UMC Leaders Focus on Peace Building & Rethinking Conflict

Beth Neil
July 24, 2017

Participants gathered at Corrymeela Community, near Ballycastle as part of the travel seminar.
Participants gathered at Corrymeela Community, near Ballycastle as part of the travel seminar

This year, 11 individuals participated in a 10-day travel seminar to Belfast, Ireland as part of a collegiate ministry program focused on leadership development, peace building and conflict resolution. The Collegiate Ministry Office at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) provides collegiate ministers, chaplains, students and other campus leaders opportunities to help develop real-world, applicable skills and further enhance their on-campus experiences. This travel seminar is just one of the programs from GBHEM that reflects the agency’s mission to enable and resource leadership within the church.

The Belfast seminar embedded participants in an environment of conflict and conflict resolution, a setting that is actively involved in healing and creating new relationships between people, neighborhoods, and communities.

Lisa Ho, associate chaplain and academic coach at Ohio Wesleyan University attended the seminar and shared her thoughts, “This year's seminar reinforced my past experiences with students in Belfast. We all learned that conflict is universal to all. Every culture and country experiences conflict—it is how you manage, and even transform, the conflict that determines the outcome.”

The Collegiate Ministry Office partnered with Rev. Dr. Gary Mason to develop the curriculum for this travel seminar. Mason is a Methodist minister who directs a conflict transformation organization based in Belfast called, “Rethinking Conflict.” Prior to his work with the organization, Mason spent 27 years as a Methodist clergy person in parish ministry in Belfast and has played an integral role in the Northern Irish peace process. Northern Ireland and Belfast have been a site of political and religious struggle and violence over several decades. The people of Northern Ireland tend to describe the current situation as “post-conflict,” although signs of what is commonly referred to as ‘The Troubles’ are still prevalent.

“This experience provided a strong philosophical and educational framework for discussing ‘The Troubles,’” added Ho. “Our partnership with Rev. Dr. Gary Mason was the key to making that happen. Each day he taught the group the theory behind conflict escalation and resolution. We were then able to see firsthand those theories put into practice.”

The goal of the program was for participants to leave Northern Ireland with a strong sense of the difficulties that communities and individuals face in building peace amid conflict, as well as practical tools they could use in their own work to bring about positive change in conflicted situations.“The immediate significance of this seminar was the development of a greater awareness of the nature of sectarian and political conflict, its sources, and the possibilities of resolution and reconciliation,” said Rev. Matthew Charlton, Ph.D., assistant general secretary, Collegiate Ministry at GBHEM. “The immersion experience in the conflict of another environment also brought some clarification to the participants around the conflicts of race, class, and ideology in the United States.”

Rev. Kenya Lovell, Bethune-Cookman University, writes on peace wall in Belfast.
Rev. Kenya Lovell, Bethune-Cookman University, writes on peace wall in Belfast.
Seminar participants completed required reading assignments prior to the trip, and due to the quality and intensive nature of the program, student attendees were given the option to construct a course for credit at their institution for works completed. 

One student participant, Wallace Wyatt III, Bethune-Cookman University, shared how his experiences on the Belfast travel seminar directly impacted his work with a local after-school program. “The discussion about being a ‘marketable commodity’ intrigued me the most,” shared Wyatt. “This is the approach I have vowed to carry out as I continue my work with the youth connected to the After-School All-Stars Program of Orlando.”

Wyatt shared how the idea of a ‘marketable commodity’ (someone who is well-spoken, well-dressed, and educated) affected his approach to conflict resolution. “When we share the narrative as a marketable commodity, we must do it in a manner to recreate, encourage, or invoke the creation of a more marketable commodity. Not a pessimistic socialist. You do so by listening to humanity, listening to their pain, opening doors for conversation, discussing accountability, forgiveness, and redemption and by talking about hard development,” added Wyatt.

Participants met with political and religious leaders in the peace movement, as well as with ex-combatants from the Republican and Loyalist perspectives. Charlton noted, “Those who participated in this seminar now have a broader sense of the difficulties and possibilities of living through conflict and the costs and benefits of reconciliation. These skills are crucial for lay and ordained leaders in the church.”

As a result of this overall experience, Bethune-Cookman University and Ohio Wesleyan University began planning a shared spring break and summer event for the next academic year around racial reconciliation and peace building. “We are planning travel learning experiences in two contexts, both in the United States and also abroad,” said Ho. “We feel like exposing students to conflict at home, and then allowing them to see that conflict from an outsider’s perspective [while abroad] will lead to greater insight and understanding, and ultimately, greater learning.”

To learn more about Collegiate Ministry at GBHEM, visit GBHEM.org or UMCollegiate.org

About GBHEM: As the leadership development agency of The United Methodist Church, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s mission is to lead and connect the educational and ministerial life of the church. Every elder, deacon and licensed local pastor benefits from our training and candidacy programs. Many young adults find help in clarifying their vocation and God’s call on their lives through our leadership and discernment programs. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook: @GBHEM.

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