty years later in 2013 I present my work at the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Interagency Framework Team for Preventive Action.
Here’s the presentation I made with three amazing graduates of our program: Sam Onapa from the Sudan, Anna Sandidge from St. Louis, Missouri USA and Sarah Sayeed of New York City.
Presentation from a Brown Bag Lunch which took place on 17 October, entitled:
Reconciliation Leaders: Training Leaders for Sustainable Development
“The seed of peace exists in all of us. It must be nurtured, cared for and promoted by us all to flourish. Peace cannot be imposed from outside; it must be realized from within Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, Founder of Global Movement for the Culture of Peace.
The Commission on Global Governance’s report emphasizes that “the world needs leaders made strong by vision, sustained by ethics and revealed by political courage that looks to the longer term and future generations for whom the present is held in trust”. In light of this recognition, the Global Mediation and Reconciliation Service (GMRS) developed the Peacebuilding Process of Reconciliation to provide individuals and groups with the perspectives, tools and techniques for multilateral approaches to sustainable development.
Reconciliation Leaders, following the GMRS model, are taught a systems-based approach and provided with a toolbox to facilitate reconciliation interventions in community, organizational, national and global settings. Participants are able to design context-specific frameworks tailored to build trust in communities while honoring their unique challenges thus increasing the potential for effective solutions.
Using interactive exercises and drawing on their experiences as Reconciliation Leaders with UN entities in conflict-affected states such as Burundi, Sudan, Philippines, the anti-human trafficking movement and ‘9/11 New York’, the presenters will illustrate applications of the Peacebuilding Process of Reconciliation and the growth of the GMRS.
For more information, go to www.global-leader.org, www.centerglobalcommunitylaw.org and virginiaswain.com. The following papers provide a good overview of the programme: “Leadership and Practice to Reconcile Challenges in a Post–September 11th World”, “Reconciliation as Policy: A Capacity–Building Proposal for Renewing Leadership and Development,” Presentation at the Human Dignity and Humiliations Studies Conference, Columbia University, Virginia Swain and Dr. Sarah Sayeed, 2005 and 2006.
About the Reconciliation Leadership Presenters:
Virginia Swain, M.A. is the founder of Reconciliation Leadership, the Global Mediation and Reconciliation Service and the Institute for Global Leadership and has organized a number of courses on reconciliation, empowerment and culture of peace under the patronage of Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury since 2001. Virginia is also the co-founder and director of the Center for Global Community and World Law, an ECOSOC NGO. A World United by Children of All Ages is the latest project of her longtime commitment to A Global Movement for A Culture of Peace.
Mr. Sam Onapa, of the Sudan-African Union Liaison Office, is an advocate for non state actors in peacebuilding. He has coordinated civil society activities for the African Union; most recently a Peace Forum with the Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan States to build a broad grassroots representation and multitrack approaches for future mediation processes.
Dr. Sarah Sayeed has been involved in interfaith activities in New York City for more than a decade. As Director of Community Partnerships at the Interfaith Center of New York, Sarah runs the Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer Retreats for Social Justice and programs that bring Catholics and Muslims together in social service partnerships. For more about Sarah, go to www.huffingtonpost.com/sarah-sayeed-phd/.
Ms. Anna Sandidge, MSW, Justice Coordinator for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet – St. Louis Province, holds a Masters of Social Work from Saint Louis University. She works on the issues of human trafficking, corporate social responsibility and communities experiencing violence. Anna’s blog, An Unfinished World, can be found athttp://anunfinishedworld.org/about/.