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Taking the side of peace in a world of violence

Friday, 12 January 2024  | John Steward

Following the Rwandan genocide, a planned campaign of mass murder in 1994, World Vision sent John Steward and his wife Sandi there in 1997 to manage its reconciliation and peace-building program. Here John reflects on what he learned about peace-building and the lessons that can be learned in the Middle East, particularly as we celebrate the coming of the ‘Prince of Peace’.


Scene 1: Just over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, Palestine, Jesus the ‘Prince of Peace’ (Isaiah 9:6) is born.

Scene 2: 2023, a war in the ‘Holy Land’, in which horrific acts of violence and destruction lead to great suffering and the loss of many lives.

Scene 3: Christmas 1997, after a dreadful year of attacks and counterattacks leading to tragic losses of life, the President of Rwanda appeals for sanity, discipline and calm. He later gathers the local faith leaders and asks: Despite its failures during the ’94 genocide, what does your faith have to contribute now to the healing of Rwanda?


Rwanda and Israel do have something important in common – during the past 80 years they both have experienced pogroms aimed at eliminating a segment of their population. For Jews in parts of Europe the threats peaked in the 1940s; for Rwanda the threats peaked in the 1990s. Both nations survived and worked to promote stability and provide opportunity for members of their community to recover life and find new meaning.

Fourteen months after the genocide ended in Rwanda, the leadership sent delegations to Israel to visit Yad Vashem[1] and study how the memory of the Jewish Holocaust is kept alive. This led to Rwanda establishing six national sites and 250 registered memorials around the country. You can’t travel far in Rwanda without being reminded of the breadth of suffering and loss. Besides, new burials take place during each annual anniversary because remnants are still being uncovered.

Sandi and I entered Rwanda in February of 1997. My assignment was ‘to find ways of responding to trauma and promoting healing’. It seemed like mission impossible. Two million Rwandans had just returned from two years in exile in nearby countries to which they had fled in fear of reprisals at the end of the genocide. The country was in turmoil. On the day of our arrival the director of World Vision said:

John, this is a challenging situation; do not initiate anything for three months. Just go and visit the areas where we work and learn from the people. Get to know and understand them and all they have suffered.

The third anniversary of the commencement of the Genocide was approaching, stirring up deep hurts in people. We felt the tension and the weight of horror that cloaked them. We became listeners: receivers of stories, dark and gruesome. The men came to my office, the women visited Sandi at our unit. Before our 6 pm daily curfew the two of us walked the surrounding streets sharing our day.

Hideous, bewildering stories, full of fear and hopelessness, were being injected into our ‘mental bloodstream’. Nothing in our fast-tracked preparation prepared us for the shocks. What could we do to steady ourselves?

Months previously Sandi had been taught a form of relaxation meditation that helped her find relief for back pain. I had been taught mental relaxation before producing training videos. We chose to sit quietly, focus on our breathing and let the difficult moments surface, and consciously give the images and thoughts to God.

In the midst of a challenging living situation and a serious task we practised our approach without knowing what to expect. We found a sense of peace emerging that freed us for sleep. We awoke ready to face the new day and the next day, and so on.

Some weeks later I walked, as usual, into my office, where a colleague grabbed my wrists, looked into my eyes and protested: ‘John, what is wrong with you?’

Nonplussed, I asked him to explain his question. ‘Here we are in this place of demand and danger, chaos and death, and I see you calmly walk into the office every day full of peace, as if nothing is wrong with the world. How can you possibly do that?’

Something was changing within me. To be a peacemaker I must first be at peace within myself. I began to explore this inner peace that had begun to seep out of me. With time I found in myself an openness to face the unknown, a new gentleness of heart, a trust of others and compassion with each one’s losses.

Sandi also discovered her internal changes and stability. We realised that our quiet sitting in faith and trust was like holding a pearl of great value, impacting the deepest parts of our being. We continue the practice to this day. As Thomas Keating remarks, ‘the regular practice of contemplative prayer initiates a healing that might be called the “divine therapy”’.[2]

By now my three months of ‘just listening’ were up. I made my first decision: to assist one local area with funds towards an underground crypt where bodies from the genocide would be kept in an honourable way. It was aimed at keeping the memory of the genocide alive.

My second decision was accepting that I could not directly contribute to healing in Rwanda. Only Rwandans could do that work, but I could mentor and enable them. I recruited four Rwandans, two women and two men, who had begun their healing journey and were open to interacting with others regardless of identity. Together we developed a vision for our work. The team went to the communities, while I did the administrative work and mentored them in planning, problem-solving and management of goals. I also raised funds towards their work.

As they faced the many stories, so very much like their own experiences, the staff found response and resistance in equal parts. Thoughts of trying to heal trauma and improve relationships can be challenging. We found a few who were willing to look at their own need to change. I offered for Sandi to teach the team the principles of contemplative prayer and coach them in the practice. Each staff member was then free to adopt their own form of self-care.

Sandi did this work at our unit where Grace, our cook, also listened and imbibed the principles. On a subsequent visit to Rwanda I met Grace, who excitedly told me that a friend of hers was getting engaged and that Grace was cooking for the dowry ceremony. I knew that this friend was the first Rwandan woman to facilitate healing sessions after the genocide. Grace explained: ‘Perhaps you didn’t know. After Sandi taught me meditation, I taught it to 30 other adults at my church, and then the youth. Then I thought there must be others who would benefit from this, so I asked God to show me. As we became friends, I asked my busy friend for some time and I taught her to meditate. It helped her so much that we’ve been meeting regularly to practise’.

That call of the President in 1997 was answered. My Rwanda team helped promote and facilitate three approaches to healing, all created in Africa. I outline them in From Genocide to Generosity.[3] Other groups used different programs, each one with its unique contribution to healing. After 25 years, Rwanda is where significant healing expertise now resides. As I witnessed the work and the changes, I documented sufficiently to create a study guide to learn from the book. The Alive to Love course is shaped so that Rwandans who have been healed now become our teachers[4].

The Rwandan approaches have proven to be relevant for both victim and perpetrator, after power was used there in abusive ways. The dream of rising out of the ashes has been achieved among the minority of Rwandans who have been willing to try. Such transformed Rwandans could theoretically contribute to change in the Middle East by introducing their experiences and enhancing trusted local practises such as the ancient method of Sulha. A miracle may yet be possible in places where it is considered to be difficult or unlikely.

People who experience difficult times struggle to be open-hearted and courageous enough to focus on themselves. But the choice to first care for their own need of recovery often opens the door to boldly inviting the ‘other’ to face their change.

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’ (Mat.5:9). All peace begins when two parties are in dialogue with each other. The following poem, Taking Sides by Rabbi Irwin Keller,[5] captures the important role of anyone who provides a safe-space for opposing parties to converse, without condemnation. Listening with care and honest enquiry is where a spark for peace may commence in victims and antagonists alike.


Taking Sides[6]

by Irwin Keller

Today I am taking sides.
I am taking the side of Peace.
Peace, which I will not abandon
even when its voice is drowned out
by hurt and hatred,
bitterness of loss,
cries of right and wrong.

I am taking the side of Peace
whose name has barely been spoken
in this winnerless war.

I will hold Peace in my arms,
and share my body’s breath,
lest Peace be added
to the body count.

I will call for de-escalation
even when I want nothing more
than to get even.
I will do it
in the service of Peace.

I will make a clearing
in the overgrown
thicket of cause and effect
so Peace can breathe
for a minute
and reach for the sky.

I will do what I must
to save the life of Peace.
I will breathe through tears.
I will swallow pride.
I will bite my tongue.
I will offer love
without testing for deservingness.

So don’t ask me to wave a flag today
unless it is the flag of Peace.
Don’t ask me to sing an anthem
unless it is a song of Peace.
Don’t ask me to take sides
unless it is the side of Peace.


As we remember our recent celebrations of the coming of the Prince of Peace, will you take the side of peace?


John Steward is an author, teacher and small group facilitator who over 35 years of engagement with nationals in Asia and Africa to lead programs of community recovery, peace and personal empowerment after conflict and disadvantage.


Photo credits: John Steward

2,000 graves in one day.

Rwandan Youth learn to meditate (2001).

Grace & Sandi (1997).


This article was first published at https://www.thelivingwater.com.au/blog/taking-the-side-of-peace-in-a-world-of-violence. Republished and edited with permission.

[2] Invitation to Love (London: Element Books, 1992), 3.

[3] Published in 2015 by Langham Global, UK. Contact 2live4give@gmail.com to order a copy in Australia. Elsewhere, please contact the publisher.

[4] The course is run twice a year online. If interested, write to 2live4give@gmail.com.

[5] Rabbi Irwin Keller is a founder of Of One Soul, an initiative of the Interfaith Council of Sonoma County, working to defend the rights and dignity of the Muslim community and others who are under threat. See https://www.nershalom.org/spiritual-leadership.

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