Facing the challenge of creating a more peaceful world, peacebuilders need a place where they can go to grow, be nurtured and re-energized. It is hard to imagine that the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, fraught with ongoing armed conflicts, would be such a place. Yet, as one peacebuilder, Reuben Lilo, describes it, the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute (MPI) is “one of God’s refuges for peacebuilding initiatives in the world.”
After attending MPI’s annual peacebuilding training, Lilo, who is director of peace and reconciliation efforts in the Solomon Islands, says he was able to initiate the first trauma healing workshops in his country, which reportedly has had one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world.
MPI was founded in 2000 by Filipino peacebuilders working in poor communities facing violence, evacuations and displacements in the country’s endless ethnic clashes, military crackdowns and religious wars. Seeking ways to transform their situation and repair broken relationships with their neighbors, these peacebuilders met with John Paul Lederach, a pioneer in conflict transformation from the University of Notre Dame. He challenged them to set up a peacebuilding training institute, where people could gain skills to facilitate negotiation, active non-violence, interreligious dialogue and peace education.
At first MPI was intended to train Filipino grassroots peacebuilders only. However, from the beginning it included international participants and over the years has trained more than 1,800 grassroots peacebuilders from almost 50 countries. Joanita Silvira da Costa is one of them.
Nitha, as she is called, was a member of the Ministry of Social Solidarity in Timor-Leste, which gained independence from Indonesia in 2002. She says she appreciates being able to bring to her homeland the skills she learned at MPI in conflict resolution, mediation, negotiation and dialogue. “I trained youth and local leaders of different communities, religious and political leaders, and public officials of Timor-Leste who were dealing with the results of terrible conflicts and violence prior to and following independence,” she says.
The Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute came into existence 10 years after my wife, Jeanette, and I left the Philippines, where I had been serving as a Maryknoll lay missioner. During the next 22 years we served as Maryknoll lay missioners in Nicaragua and the United States, and eventually I became executive director of the Maryknoll Affiliates. Then Jeanette and I decided to return to the Philippines. Soon after our arrival, Christine Vertucci, director of MPI and another former Maryknoll lay missioner, invited me to work with the institute.
Chris had left the Philippines in 2002 after serving there for almost 18 years. Her journey had taken her to work in Timor-Leste and back to the Philippines.
Sometimes people ask Chris and me why we chose to return to a country where we lived through so much violence. They want to know what has called us to work for peace not only in the Philippines but globally.
We never hesitate to answer. The deep commitment of the Philippine people to struggle for a just and equitable society, even to the point of death, is what draws us to be their partners in achieving this goal. And that has led us to the world. “I see myself as part of something bigger than myself that creates the energy for positive change,” Chris explains. “That connects me to others and creates more circles of like-minded people, eventually creating a critical mass of peacebuilders that transforms the world into a just and peaceful place for all people and all ecosystems.”
Such transformation requires a myriad of approaches, which MPI offers. We emphasize the need for community-based culturally appropriate practices. After his training with MPI, Kisuke Ndiku from Kenya identified “pockets of peace and harmony and people urging peaceful co-existence” in the communities where he works. “This creates a basis for peace workers to look for pillars of peace that remain standing even in times of conflict,” he says.
An important part of MPI training is field-based courses that take participants from the classroom to interact with peacebuilding communities in Mindanao, where both the participants and the communities share their experiences of suffering and hope. While riddled with conflict, Mindanao has much to share in building zones of peace. MPI has worked for the last five years, for example, with indigenous leaders in northwestern Mindanao to resolve conflicts such as one in which two communities disagreed over their relationships with a large-scale mining company wanting to operate within their ancestral lands.
With MPI’s help, one indigenous leader was able to acknowledge his wrongdoing in succumbing to manipulation and pressure from the mining company to ignore the rights of the communities. His sincere apology restored harmony between the neighboring communities.
Such success stories inspire participants like Cherry Qin Nan from China, who summed up what she gained from MPI: “The training not only gave me relevant and useful information and skills in peacebuilding, but also strengthened my heart as a peacebuilder.”
Featured Image: Participants hold candles as they prepare to go forth as peacebuilders following MPI training.