Peacemaker in Action Award Top Nominees: Willi Hugo Pérez Lemus

Hesston College student Brayan Martinez from El Salvador gives SEMILLA Director Willi Hugo Pérez a campus tour during his April visit to Kansas Mennonite colleges and churches. Photo from MennoniteMission.net

Last month, you helped us welcome the two newest Peacemaker in Action award recipients: Yeny Nolasco Quijada and Fatima al-Bahadly.

Yeny Nolasco Quijada and Fatima al-Bahadly, from El Salvador and Iraq, respectively, were selected from a group of highly qualified nominees for the Peacemaker in Action award.

Tanenbaum’s Peacebuilding program uplifts the voices of religiously-motivated peace actors, not just those within the Peacemakers in Action Network, but the many unsung heroes at the grassroots level, so that NGOs, academics, organizations, and governments consult their unparalleled wisdom and expertise.

Yeny and Fatima’s fellow nominees come from around the globe. They are motivated by their religious or spiritual beliefs to work peace, unrecognized outside of their local contexts, and put their life and/or liberty at risk.

Each month, we will profile some of the top Peacemaker in Action nominees.

May you know these brave peace actors, seek to work with them, and be inspired by them.

In April, we highlight Guatemalan peace actor Willi Hugo Pérez Lemus. Struck with loss early in his life, Lemus, propelled by his faith, created a Mennonite-organized peace initiative (MENOPAZ). Pérez provides an example of how trauma and indignation might be recast as a productive force.

Peacemaker in Action Nominee Profile: Top 20
Willi Hugo Pérez Lemus
Guatemala

Willi Hugo Pérez Lemus is no stranger to the fallout of protracted conflict. Growing up in Guatemala during the 1960s, violence was an everyday intimacy, a constant threat of social unravelling, of political alienation, and death. In 1960, an armed conflict broke out between leftist guerilla groups and the military-led, autocratic government. For 36 years, the civil war persisted in waves of horror and human rights violations, ending the lives of around 200,000 Guatemalans, many of them Mayan. Disappearances, mutilations, and the public dumping of bodies were commonplace. It should be noted that a U.N. truth commission found that the state and military groups perpetrated 93 percent of human rights violations. This was accomplished more effectively with the aid of U.S. funding and training.

In 1975, Willi Pérez came face to face with the government’s campaign of extra-judicial killings. A staunch proponent of peasants’ rights and living conditions, his father was disappeared and murdered by members of the Guatemalan army. The years that followed weighed heavily on Pérez and his family. Risk, insecurity, poverty, and grief enveloped them, and Pérez sunk into what those who know him describe as a “pit of pain and bitterness,” of “hate.”

Despite the trauma and disaffectedness, Pérez resurfaced in part thanks to the visceral faith of his mother. Eventually, he would join the Guatemalan Anabaptist-Mennonite community and commit himself to the Mennonite values which espouse justice, reconciliation, and the good of others. Pérez traced a path to emotional and spiritual recovery along the tenets of peacebuilding, non-violence, and restorative justice. He found a new solidarity walking and learning among Mennonite compatriots who shared similar visions of peace and misgivings toward civil war.

Pérez’s spiritual advances did not remain solely internal, nor were they restricted to his congregation. With an ambition to shore up the influence and legacy of the non-violent movement in Guatemala, he dedicated himself to the education of others. In the 1990s, Pérez played an instrumental role in the creation of MENOPAZ, a Mennonite-organized peace initiative. The association would go on to provide training in peacebuilding and conflict transformation in churches, schools, and community centers. MENOPAZ did not exclude itself from direct social activism.

Over the same years, Pérez worked to found and serve as the first coordinator of the Regional Network of Justice and Peace (REDPAZ). Through his tenure at REDPAZ, Pérez united churches and NGOs across Guatemala to provide local training in pastoral work with a focus on peace and reconciliation. Much of this work was mirrored in Latin American Anabaptist Seminary (SEMILLA), where he serves as rector. Collaborating with the 12 Central American Anabaptist conferences which comprise SEMILLA, Pérez founded the School of Peace. The School has since provided opportunities to the marginalized populations for study at Bible institutes, admitting around 800 pupils per year. The ecclesiastical formations rest, of course, on the principles of peace ministry.

Pérez provides another example—see Pastor James and Imam Ashafa—of how trauma and indignation which have seeped down to one’s bones might be recast as a productive force. Through his metamorphosis, deeply inflected with faith and the Mennonite community, Pérez has built an activist community of lasting effect. In the way of Jesus, he has found education to be an invaluable tool in the amelioration of the social, political, and spiritual circumstances of his brothers and sisters—those who have suffered and who yearn for peace.


Tanenbaum thanks Elaine Zook Barge, Retired Asst. Professor of the Practice of Trauma Awareness and Resilience at Eastern Mennonite University for nominating Willi Hugo Pérez Lemus.

Rising to the Occasion

Tanenbaum 2021 Peacemakers in Action Yeny Nolasco (El Salvador) and Fatima al-Bahadly (Iraq)

Dear Friends,

Tanenbaum is proud to announce the recipients of the 2021 Peacemakers in Action Award – Yeny Nolasco Quijada and Fatima al-Bahadly. These courageous individuals exemplify fortitude by risking their lives to build peace in tenuous parts of the world where many are too scared to take action.

Yeny spends her days providing alternative activities to youth and at-risk adults in El Salvador, while Fatima advocates for increased civil rights for women and against the radicalization of young men into organizations like ISIL in Iraq. People like Fatima and Yeny are the cornerstone to creating a better world and they need to be supported!

Join us in welcoming and supporting Fatima and Yeny into the Tanenbaum community on Thursday, June 3 at our 2021 Peace Made Possible Gala. Click here for our Gala webpage with ticket and sponsorship info. I look forward to seeing you there!

With my warmest regards,

Rev. Mark Fowler
CEO, Tanenbaum


 

Introducing Another Honoree!

Former Muslim supremacist Mubin Shaikh, former white supremacist Arno Michaelis, former Tanenbaum CEO, Joyce Dubensky and Seeds of Peace Program Director, Kiran Thadhani come together for a Courageous Conversation supported by Nissan Foundation on the power of dialogue to pull people away from extremism and towards respect.

Dear Friends,

We are so pleased to announce that Nissan Foundation will be the recipient of Tanenbaum’s Philanthropic Bridge Builder Award at this year’s Gala!

This award is given to organizations lifting up the non-profit sector through social change. Since its founding in 1992 to help bridge the deep societal divides brought to light after the Rodney King trial verdict, Nissan Foundation has been an exceptional leader in philanthropy, awarding more than $12 million to organizations working to build community by valuing diversity.

Students at Queens Community House learn about Chinese calligraphy through a project supported by Nissan Foundation that used Tanenbaum’s World Olympics curriculum to teach students the value of diversity.

Nissan Foundation has been a critical Tanenbaum partner in promoting justice and building respect for religious difference since 2013. Together, we have impacted thousands of students, educators and community leaders with needed resources for diversity, including our Combating Extremism campaign and World Olympics curriculum. We would not be as successful as we have been without Nissan Foundation’s help, so join us in celebrating their accomplishments on June 3rd!

Click here for our Gala webpage with ticket and sponsorship info. I look forward to seeing you there!

With my warmest regards,

Rev. Mark Fowler
CEO, Tanenbaum

 


 

Meet our Newest Peacemakers in Action

Tanenbaum Peacemakers in Action Yeny Nolasco Quijada (El Salvador) and Fatima al-Bahadly (Iraq)

Dear Friends,

Amid the darkness that overtakes our newsfeeds, we’re here to celebrate two bright lights who work tirelessly for peace and embody what it means to be a Peacemaker in Action.

This International Women’s Day, meet our 2020 Peacemakers in Action awardees. They are two religiously-motivated peace actors in two conflict zones: El Salvador’s Yeny Nolasco Quijada, a Catholic woman with deep connections to the Mayan Cosmovision and Iraq’s Fatima al-Bahadly, a Muslim woman deeply embedded within her community.

Both exemplify peace. Both are driven by their faith. Both risk their lives for the chance of peace in the world’s worst conflicts. They join a Network of 30 equally motivated Peacemakers in Action.

Yeny, a Catholic woman with deep connections to the Mayan Cosmovision, works to reduce the influence of criminal organizations in her home country of El Salvador, adopting preventative measures aimed at providing alternatives to gang recruitment. Additionally, she forges partnerships within her community to address issues such as police violence. Fatima, a Muslim woman from Iraq, defies extremists by working with families displaced due to ISIS, educating marginalized women and girls, building community cohesion between Iraq’s minority groups, and de-radicalizing young men by visiting communities and providing basic needs and alternatives to joining groups like ISIS.

Both face threats, yet they persist, improving the lives of those with whom they work. We look forward to the future Peacemaker in Action Interventions they will create with lasting impact.

Join me in welcoming Yeny and Fatima to the Peacemakers in Action Network!

Rev. Mark Fowler
CEO, Tanenbaum

P.S. Celebrate Women’s History Month today by honoring Yeny and Fatima. Click here to join us at our 2021 Gala.

 


 

No More Surprises

Dear Tanenbaum Community –

Crosses, Shofars, and Christian flags were carried into the halls of Congress yesterday, as we witnessed Christian white supremacy at its purest and most dangerous. So what does it mean when the followers of someone who preached about “turning the other cheek” and “loving thy neighbor” stage an armed coup of an entire branch of government to disrupt the democratic process?

Many are “stunned” and “shocked” at the events which unfolded on the steps and in the halls of our Capitol yesterday, but we need to stop being surprised that white supremacists are among the most violent elements in America, so we can actually address and end the brutality.

While Christianity itself is not reducible to what happened yesterday in the nation’s capital, this invasion does add a chapter to the history of white Christian supremacy in the United States. Many faith leaders from around the world condemned these events and called for an end to the violence. However, this display of white power, and cultural and religious misappropriation is not without precedent. These practices have histories rooted in this country’s founding.

If we want to create a world that promotes justice and builds respect for all people, including those whose religious beliefs differ from our own, then we have to understand where these tactics come from, how they function, and why they still exist.

Below are resources to help better understand the ways in which white Christian privilege is impacting the ongoing events of the day:

Privilege, Race and Religion Tanenbaum Webinar Series

  • Mark Fowler with Dr. Khyati Joshi: Professor of education at Fairleigh Dickinson University, discusses Christian privilege, normativity, and hegemony in the United States.
  • Mark Fowler with Robert P. Jones: Ph.D., CEO and Founder, Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) explores the relationship between American Christianity and white supremacy. Drawing on compelling historical analysis and Dr. Jones’ own research, this conversation illustrates the ways in which the long and fraught intersection of race and religion in the U.S. continues to shape the present.

White Supremacy: An Overview: A comprehensive fact sheet about the varied white supremacist movements and groups.

Religious & Spiritual Approaches to Anti-Racism: Religious and spiritual communities are actively engaged in anti-racism work. This fact sheet highlights organizations and initiatives working to move the needle toward justice.

We have to interrogate the structures that maintain white Christian supremacy in our houses of worship, in our schools, in our communities, in our homes, in our workplaces, in our health care systems, and most importantly, in ourselves. Our democracy needs us not to be surprised by the events of yesterday.

In solidarity,

Rev. Mark Fowler

 


Photo Credit: Win Mcnamee- Getty Images

Remembering 9/11…Accurately

Dear Tanenbaum Community,

Today is the 19th Anniversary of September 11, and while the death and destruction of that day will never be forgotten, the story we tell about those events, the motivations of the perpetrators, the ongoing trauma of the victims of that day is already diluted.

According to the FBI, hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims multiplied by 1,600% from 2000 to 2001. And in just the first weeks and months after 9/11, human rights organizations documented hundreds of violent incidents experienced by Arab and Muslim Americans and people mistaken for Arabs or Muslims – like the murder of Sikh gas station owner just days later. This information is juxtaposed against the reality that in the last two-decades, far-right terrorism significantly outpaced other types of terrorism, including from far-left networks and individuals inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. And in the U.S. itself, more people are killed by far-right extremists than by those who are adherents to Islamist extremism.

Yet discriminatory acts against religious minorities stemming from misinformed stereotypes persist. In whatever way you reflect on the events of 9/11/2001, we invite you to remember this day in a way that does not conflate an entire religion with the tragic events of 9/11, and offer some resources for your consideration, so we may truly never forget what happened.

Read:

Watch:

Act:

There is much to repair, much to learn, and so much growth for all of us to move toward a humanity that respects all life.

In remembrance,

Rev. Mark Fowler
CEO, Tanenbaum

 


 

Earth & the Divine Webinar

There’s Work to Do

Dear Tanenbaum Community,

I wasn’t sure what my first communication would be to you as CEO, but I never envisioned that first communication would be addressing this issue. I, like many of you, have been of mixed emotions since the suffocating death of George Floyd. I have moved from shock, to anger, to rage, and now to fear. For I know that no accomplishment I have achieved can shield me fully from meeting the same fate as Mr. Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless others. That is unfortunately the result of a system of oppression so insidious we can barely see it operating.

Around the country, faith leaders are offering aid to demonstrators who have taken to the streets to decry racism and police brutality. Churches are providing sanctuary, mosques are providing medics for activists, and temples are providing trauma-informed counseling. While the fingerprint of religious traditions’ role on the creation and sustaining of systems of inequity remains, many of those same traditions, and others, are doing the hard work to end racism.

As you process through your own emotions during this time of trouble and transformation, know that there are actions you can take:

  1. Identify what is yours to do. Each of us can do something to contribute to the actions necessary to bring about a world where no person can lose their lives because of their racial background.
  2. Work with others. Religious and spiritual communities are actively engaged in anti-racism work. This fact sheet highlights organizations and initiatives working to move the needle toward justice.
  3. Educate yourself about White Supremacy. Supremacy is not just a way people identify their values, it is a structural concept that is at the core of racial oppression.

Every single person is impacted by inequitable dynamics of power and when we work to lift the veil, heal from our past, and commit to making moves towards changes in structural dynamics, we lift everyone up.

As we fight for justice, we stand with millions of people across the country who are rightfully outraged, but condemnation and outrage is not enough.

Tanenbaum is committed to working with our supporters and our partner organizations to combat hate and extremism, and stand with community members directly impacted by oppressive systems. A world where religious differences are respected is also a world where racial differences are respected.

In solidarity,

Rev. Mark E. Fowler
CEO, Tanenbaum

 


 

Learning is the Most Important Process in a Human Life

Guest blog post by Arno Michaelis, author of My Life After Hate/co-author of The Gift of Our Wounds


I’ve learned a lot in my 49 years. I spent 7 years of my life leading and organizing white nationalist hate groups, before brave people who I claimed to hate lead me to a better place. Another 7 years in the rave counterculture, shaking my ass to house music in an environment that was the polar-opposite of hate and violence. Then, on the MLK Holiday of 2020, I celebrated a decade of working internationally in the peace building and counter-violent extremism sphere, preventing and intervening in violent extremism of every sort. Today it is my personal mission to bring about a society where all people are valued and included.

Here are some things I’ve learned that I feel are important to understand during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Human beings have been conditioned to narrow our minds to binary thinking in response to trauma. This is an evolved trait that for the bulk of our 200,000 years of existence has enabled us to survive. When early Homo sapiens were faced with a saber-toothed tiger, we had to recognize the threat and conceive an escape plan instantly. Spending even a moment in contemplation meant we’d end up as dinner.

Today, we live in an exponentially different world, yet we retain the same survival instincts. While physical threats are certainly still a thing, our struggle for survival is no longer simply trying to avoid being eaten by large predators. And for billions of people, our struggle for survival is no longer simply about finding food and shelter. The fact is that up until society was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, we just weren’t struggling like we used to. We didn’t have to, thanks to modern advances in agriculture, economy, and technology.

Now, with worldwide shelter-at-home orders in effect, massive, sudden unemployment, and the grim toll of the COVID-19 virus itself, our survival struggle is once again front and center. We are all suffering because of the pandemic, in one way or another.

As noted above, when people suffer, they instinctively seek binary answers: yes/no, black/white, good/evil, etc. They seek certainty. And binary answers are the raw material of all violent extremist narratives. Variations of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” are common to the rhetoric of every form of religious and political extremism, as are stories of oppression and feelings of victimhood. We want to believe that we’re with the good guys, and that we’re fighting against the bad guys. When our respective lived experiences lead us to feel an affinity towards a particular identity or ideology—essentially, a story—unprocessed suffering can lead us a step further to hate those who lack that affinity.

In the society we all took for granted not too long ago, most people had healthy ways to process their trauma: faith, music, art, sport, hobbies, academics, etc. Every person who was able to process their suffering, in whatever way was their jam, became someone who wasn’t going to transfer the hurt to someone else.

Because of the pandemic, conventional means of coping are no longer an option. Now, if we’re not working in a field deemed “essential”, most of us have nothing to do but sit at home, connected to a global information system that we rely on to communicate, order groceries, and somehow keep ourselves entertained. That same system is also really good at producing echo chambers.

All violent extremist narratives are interdependent. The far-Right requires a far-Left for the ideology to function, and vice-versa. Violent Islamists exist in symbiosis with Islamophobes. Extremist beliefs are so dependent on their perceived opposition that at least as much time and energy is spent defining the out-group as is defining the in-group. As we all suffer through the pandemic, it’s all too easy to willfully forget that we’re all suffering together, and convince ourselves that there’s an ominous bad guy behind COVID-19. In this way, self-organized groups of people convince themselves that their version of the story is reality, affirm and validate each other, and then galvanize and separate themselves from those on the other political or religious pole—extremists who are equally convinced of their own version of reality.

This is how and why extremist ideologies flourish during times of great struggle. Because life has suddenly become hard, it becomes easy to regress to binary thinking that feeds violent extremism, directly or indirectly. The upheaval of the certainty that once ensured our survival can lead us to our doom today.

In order to transcend the lure of such extreme convictions and certainty, we must intentionally work to see ourselves in others, and to see others in ourselves—especially when who they are, or how they think, falls outside of our perceived in-group. Failing to do so feeds violent extremism.

Which is why we must direct our energy towards healing, and connection, rather than tripling-down on our political beliefs. Faith in the basic, primal goodness of humanity is the soil that nourishes our finest evolved qualities: kindness, compassion, courage, forgiveness, and love.

Today, more than ever, we need these noble aspects of our human experience in order to process our individual and collective trauma in a healthy way, just as we need to wash our hands, wear masks, and isolate ourselves to stop the spread of COVID-19.

We have the power to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic more enlightened, more connected, and more able to progress towards a society where all are valued and included. Or we can spiral downwards in a might-makes-right mess of separatism and strife.

Engaging with our faith and our love, choosing to listen and learn rather than dictate and dominate, is what will make the difference.

by Arno Michaelis
Author of My Life After Hate/co-author of The Gift of Our Wounds