Last week I participated in the third national encounter of Ecumenical Women Peacebuilders on a farm in Santandercito, just a few hours outside of Bogota, Colombia. Leaving the city at 8 am Saturday morning, our bus drove through winding hills, and stopped briefly for us to marvel at the 515-foot Salto del Tequendama—a gorgeous waterfall that cascades into the Bogota River.
I was accompanying some 50 women religious leaders from 10 regions of Colombia who were gathering for three days to discuss future directions for their peace work. These women belong to a network of ecumenical women peacemakers begun four years ago to stimulate and support dialogue and joint actions between Catholic and Protestant women who are working for peace within their distinct institutions. Susan Hayward, my colleague in the Religion and Peacebuilding program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, helped this network get off the ground and take shape, and I have advised and accompanied the process from the start.
The organizers asked Susan to talk about international experiences of facilitated dialogue, and me to give an overview of peacebuilding in Colombia. Susan spoke of other USIP-supported interfaith efforts to reduce violence and contribute to reconciliation in Iraq, Nigeria, and Sri Lanka. I spoke about the larger context of peace efforts in Colombia within which the work of the ecumenical women peace builders fits, and discussed the concept of peacebuilding as a long-term process for violence prevention. Others spoke of ecumenism and women’s roles in the Bible. In small groups and in the plenary, participants reflected on each presentation in light of religious teachings and in relation to their own experiences as peacemakers. They discussed the challenges they face in doing ecumenical peacebuilding in their regions.
Role of Ritual and Creativity
Prayer, ceremonies, performance, crafts, songs, games, interpretative and relaxation exercises, and poetry permeated the encounter and underscored the commonalities shared by these women — their gender, their engagement in peacebuilding, and their identities as women of faith. If ritual created common bonds among the women, creative expression enabled participants to recognize and appreciate both individual and group differences among themselves. Such rituals and exercises of creative expression contributed to building trust, and helped to strengthen bonds among the participants.
Ecumenism a Challenge
Although the Colombian internal armed conflict that has gripped that nation for half a century is not based on religious divisions, the depth of the historical divide between Catholics and Protestants, and the resistance to ecumenism in Colombian society is profound. The meetings these women have had over the last four years have repeatedly surfaced the fear of ecumenism. A Catholic woman who had just joined the network told of her priest’s warnings to be wary of any proselytization efforts and to research ecumenism carefully before attending the retreat. One Baptist minister at this year’s retreat was recently elected president of the women in her church. She observed that her church had largely avoided socio-political issues in order to focus on individual spirituality, but that after last year’s ecumenical women’s retreat, she decided to make the issue of peace the top priority for her two-year term in office. When I asked about her decision, she told me that she thought it would be better to start with an “easy” topic (peace) and to hold off addressing the more difficult issue of ecumenism until later.
Enhancing Strategies for Peace
Peacebuilding requires long-term vision. When one is in the middle of a conflict and measuring success against a final goal, it is easy to miss progress. Short-term successes and failures are cumulative over time, however, and have much to teach. This network is building a safe space where women can collectively reflect on their faith and develop strategies for participation in peace work that builds on their common identity as ecumenical women of faith. A deeper understanding of what each of them and their communities are doing in their different regions is an important step toward defining how they might join forces for more effect and greater impact. Documenting this process is key to ensuring that their efforts are not overlooked in the history of peacebuilding in Colombia.