Really tough social change requires more persistence and patience than most of us will ever have, yet these challenges offer great wisdom for change leaders in all situations.
This weekend I attended Ecumenical Advocacy Days, and while my beliefs might predispose me to be a member of this tribe, I attended as a newcomer to this national gathering of faith-based activists. As these passionate people advocated for peace and nonviolence to counter gun violence, civil wars, environmental destruction, and poverty, I watched the means they used to pursue their ends. The conference was very instructive and inspiring—a real revival for the faithful-- and full of great teaching for change leaders everywhere.
Most compelling were the stories. Our hearts have to commit before we act. How can anyone object to efforts to stop illegal guns after hearing Movita Johnson, founder of the Charles Foundation, recount the murder of her 18-year-old son? Or doubt that small organizations can become very big actors on a global scale after listening to Rev. Chip Jahn, a United Church of Christ pastor in rural southern Indiana, talk about how his churches became advocates on the frontlines of peacemaking and reconciliation in Sri Lanka?
Heroes are essential, too. Speakers invoked the wisdom of Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and others many times. Their lives and their words challenged us to confront injustice and see the possibility of a different vision for our world.
And yes, vision expressed in the form of written policy statements can be powerful. Instead of acting as if our only response to global conflict must be a military solution, the American Friends Service Committee put forth a vision of shared security as an alternative vision for U.S. foreign policy. And the World Council of Churches in November 2013 issued a statement on the way of just peace. Both documents are excellent examples of crafting statements of shared vision to draw other organizations into change initiatives.
When confronting all that is broken in the world, it is easy to become discouraged, so wise change leaders offer glimmers of hope. Dr. Maryann Cusimano Love, international relations professor at Catholic University, did this well. She opened her plenary presentation with the assurance that peace is breaking out around the world. Major armed conflicts are down by more than half in the last decade and there have been no major power wars since WWII. She backed this up with inspiring stories of courageous women leading peace and reconciliation in Liberia, Republic of the Congo, and Uganda.
In these places where generations have not known peace, Love said, the religious imagination offers a vision of right relationship. In difficult change challenges, we do need images of how very different our world could be—especially if we have never experienced anything like what we seek.
When change leaders are in right relationship with others, they create trust and open up possibilities where none have existed. As Jahn said of his rural congregation’s many diverse experiences in peacemaking, “We are in relationship and things just happen.” It often is ordinary people in local communities who are in right relationship with one another that are able to discover they have a shared interest in change. In a volatile world where new conflicts and inequities emerge almost daily, these relationships are the best hope and foundation for sustainable social change and peace.