COMMENTARY: Working for peace with justice in a time of unrest

During the first annual Delaware Peace Week last September, Pacem in Terris invited children and youth throughout Delaware to unleash their creativity and submit art that depicted their vision for peace. More than 240 pieces were displayed at the Delaware Contemporary Museum. The powerful and moving submissions offered evidence that, from the very earliest years, the heartfelt desire for peace is universal and unequivocal.

Pacem in Terris (Latin for “peace on earth”) is the oldest and largest organization on the Delmarva Peninsula working for peace with justice. It is named after Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical titled “Pacem in Terris: on establishing universal peace in truth, justice, charity, and liberty.” This year, we are celebrating our 50th anniversary.

In 1967, when we started our mission of working for peace with justice, our country was in turmoil. We were mired in conflict in Vietnam, violent and prolonged riots erupted in our cities, political factions were wide and cultural divides ran deep. In recent years, a similar level of political and cultural division has culminated in the presidential election of 2016. There is profound bitterness and distrust on all sides; our peace is being threatened.

A lesson learned from the recent elections is a better understanding of the powerful forces at work shaping the future of the country.

On both sides of the political divide, this election highlighted the demand by our citizens for economic justice and for a political system that is responsive to the people, rather than to the special interests who fund the political campaigns. There is widespread recognition that the current massive income inequality poses unsustainable risks to families and to the social fabric of the country.

So, we ask: How do we heal from our wounds? Where is the common ground where we can meet to re-establish trust? How can we work together for the hopeful future that our children painted for us during Peace Week?

Over the last 50 years, through Pacem in Terris’ many programs, events, and activities, we have learned invaluable lessons that begin to answer these questions.

We know that the common ground needed to re-establish trust can be created. In 1976, there was no trust between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Bombings, shootings, terror, vandalism and violence were part of the landscape.

That year, at the height of the violence, Pacem in Terris began its Ulster Project Delaware. It brought 20 Northern Irish teens — 10 Catholic, 10 Protestant — to Wilmington. They were paired with Wilmington teens, and for a month, they went through an intense series of leadership courses, field trips, service projects and fun activities that built communication, trust, cooperation and reconciliation. The net results were friendships and lifetime bonds that transcended the sectarian conflicts back home. Trust and peace broke out, one teen friendship at a time. Now, 40 years and 2 generations later, nearly 2,000 young people have participated in UPD. Countless others in Northern Ireland and here in Wilmington, from family members to local dignitaries, have been influenced by the experiences of these peace ambassadors.

We know that healing requires reconciliation. Pacem in Terris’ program, New Beginnings/Next Steps, was created for ex-offenders who choose to pursue the courageous work of personal growth after their release from prison. It offers them a chance to network with others who share their determination to remain free. Through relationships and informal mentoring opportunities, these returning citizens become contributing members and positive role models in our communities.

We know that when we work together our vision for peace can become reality. In 2014, when national publications referred to Wilmington as “Murdertown USA” because of its high rates of violence, Pacem in Terris became a founding member of the Movement for a Culture of Peace. It has worked with a broad-based coalition of dozens of faith, nonprofit, and community groups to organize annual peace marches through Wilmington neighborhoods, sponsor monthly educational forums, and in 2016 created Peace Week Delaware to advocate for non-violent solutions to Delaware’s high rate of violence and other justice issues.

We take a coordinated approach to building alternatives to the prevailing culture of violence based on education, economic opportunity, anti-racism, respect and equal justice for all, and disarmament of our neighborhoods.

Finally, we are receiving this crucial moment as an opportunity to re-commit to our core mission: “universal peace in truth, justice, charity, and liberty:”

• Where any social, economic, or political injustice threatens the peace for anyone, we will work with a renewed sense of connection to seek and support peace and justice in our homes, communities and country.

• Where any attempts are made to divide or exclude any peoples by age, race, class, national origin, culture, ability, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, we will stand fast in our resolve that unity is our greatest goal; diversity is our greatest gift.

• Where the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we depend upon are degraded or being depleted, we will work for programs and policies that sustain and renew our natural resources.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.” Perhaps the most important thing we must do is to remain optimistic and hopeful that, together, we can bring about the changes we seek in our society. For 50 years, Pacem in Terris has been directly, openly, and lovingly confronting issues that threaten our peace; we offer ourselves for nothing less in this hour. The vison above, of a world, surrounded by the outstretched wings of doves, created by a youth of our community, is a visual inspiration for the world to which we aspire.

For information on how you can participate in this great challenge, get in touch with Pacem in Terris.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Medard Gabel is executive director and Judith Butler is chairwoman of the board of Pacem in Terris. It is headquartered in Wilmington and can be contacted at www.depaceminterris.org.

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