Peacebuilding and the Evolution of World Relief’s Village Peace Committees

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DRC: The Conflict in Context

“Conflict spares no one,” writes Cyprien Nkiriyumwami, World Relief Africa Director for Peacebuilding.

The context in which he writes is that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). For twenty years the DRC has experienced continuous and brutal conflict, originally a result of the tribal animosities unleashed by the Rwandan genocide in 1994, then exacerbated by the military overthrow of its president, Mobutu Sese Seko, in 1997.

There are now as many as 70 armed militias operating in the DRC, fighting over control of the land and the rich mineral resources buried within it. As many as 6 million people have been killed in the fighting or by related impacts such as disease or malnutrition. Women and children are those most affected and victimized by this conflict—including recruitment into armed groups, sexual violence, and many forms of gross physical violence. Today, the United Nations estimates that there are 4.7 million people displaced from their homes in DRC and another 450,000 who have fled the violence as refugees living outside of their country.

On the UN Human Development Index, which measures for life expectancy, educational, and economic factors, DRC is ranked 176 out of 188 nations worldwide. And despite its people’s deep desire for peace, the conflict and resulting corruption too often benefits those in positions of power, creating little incentive to stop the violence that causes so much unbelievable suffering.

In the midst of this chaos and constant simmering of open-conflict, Cyprien has been facilitating World Relief’s efforts to transform communities of conflict into those characterized by peace through the formation of our Village Peace Committees (VPCs). VPCs are community structures composed of ten trained and respected community members who work together to solve disputes and conflicts within their localities before they reach violence. Today, the VPCs are incredibly successful vehicles for conflict prevention throughout the DRC. The road to their installation however, was not an easy one.

A Difficult Task

Over ten years ago, World Relief’s work in the Democratic Republic of Congo experienced disruption upon disruption due to constant violence. As staff came together to discuss solutions, two staff members who worked with local churches observed that the tribal divisions in churches typically mirrored the conflict they saw in the wider community. Pondering how they could act upon this insight, Cyprien and local pastor, Marcel Serubungo, called together church leaders from across the area to a 3-day pastoral retreat to address the conflict in the community.

This task was harder than it sounds given the history and context of this request. At the time, pastors and their churches were largely segregated by tribal identity. So too were the relationships among pastors. In fact, pastors would normally avoid meeting one another or even gathering in the same room with pastors of another tribe. Now tensely gathered together in one room, Pastors Cyprien and Marcel shared their vision of pastors leading the way in bringing peace to their community and providing care to victims of violence, without consideration of tribal affiliation. Discussion was difficult and quickly devolved into accusations from pastors of one tribe against pastors of another, even as Pastors Cyprien and Marcel tried to bring pastors together in unity around their shared purpose and design as image-bearers of God.

That night, by design, Pastors Cyprien and Marcel assigned each retreat room to two pastors, one from each combating tribe. Each room was furnished with one bed. The pastors were forced to decide if they were to sleep on the floor or on the bed. In customary African fashion and considered culturally appropriate, the pastor-pairs reluctantly agreed to share each bed. Yet lying back to back, the pastors could not sleep because of the level of bitterness and mistrust against one another.

The Birth of the VPCs

The next morning, the pastors wearily re-convened to continue conversation about their influential roles in conflict mediation. As the day went along, defenses began to fall and conversations moved into a recognition of the need to be involved in brokering peace. That night, back in their rooms, the pastors engaged in willing conversation and were finally able to sleep, this time side by side. The next morning, well rested, the pastors regathered. The conversation turned personal as one pastor stood and confessed publicly his hatred for pastors from the other tribe. One by one, pastors stood to confess their own sin against one another. Confessions turned to weeping and forgiving-embraces, which turned to corporate repentance and a final decision as a group to pursue reconciliation and peace in their communities. The Pastors shared a collective and unifying sentiment as they left the retreat, “How can we expect our people to live any differently, if we ourselves cannot gather together in peace and unity?”

That water-shed gathering shifted things significantly. Meaningful pastor-friendships formed across tribal differences. Regular pastor gatherings commenced to discuss peacebuilding in their congregations. These gatherings and relationships soon led to pulpit-exchanges, where pastors from opposite tribes would preach at the other’s church on a Sunday. At first, parishioners were shocked by these actions, but eventually began to realize that “If pastors could meet together, so too could they.” The example of these pastors cascaded into their churches and out into the community, as tangible hope began to form within their people.

VPCs Around the Globe

The lessons learned from the early peacebuilding efforts in the DRC have today formed the foundation from which World Relief’s peacebuilding efforts have expanded into other fragile countries, including South Sudan, Burundi, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

Today, VPCs are able to operate independently and successfully because they are acknowledged by villagers as neutral, impartial and effective conflict resolution facilitators. Not only do they formalize the process by which tribal leaders and community members publicly address past and current tensions, but they also encourage and offer this process free of charge. These local committees have resolved thousands of conflicts which would have otherwise escalated into cycles of violence causing loss of land, property, and life on mass scale and tearing families and communities apart.

Peace building matters because it helps people and communities to refrain from using force to impose their views on others. It helps people to accept others as they are, to tolerate differences, respect the vulnerable, especially women and children, and eventually, to come voluntarily to solutions acceptable by all.

VPCs have resolved conflicts as small as land and livestock disputes, as well as cases referred to them by the local police, but they also accomplish something much bigger: They create hope, courage and faith. Hope that problems can be resolved and that a better future exists. Courage to address larger relational issues and conflicts despite historical failures and fatigue. And faith, as communities begin to see that the church is both relevant for their communities and that the teachings of scripture do make a difference.

Today, World Relief continues to pioneer our VPC work across fragile states. Though we face countless challenges and roadblocks to this work, we take heart, because of our confidence in men and women like Cyprien who lean into the discomfort and fear courageously, in faith. And we have great faith that this work will continue to be transformative in the lives of thousands across the world.


CONTRIBUTORS

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Gil Odendaal, Ph.D, D.Min, is the SVP of Integral Mission Division at World Relief. He previously served as the Global Director for PEACE Implementation with Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California as well as Global Director for the HIV/AIDS Initiative under Kay Warren. Gil has 30 years of ministry experience as a missionary, pastor, educator, leader and public speaker, including serving as Regional Coordinator for Africa, Russia and Easter Europe with Medical Ambassadors International. Gil serves on the Lausanne Movement Integral Mission leadership team as well as a board member of ACCORD Network. Gil and his wife, Elmarie, were born and raised in South Africa. They have three adult children and five grandchildren.

 

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Cyprien Nkiriyumwami is World Relief’s Africa Director for Integral Mission, Church Empowerment and Peace Building. Trained as community development facilitator and working in that capacity since 1984, Cyprien has designed and led programs that lean on local churches and grassroots structures of volunteers in reconciling people and communities in the war torn Democratic Republic of Congo and in Pakistan.

 

 

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Damon Schroeder is the Director for US Integral Mission at World Relief. Springing from his experience as a missionary kid from Cyprus, he has worked for 17 years, equipping churches in the US to holistically welcome and build community with newly arriving refugees and immigrants.

 

 

The Magic Years: Care Groups

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My grandson had a birthday recently. He’s two. He blew out candles, devoured cake and ice cream, and tore into presents. His favorite was a large bubble machine that floated huge translucent bubbles all over the room when he blew with all his might.

My work every day at World Relief involves birthdays. We mark them, celebrate them, prepare for them, and advocate for them. No, not birthdays with cake and bubbles, but birthdays with critical significance: the milestone of reaching a precious child’s fifth birthday.

The months of life in a mother’s womb and the first five years of a child’s life are the most critical. These are the years of rapid brain growth, physical, mental, and developmental growth, of early adaptation to our world of disease, of bonding with mother and family, and of discovering personhood, belonging, and identity. These are the “magic years” as described by author Selma Fraiberg. [1]

Too many children in our world never reach their fifth birthdays. In fact, nearly 6 million children under-five die every year. [2] They die prematurely from diarrhea, malnutrition, malaria or pneumonia; all of which are preventable deaths. Today, however, we know how to simply, cost-effectively and radically ensure that no child fails to reach his or her fifth birthday because of these causes.

Recognizing what nutrition experts call, a “Window of Opportunity” to promote nutrition and early development during the first 1000 days of life (counted from conception to two years), World Relief and the communities and churches we work through are seizing this opportunity to protect and nurture these precious children under the age of five. The interventions are basic:improved nutrition for mothers, infants, and children; prevention of life threatening pneumonia and diarrhea;and prevention and early treatment of malaria. Something as simple as hand-washing with soap can prevent persistent diarrhea that may eventually lead to severe dehydration, malnutrition and even death in a two-year old.

So what prevents this life-saving work from saving the lives of more children? How can we reach the millions of children needing this support throughout these early months and years? How can we impact behavior, especially where some cultural practices and a simple lack of knowledge can impede growth and development?

Long ago, a practical solution to reaching large masses of people was proposed by Jethro, a simple farmer whose son God chose to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land—Moses. Today, World Relief and many other NGOs and governments are using the same model Moses initiated…and we call them Care Groups.

Care Groups are an integral part of our Church Empowerment Zone (CEZ) model, pioneered in Rwanda and used across many of our programs in sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia and the Middle East. As a part of the process, small groups of 10-15 community members are formed, trust is built, information is shared, volunteers support one another, and then share their learnings with neighbors in their village. Complete community saturation is the goal and the means through which Care Groups can potentially reach every child under five to ensure they safely navigate their early years.

The implementation and impact results of this biblically-designed approach has a growing amount of evidence-based findings. The peer-to-peer approach has reached over 1.4 million households in more than 28 countries globally. [3] It is attracting public health experts, government ministries of health, and large development funders. And, it is at the very core of what we do here at World Relief.

World Relief’s Pieter Ernst first developed the concept of Care Groups in 1995. In his words:

About 3,500 years back in history, a skilled and educated leader by the name of Moses from a nomadic nation of around 3,000,000 people wanted, on his own, to judge and resolve all the social and many other problems they had as a result of living so close together. Interestingly, in spite of all his education and his close relationship with God, he was unable to see beyond his own experience, and God sent his less educated father-in-law, Jethro, from a distant country to visit and advise him about the advantages of Care Groups. He also gave him some important selection criteria for choosing the right volunteers, and gave him guidance on an accountability that included a supervision structure that would help secure sustainability. Therefore, in reality, Care Groups is a design structure that is 3,500 years old.  It is God’s doing… [4]

With a little updating from Moses’ time, today we are pressing our technological age to do what works, no matter how simple it may be. Public health experts who studied eight Care Group projects found that as a result of the group teachings and outreach, under-five mortality decreased by 32%. And the cost per beneficiary per year for such impact? Only US $3-$8. [5]

Once scaling and saturation takes place in communities, the Care Group model allows communities to reach a critical tipping point that has the potential to transform entire nations. As a result, the Care group model becomes an efficient, inexpensive, self-sustaining vehicle for transformation.

It is a future that is bright, and filled with healthy, joyful children, celebrating many more birthdays to come.

 

[1] The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood (Fraiberg, Selma. Simon and Schuster.)

[2] Acting on the Call, USAID, 2017 Fact Sheet

[3] Global Health:  Science and Practice 2015, Vol 3, Issue 3, p. 370

[4] CORE Group Conference for Global Health Practitioners, Silver Spring, MD October 16, 2014, Acceptance Speech by Pieter Ernst for Dory Storms Award

[5] Global Health:  Science and Practice 2015, Vol 3, Issue 3, p. 370


Deborah Dortzbach is the Senior Program Advisor for World Relief. She has been involved in church-based HIV/AIDS prevention and care since the early 1990s. Prior to joining World Relief she directed MAP International's HIV/AIDS programs from 1990-1997. Doborah is the author, with W. Meredith Long, of The AIDS Crisis: What We Can Do (2006), as well as Kidnapped (1975), which chronicles her 1973 abduction with her husband by the Eritrean Liberation Front while they were working as missionaries.

Changemakers in Rwanda — A Story of Light Overcoming Darkness

The following post was written by Moses Ndahiro, Country Director for World Relief Rwanda.
 

Rwanda.

A country as magnificent as it is complex. A place of breath-taking beauty, and of an unthinkably violent history. A marvelous land of a thousand hills, still haunted by an eerie morning fog that sits atop the horizon and whispers of horrors passed; a genocide that shook the world so deeply, it promised, “never again”.

It is a country unlike any other, where God’s creation is on display in all its splendor and diversity. The warmth and hospitality of a people striving to rebuild and rewrite their story. The hope of a history overcome, and of a nation reborn.

And it is a country where God is at work in powerful ways. Where people’s hearts and minds are being transformed through Christ. Where the Church is stepping into its rightful place as the hope of the world. 

It is a story of light overcoming the darkness.


The Church established itself in Rwanda over 100 years ago, and today, more than 70% of the population is in a church building every week. How then, in 1994, did a genocide of such horrific proportions and unprecedented brutality take place? Volumes have been written on the underlying causes, on the immediate events leading up to the genocide and of the failure of the world to take heed of the warning signs. Little, however, was said of the failure of the Church to stand up and protect the vulnerable. Fortunately, that has changed. Today’s Church in Rwanda is quite different from the institutionalized Church of the past. It is vibrant, diverse, and growing. And step-by-step, it has begun to walk alongside its people in their journey from darkness and despair, towards hope and renewal.

World Relief first established its presence in Rwanda immediately following the genocide. Watching the international community respond with one-off emergency interventions, we became increasingly convinced that solutions needed to center on the resourcefulness and hearts of the local people, and that the Church had a unique role to play. Born out of that conviction, World Relief first pioneered its Church Empowerment Zone model in 2011. Founded on our strong belief that transformational change begins with the Church, we began teaching, mobilizing, and empowering local churches and their networks to serve the most vulnerable in their communities. Through sharing and building leadership capacity, we brought churches of all denominations together in one network to unite under a common curriculum and leadership development program, giving them the opportunity to wrestle with common problems, share resources, and join together in a common vision for their churches, families, and communities.

“We do not see one another as enemies anymore. Now we come together as brothers, bringing our strengths together. We are at peace.” – Pastor Museveni

Today, the Church Empowerment Zone model is unleashing the potential of hundreds of churches and communities across Rwanda, building a legacy of hope, generosity, and self-reliance that is sustaining progress. Local churches are no longer simply institutions for Sunday gatherings, but the epicenters of their communities—transforming hearts, minds, and attitudes. Rwanda is a vivid and timely reminder that there is more to religion than just turning up to church. It has revealed how essential it is for our faith to be strongly rooted in a holistic and meaningful understanding of the Gospel. 

One pastor in Bushenge, Rwanda said, “Now we are caring for the poor and most vulnerable. We are creating love where the Devil was bringing hate and division. We are bringing the Kingdom of God down to Earth. Our families are in harmony. And a family in harmony will prosper in everything.”

Over the last five years, we have seen families reunited and health and nutrition outcomes improved. We have seen neighbors, siblings, spouses, children, and friends overcome their challenges and experience renewed and strengthened holistic relationships.  We have seen the transformation of lives.

The story of the church in Rwanda is powerful and inspiring. But it is not the only nation where the church is catalyzing transformational change.

Now is the time for the U.S. church to join in this rebirth. We have a unique role to play in helping African churches increase their capacity, and they have much to teach us about what it means to truly trust in God. When we work together in harmony, uplifting one another, and placing God at the center of our partnership, we have the true potential to transform the lives of millions of vulnerable people.