Voices for Peace: A Conference for Prayerful Activists

Years ago, before I came to work for CPJ, I was asked to review a book for The Catalyst. The tome was entitled, “Rabble-Rouser for Peace,” a biography written about South African Desmond Tutu. What impressed me to this day is not any one specific incident (among many) in which the great religious leader made an imprint on history. Rather, what stays with me was realizing how much time, every day, the Anglican Archbishop spent in prayer. His relentless activism and leadership – as well as the overwhelming challenges, criticisms, and controversies stirred up by his witness in the battle against apartheid – could not be sustained without hours spent in contemplation.

Who can continue effective activism forever – without stopping, taking stock, recharging one’s emotional and spiritual batteries, and counting on true, engaged friends and mentors for support?

At Voices for Peace, a conference in Toronto on Saturday, April 28, over 120 participants took advantage of opportunities to re-charge and refocus. The conference (sponsored by CPJ, The Henri Nouwen Society, (Anglican) Church of the Redeemer, and the Basilian Centre for Peace and Justice) provided a healthy and invigorating mix of energy and reflection.

“Prayerful activism” was explored among Indigenous people opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US (in the Canadian preview of a short documentary film), in groups pressuring Canada to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia (Sonal Marwah of Project Ploughshares), with Canadians pressing the Trudeau government to join the treaty banning nuclear weapons (Rob Acheson of Science for Peace), and with peacemakers confronting the Israeli army in Palestine (Rachelle Friesen of Christian Peacemaker Teams).

Morning breakout sessions offered grounding in nurturing the peacemaker within. Sr. Mary-Ellen Francoeur’s group rooted peacemaking activism in contemplative practice. Ken Herfst (a professor at Redeemer University) asked participants to “dare to dream with eyes wide open.” And Fr. Bob Holmes offered suggestions on how to disarm our own hearts – as well as those of the oppressor, based on real experiences of Christian Peacemaker Teams in the Holy Land.

Two of the conference’s keynote sessions were offered by Amsterdam-based writer, Jim Forest. His books include writings on some of the major American religious peace activists: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and most recently, Daniel Berrigan. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, Forest later served as General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and is now a communicant in the Orthodox Church (indulging his obvious enchantment with all we can learn from contemplating religious icons.)

Forest understands that peacemaking is “always a work in progress,” but also that unique roles are played by an expanded circle of activists who display varied backgrounds and temperaments. Not every peacemaker must be arrested for civil disobedience at protests, for example. Forest’s enduring claim to fame, in my mind, is that he was the recipient of many letters from the contemplative Thomas Merton (not himself a front-line protestor on most occasions), and in particular, a communication from Merton now widely known as the “Letter to a Young Activist.” Merton consoled the frustrated young man who could not see how any action could end the American War in Vietnam, essentially arguing that our commitment to peace does not rest on signs of obvious and initial success. Rather, the monk famously concluded, “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”

Here lies the tension all peacemakers and public justice advocates must face. We must disarm and decolonize our own hearts if we are to become truly effective in reaching out to others. While we must always confront the sources of evil in the world, it is crucial to employ social analysis, allowing us to understand how systems are failing to be just, even as they sometimes involve people who are striving to be good. For real change to take place, the point is not to bring the oppressor to his knees, but to his senses.

Juno-Award-winning Shad Kabango, perhaps best known for hosting CBC radio’s flagship arts and culture show “q”, delivered a similar message directed to newer generations. His favoured métier, hip hop, speaks a “language of the underside” and can especially connect with people there. For Shad, a song “doesn’t feel real unless I have some skin in the game…unless I take some risks, it just doesn’t communicate.” Vulnerability as a privileged entry-way into art comes second nature to a 35-year-old born in Kenya of parents who had fled the genocide in Rwanda and grew up as a black man in Canada.

Voices for Peace may become an annual event, if enough people conclude with the organizers that changing history must begin with changing ourselves, and if this formula of bringing art, activism and contemplation together can aspire new generations to deepen our commitments to justice.

Photo: Shad speaks at Voices for Peace. Credit: The Henri Nouwen Society.


  • Joe served as Executive Director at CPJ from 2008 to 2019.

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