A Discussion with Canon Sarah Snyder, Rose Castle, United Kingdom
February 22, 2020
Background: The challenge of reconciliation is at the heart of efforts to end conflicts in many corners of the world. Canon Sarah Snyder’s mission is to link faith purposefully to reconciliation, working especially to address bitter, often lengthy and deep-seated conflicts. She has played a central role in founding and leading the Rose Castle Foundation in the north of England, a haven where reconciliation efforts focus on those most affected by conflict. In this conversation conducted at the Berkley Center, Sarah Snyder and Katherine Marshall reflected on Snyder’s path, current work, and hopes for the future. The discussion touched on different chapters of a remarkable life adventure that has combined anthropology, politics, and theology, as well as intense immersion in conflicts as diverse as those in the Sahel, Nigeria, South Sudan, Pakistan, the Middle East ,and Israel/Palestine. Sarah Snyder highlights the mission of Rose Castle and its distinctive approach to welcome, reconciliation, developing networks, and honest faith-inspired approaches to narratives about conflict and paths towards peace. She also comments on her recent experience in the United States and on what currently polarizes this nation.
“What I've noticed here in America from all the audiences is an absolute hunger for tools to begin to speak to people across divides. And what I see in America probably more than I thought is a polarized society: much more polarized than Britain. I think it's because the polarization appears to be more visceral here.”
Your life has a fascinating series of “chapters” with very different experiences. Let’s begin at the beginning in exploring how you came to where you are now! I know you were born and grew up in Bermuda. How did that come about?
My parents were both preparing for China Inland Mission but were redirected to Bermuda, where my siblings and I were born and raised. Dad had a law degree, Mum had a nursing degree, and there was a sense that Bermuda needed Christian professionals at the time.
We were in Bermuda during a troubled time, with raw racial tensions. One searing event was the murder of the governor. I was affected quite strongly by what was happening during the period and the ways in which my father was directly involved. Three Bermudian young people were accused of that murder and placed on death row. Dad never saw being a lawyer as a way to make money: he was a very faith-inspired man who sought to uphold justice and to speak the truth on behalf of those he felt were being misunderstood. He wanted that for those three youths and believed some of them were innocent of this murder; hence he was representing them.
I sat in court and listened to the whole of this process as a young child. I think what that taught me was that sometimes we are called to give a voice to those who are voiceless. At other times we're just called to sit amongst those who are struggling or are suffering. And sometimes we're the ones who are suffering and need somebody else to champion us. So in all those ways, growing up, I was given a special privilege of experiencing the different sides of conflict.
When I left Bermuda, and before university, I went to work in Kenya for Tearfund. That was a time of severe famine, and our television screens gave the impression that the West was rescuing Africa by putting our pennies in those wooden bowls to help alleviate suffering and hunger (do you remember that?). Actually, Kenyans were teaching me far more, about faith, about prayer, about community life, about respect for the elderly, about fun, about multicultural diversity, about even the dignity of being a woman. All those things I learned from the Kenyan friends that I lived with.
When I worked in the Rift Valley with the Maasai, it threw open a whole new lens as to how I understood my faith. I was quite literally winding one of those old tape machines, playing hymns that I knew but in Maasai. We'd be sitting inside the round grass huts with all the smoke going up through the little hole in the roof. It was a radically different vision of what Christ meant when he talked about the Gospel. All I had seen up to that moment was a kind of white, evangelical-led doctrinal theology. I suppose that had not sat comfortably in Bermuda, and it definitely didn't sit comfortably in Kenya.
Because I wanted to go and work in Africa. I was very young and very naïve, and I went all on my own. I'd applied to be a volunteer with TearFund, but I think deep down I wanted to work in a dominantly black community. I had been growing in a community that was numerically predominantly black, but that dominance was very much not the case in terms of power. I really wanted to experience that imbalance more and to challenge it.
And then I went to university to study anthropology and archaeology. It was, I think, more the anthropology than archaeology that inspired me to really understand what it means to step into the shoes of people who are different from myself, and to really try and see the world through their eyes.
That was Cambridge?
Yes, that was Cambridge. I met my now husband, John, in the first term I was there. He had spent a year working in Darfur in Sudan. He too had seen many really challenging situations and had asked lots and lots of questions about faith. So we met around all these questions. We also met in a context where everybody around us was often partying and having fun, while we were trying to process a year that had been quite different from many others’. We went through Cambridge together, leading various charitable expeditions during the long university summers, including to Peru, Bolivia, and Chile in support of Intermediate Technology, who were developing contextually appropriate cooking methods to save fuel. That included a world record cycling summit of El Misti, at nearly 20,000 feet.
We came out the other end during Live Aid. Again, there were more images of the wonderful West saving those in need. And again, we just felt that wasn't right. It wasn't a balanced view. John set up a project with European Union (EU) funding that aimed to demonstrate the other side of life to European school children. It was a multimedia project that would demonstrate the multiplicity of life in Africa, not just a monochrome picture of starving people.
We drove across Algeria to northern Mali, in the Sahara Desert. With 66 people groups, all interacting, it was a perfect example of multiculturalism, with different communities depending on each other mutually. We were actually mostly living with the Tuareg, who are nomadic and Muslim. That was my first deep exposure to a Muslim people who are so prayerful that I began to question the way in which my own community prayed and took seriously the day by day living out and sharing of our faiths.
We would, literally, wake up in the morning to the sound of the children learning the Quran, and we observed the prayers through the day. I spent my days in the women's tent, learning from the women, seeing how they watched and made fun of the men in really humorous ways. Even things like going to the toilet, where you just dug a hole, spread out your cloak or cloth, and sat over the hole. The men never knew whether you were actually going to the toilet or just watching the world go by. We learned many little things like that, and the Tuareg taught us so much about living in a fragile environment. We recorded it all, with 50,000 photographs, hundreds of hours of moving film, sound, and interviews, all for the project for school children.
The way in which the Tuareg were treated during that time also took us both into a place of mediation. We asked and learned what it means to stand in the middle of different communities who are in conflict (in this case the Malian government and the Tuareg people, or the pastoralists and agriculturalists).
What year was that?
1989 and 1990. It was of course the year when Mandela came out of prison. We were literally up a sand dune trying to get a radio signal, hearing about Mandela walking out and then the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was such an extraordinary year, and we were hearing all this through the lens of being with the Tuareg.
Why did you pick the Tuareg? A remarkable focus and experience!
The Tuareg live in one of the most multicultural regions of Africa, which was also the most unlikely region to host so many people groups because of its fragility. Their neighbors included the Fulani pastoralists, Songhai and Dogon farmers, and the Bozo fishermen on the River Niger. With all these different groups, we were interested in what happens when they connect, particularly in the marketplace. We spent a lot of time watching the interactions: not just physical, material interactions, but how they greeted each other, how they respected each other, traded with and mutually depended on one another, where there was conflict (though when we were there, there wasn't a great deal of violent conflict), how they treated each other within their communities, how they treated the elderly, and children. What did it mean for a girl to marry in those contexts? What it meant for a person to feel they had dignity, and how people dealt with trauma. The death rate of newborn babies was high, and we saw how they supported each other. Every time something like that happened, others would gather around and lament, a process of lament and crying out, "Why, God, why?" We were watching all of that and seeing how it played out in a communal and an intercommunal context.
Which languages did you learn?
French. We learned some Tamashek and a little bit of Fulani, but we spoke in French and had local interpreters for the other languages.
And so, what next?
We left Mali abruptly during a coup in 1991, when I was pregnant with our first child, bumping our way off road through Burkina Faso and Togo. On return to Cambridge, I decided I really wanted to understand the Muslim world through the prism of mediation and peacebuilding.
That focus was already clear to you?
Yes. I had seen how prayerfully the Tuareg and others responded to the coup. They didn't just pick up weapons and fight back. They had a bigger heart, a bigger picture, and I was intrigued as to what the motivation for that was, where it came from. I knew it was Quranic, and they were constantly referencing faith and tradition. But I knew it was more than that as well, because of their prayerfulness.
So when we came back to Cambridge, I went back to university, and I studied Islam and then an M.Phil. in world religions. I looked particularly at Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and the hermeneutics between the three.
While I was in Cambridge, I supported a process called "Scriptural Reasoning," where Jews, Christians, and Muslims each read their own sacred texts together, addressing an issue of shared concern. I became more and more involved in that process and it became the lens through which I was reading the Bible. I always had voices and questions of Jewish and Muslim colleagues in my head as I was reading. We started the Cambridge Interfaith Program around that time, led by Professor David Ford. That really took scriptural reasoning beyond the university and into communities, into prisons and schools and hospitals and neighborhoods and situations of violent conflict, too. We were trying to look at how people turned back to scripture for peaceful solutions to conflict, not just for violence – to shift the focus away from justifying violence through the text, towards identifying resources for peacebuilding within our sacred texts.
That program took me all over the world: to the Gulf, the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Asia. The central motivation was to find ways in which our sacred traditions can help us to find that space in the middle, to encounter each other in ways that are not going to deface and dehumanize, but respect and show dignity for one another as people of faith. Even if we are different people of faith, we're coming together for God's sake, not just for our own sake. And that “for God's sake” bit was really, really important to me.
That led me to look at what the church has to offer in these spaces. As an anthropologist, I always felt that it is important to be explicit about who we are. So if I was in a context, coming from a Christian heart, I wanted to be honest about that and yet I also deeply, deeply wanted to understand what it was like to be coming from a Muslim heart or a Jewish heart or subsequently from a Hindu heart or a Buddhist heart, and, in China, from a Confucianist heart, and so on.
In some spaces, particularly here in America, we had atheists who said, "We want to join this table. We too have formative texts that shape who we are, whether it's a Marxist manifesto or whether it's the Bible.” Many of these people grew up in a context of biblical teaching even if they reject the Bible as scripture. Thus the lens of scriptural reasoning became the DNA of how I saw conflict and conflict transformation. And that was different from many who had studied conflict transformation.
Is there one situation that stands out where these insights played out?
There are so many. To take one example, we were in Israel, just across the border from Gaza, at a water desalination plant. The issue at hand was that there was a disparity between the amount of water going into Gaza per head and the amount going into Israel. The answer to that had been, "Well, the Israelis use more water. They have showers and washing machines and things. They use more water so therefore they need more water." We decided to run a scriptural reasoning on water there. We had imams, rabbis, and Christian clergy. I chose the text of Moses hitting the rock and getting water. What was profound about that encounter was first, that we had Palestinians and Israelis meeting together in the same space, hearing from one another's reading of scripture and respectfully listening to each other. That was transformative. Second, we began to question: Who is the source of water? What is water for? What is the dignity of our use of water in our differing contexts? And there was a gradual realization that of course it's not about the final destination of water, it's about the supplier of water, God himself, and what he longs for in terms of that water reaching the people who need it. And a shift happened, with the Palestinians, particularly those from Gaza, sharing, "For us water is most important for feeding our crops, particularly our fruit trees. If we don't have water the fruit doesn't grow." And the Israelis understood that, as they too have the same need for water, without salt, to feed their crops. It was one of those beautiful moments. There wasn't a change in water policy, but there was a change in common understanding of why water was needed on both sides, and ultimately that led to a change in the amount of water that was being diverted into Gaza from that particular desalination plant.
Another example is in a women’s prison, in Britain, where the women were mostly in for long-term sentences, often resulting from the murder of a loved one in the home as a result of domestic abuse. These women were not, in my view, a danger to society. They were traumatized women. And they included mother-daughter combos in the prison because they had both conspired to kill the person responsible for their trauma. I chose for one of my sessions with them the short Genesis reading of being made in the image of God. One of the women in the front began to cry, to rock and weep, and then her weeping turned to absolute gushing tears. My mother heart did what I wasn't meant to do; I moved to sit next to her, and I put my arm around her shoulders. And she leaned into me. She wanted to be held so I put my other arm around her shoulders. The prison warders were there, and the lead warder was fetched to see what would happen. But what happened was that every prisoner in that room wanted to be held. It was a simple gesture on my part, but an instinctive one. It was something that was public, and we had plenty of people in the room to watch over us. These are women who haven't been held safely and yet were hearing that they are made in the image of God, they are loved by God, and they just wanted to experience that as something concrete; in their case, concrete was a hug. I was there with that group every week, along with the Muslim chaplain, and the group grew and grew as a community of support to one another. They weren't coming so much for the scriptural study; they came simply for the sense of fellowship, for the space that they experienced to be who they are. They weren't a label or a number in that space.
I had no idea what any of them were particularly in prison for. All I knew was that they were all long-term prisoners. But in this case their experience of the love of God came through a very short scriptural text and a very concrete action that emerged from that.
And meanwhile you had four children?
Yes, four children, and I was juggling a Ph.D. and childcare and working for the Cambridge Interfaith Program, all at the same time. The joy was going away camping every holiday with the children. We'd go up to the Lake District with no mobile phone signal and no contact with the outside world for about three weeks. That was the best kind of rest.
During this period, I also trained as a commercial mediator, in order to practice mediation in civil disputes and in commercial disputes. I then applied a lot of that learning in the faith space. I have spent years since then applying that work, more and more seeing that the faith-based mediation role can be very significant.
And the next chapter? Was that the beginning of Rose Castle?
We moved away from Cambridge after 21 years or so, to the Lake District. We moved partly because it was getting very expensive living in Cambridge, partly because my husband was starting a new business so not earning much at the time, and partly because my grandparents had lived up there and we'd got a real heart for the rural ministry that he was part of.
Unbeknownst to us, the very week we were moving, Rose Castle became empty. Rose Castle had been home to the bishops of the northwest for 800 years. They had been Roman Catholic up until the Reformation, after which they were Protestant. But the church had decided after 800 years that it was too expensive to maintain a castle. The then-bishop asked me, almost in passing, what I would do with the empty castle. I rather flippantly answered, having worked in the Cambridge Interfaith Program and in mediating conflict in Britain but also in the Middle East and other parts of the world, "Well, given that the castle was built to withstand the enemy, who were usually the Scots, and given that it's been a house of prayer for 800 years, why don't we reopen its doors as a house of prayer that seeks to unite enemies instead of repel them?" The wise bishop said, "That's a great idea. Can you make it happen?"
So I set about trying to make that happen. It was fraught with difficulty. I found three donors who were willing to buy the castle on our behalf. The church wanted to sell it, but they turned down all three donors for different reasons. We were eventually able to buy it, but that took over five years.
During that period, I went to work at Religions for Peace (RfP) in New York. My youngest was getting to an age where he didn't need me at home so much and my husband was working in America a lot, so it made sense for us to be there. I became the director of partnerships for Religions for Peace and also coordinated the Women of Peace network. I was passionate about working with women for peace and about the youth engagement. Both parts of RfP needed nurturing, and I did a lot of work trying to re-engage the women and the youth. I also learned how the United Nations engages in conflict zones through the prism of faith and the work of faith leaders. My mediation skills came to the fore in terms of the work that we were doing, particularly where faith-based mediation was required to support church and other faith leaders in situations of conflict. That was a significant chapter of engagement overseas.
While you were at Religions for Peace, what was interesting and significant in interfaith matters?
That was a time when religion was beginning to come a bit more under the spotlight, not so much for its responsibility for violence, which had been the dominant motif as far as many were concerned, but more for the potential of religious actors to serve as peacebuilders. I'd been working in that space for about 20 years by then and had not seen deep interest among governments or the UN to engage religious leaders in their peacebuilding efforts. It was the time when Islamic extremism had raised its head, with Al-Qaeda and then ISIS. What that did in part was to focus government, NGO, and other political leaders on the dangers of ignoring religious leaders, and also on the fact that only religious leaders can authentically speak into religious motivations for violence or for peace.
Through the Cambridge Interfaith Program, I had been working all this time with religious leaders and religious traditions as a source for peacebuilding, but I had not seen much take-up by policymakers and politicians throughout that time. But then I really saw this shift. Religious leaders and actors, and faith-based mediators, were finally recognized as crucial pieces of the peace puzzle. This was a large and very welcome move. The U.S. State Department also developed a new initiative engaging religious leaders in peacebuilding. The question all around was: how do we make sure we're not instrumentalizing people of faith? My own passion was to work particularly with more conservative faith leaders who weren't normally at peacebuilding tables and yet whose understanding of tradition and of the scriptures was often profound, and who have a huge potential influence for good.
Were there particular places or people that stand out?
Iraq was looming large at the time. Through our programs we knew there were conservative practitioners in Iraq who had great influence over their communities as clergy or as Islamic peacebuilders who were being overlooked by others who were working in the Iraqi context, particularly political officers. Many of the latter spoke a secular language that seemed to miss those motivated by religious worldviews, who were the majority. Secular language didn't make sense to them and often seemed very alien, so they were less likely to engage. What I witnessed, and was part of during that time, was a bridging between the secular and the sacred languages – what that looked like in practice, and how important it was to be able to do that in meaningful ways.
Which parts of the UN were the most involved with the mediation support?
The Mediation Support Unit was the area where I saw the most significant interventions. The Office of Genocide Prevention was also doing a huge amount of work.
In the midst of this work, I had a phone call from the Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury asking if I would apply to be his advisor for reconciliation. That took me completely by surprise.
Was that a new position at Lambeth Palace at the time?
Yes. It was a new position because the current archbishop had made reconciliation his top priority, alongside prayer and evangelism. After some thought and a lot of prayer, I did apply for that job and was appointed. So I moved from Religions for Peace to Lambeth Palace.
The work there primarily involved supporting the church in situations of conflict overseas. In addition to that I brought a passion for equipping the next generation for reconciliation and supporting women, particularly the wives of senior religious clergy. In many situations of violent conflict, the clergy are men, and their wives are catapulted into a very senior position of responsibility with very little training or preparation. And nobody affirms or supports them. Nobody says, "Well done." Yet those women are usually the first to spot rising tension in their communities. They act to defuse tensions day in and day out. They're looking after the victims of conflict, and they are themselves the victims of conflict, so they're often acting as traumatized reconcilers. I really wanted to support and affirm those women in ways where I thought the church at large could do more. I did that with an international team of senior women at Lambeth, including Archbishop Justin's wife, Caroline Welby; Comfort Fearon, wife of the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, Josiah Idowu-Fearon; Jane Poggo, married to Bishop Anthony Poggo from South Sudan, who leads the Archbishop’s Anglican Communion engagement; Karen Lewis and Fiona Ruttle, both gifted artists and peacebuilders. When invited by in-country primates, we accepted the invitation to support the wives of senior leaders. The idea of this program, Women on the Frontline, was to affirm and equip bishops’ wives to go back to their dioceses and work with clergy wives who could then in turn work with women in their communities.
Working at Lambeth, the thing that struck me more than anything else was the power of faith networks. Wherever there is conflict, there are faith leaders on the ground, and there are communities of faith practitioners. South Sudan is a good example, where I spent a lot of time working. The UN acknowledged that there were large parts of South Sudan inaccessible to peace-keeping forces, but still under the influence of their faith leaders, who remain with their people before, during, and after conflict. Where you have a hierarchical network as you do with the Roman Catholic Church or the Anglican Church, you also, at its best, have a really good communication system. You can speak to an archbishop who can speak to bishops who can speak to clergy who can speak to communities; likewise through the women all the way down that line. Often the archbishop and some of the bishops are closely connected to the government. That can be good or bad, depending on the people and the country. In South Sudan, for example, it became apparent that it wasn't always healthy. But the South Sudan Council of Churches were really effective, working ecumenically with the Presbyterians, the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and other denominations in-country and beyond.
When you speak of "communities of faith," what do you mean? People who are from different denominations or different traditions but who find a link?
A "community of faith" is any community that has a faith leader on the ground. So it could be a Muslim community, it could be a church community, it could be any community. And I suppose what I mean by peacebuilding communities of faith is that their leader has respect and influence, that their leader has reach (he [or she, in some cases] is able to reach parts of that community that nobody else is able to reach); and because they are deeply immersed in the wider culture and tradition of that community, their leader is able to speak the language of those people. If we can work with those leaders, male and female, to understand the motivation for peace in their context, they are the most powerful leaders to trickle those messages right down to the grassroots. They are the most powerful leaders to call, for example, for a ceasefire or to open up “neutral fora” (spaces) as we see in South Sudan.
Meanwhile, what was the next chapter after the time at Lambeth Palace?
The next chapter is Rose Castle. We had by now raised the funds and bought the castle, though still needed to raise funds to refurbish it. We set up a charitable foundation (Rose Castle Foundation) to run our reconciliation programs and began to grow a team.
Did you have any connection with Rose Castle from earlier times or was it entirely new?
No! It was literally one of those miraculous or coincidental or both moments that we moved to Cumbria the week it became empty after 800 years. I knew nothing about it at all. Though, funnily, as a teenager I loved and was fascinated by castles. I used to spend my pocket money every Saturday visiting castles and learning about their history.
So what is the mission and vision you see for Rose Castle?
The vision of Rose Castle is to equip a generation of leaders to reconcile and to cross divides. I would probably put "cross divides" first because that's the first step. We ask them to learn by experience, in the presence of those on the other side of their divide. So that requires opening up very careful spaces where people can come together as strangers and enemies to learn side by side what peace might look like in their own context and then take that back home and put it into practice. The work is very much built on the Cambridge Interfaith Program model, where I was directing the conflict schools. Every year we brought emerging faith leaders together from across divides: Israelis and Palestinians, Nigerian Muslims and Christians, and people from right across the Middle East and beyond who were from deeply conflicted societies. We brought them into the same space in order to learn what peace might look like in their own context. When that program was no longer possible at Cambridge, we took it into the Rose Castle Foundation, actually with the same team, and developed those programs around encouraging faith motivations as a major part of peacebuilding. It is faith-inspired peacebuilding.
You followed the development of Rose Castle all through the Lambeth period. Where does it stand now?
I was basically still directing Rose Castle Foundation as a volunteer, whilst doing all these other jobs. Slowly and organically it was growing. We had a prayer group that was vital and became very faithful. We had a lot of volunteers who were supporting us. And we were regularly hosting programs from different parts of the world, including Myanmar and Bangladesh and Israel/Palestine – all parts of the world.
The castle finally had to close for a high-level refurb. We were able to run those programs for about five or six years before that happened. But we recognized that it needed an upgrade. Right now it's being renovated to a four/five star level, costing three times what the castle and gardens cost to buy. We have raised those funds. It will reopen in spring 2021 to continue the work. Meanwhile the programs at Rose Castle are happening all around the world in different contexts and also in Cumbria, where we're using another country house estate to convene people instead.
Rose is committed to its alumni more than anything else. When they go back into their conflicted contexts we want to journey with them and encourage them to support each other, peer to peer, within the cohort with whom they came to the castle. We have a staff team now that's grown to about 11 who are facilitating those programs: designing and implementing training and then supporting alumni online.
What is the composition of this team?
We have an executive director, a program director, a partnerships manager, a program coordinator, a scriptural reasoning coordinator, operations director, fundraiser, a communications manager, a digital database manager (who is helping to build the platform on which alumni can communicate), an office administrator and a volunteer manager, a monitoring and evaluation volunteer, and a group of hospitality volunteers (very much a part of the team). Our vision for hospitality is that everybody who comes on our programs is absolutely wanted and welcomed, so we place huge emphasis on helping people feel comfortable, depending on where they've come from, making sure they've got everything they need. There is a lot of one-on-one pastoral facilitation with people as they process some of what they've experienced and listen to the stories of people across their divides that can be painful to hear, and then we support them in developing an action plan for when they return. We offer a lot of close support through that process.There was talk some years ago about a sort of network of these reconciliation leaders’ centers.
What is the status of that now?
Our colleague and friend, Antti Pentikäinen, had a vision of connecting reconciliation centers around the world, because many of us operate in silos which we should not, as we share big picture commitment. In my case this is absolutely a godly call to reconciliation, and we're all part of it as far as I can see. Antti really wanted us to connect by meeting regularly each year, and we have been doing that as part of the Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers. We continue to meet with a number of other centers around the world, and we actually partner with individual centers to work in particular country contexts. We are very committed to equipping the next generation as reconcilers, and finding the best partners to help us with that vision.
You must be learning enormous amounts in Rose, but are you writing or putting it out? How are you approaching the storytelling dimension?
Most of our emphasis is on accompanying the participants when they go back, not on capturing and spreading their stories. That's mainly to protect them, because many of the stories are heard in a space where they expect it to be kept contained. That's a challenge for us, because of course we want to tell those stories in order to encourage other people to do the same and to do more of it. So what we have done is start to write up the curricula journey that we follow during a Rose program. We take people quite intentionally from being completely back-to-back, and we talk about bringing them face-to-face. In that face-to-face part it's about listening to each other's different stories, often of the same conflict, and being able to discern where our story is not reflected in the other's story and to work on that and see if there are ways in which we can more faithfully tell a story that represents different parts of, and people in, the conflict.
We also encourage a trope of curiosity, a kind of questioning mode. Instead of commenting, we are asking questions. What was it like for you? What did that mean? What prompted that? What did it mean to make you think that? Those kinds of questions, to understand each other better. We also focus on hospitality. What would it take to be somebody else's risky guest? Not always being the one who hosts and says, "Come into my space and listen to me and do things my way," but taking the risk of being somebody else's guest in their uncomfortable space. We model a lot of that at Rose.
Our programs include a day on “letting go.” Whether it's letting go to God or whether it's acknowledging to one another where we form some part of the broken relationships that exist. In many cases that manifests as a need for confession and forgiveness on both sides, but we don't push that. That has to come from individuals, and we are there to support them when they want to get to that place. The final part is about beginning to tell a shared story of action moving forward. Looking ahead, what are some of the ways in which we can serve our wider community shoulder to shoulder, without assimilating each other or dominating each other or assuming we're the same – without appealing to a syncretistic worldview? But really recognizing that actually we each care about our community, and we want to serve it in the way we best can. We say to everyone that the sign of success in such shoulder to shoulder work is when you have each other's back. So instead of being back to back you can actually have the back of those you've been working with. Stand up for them when they are in trouble.
Could you give some examples, say from Nigeria?
Just before Christmas a group of Nigerian military officers at Rose Castle wanted to learn about non-violent responses to their work in the northwest of Nigeria, particularly in Boko Haram-impacted areas when they're often called to respond to an escalation of violence. Their natural instinct has been to retaliate with more violence, but they were recognizing the futility of such responses and wanted to find alternative ways to engage. What was beautiful was that these large, powerful senior military men from Nigeria, Muslim and Christian, were all recognizing that their faith was a very large part of why they were at Rose Castle. They wanted to look deeper into the resources they had to find different ways to respond. While they were with us, not only did they engage very practically with how they were going to respond to situations when they returned and tested out alternative responses, but they also said they wanted their wives and the women of the region, senior women, to go through the same process. They articulated for the first time the significance of senior women in those communities, including their own wives, recognizing that they really were the most powerful force for peace in that society. The follow-up program will be with the senior women in North West Nigeria.
During our review of Nigeria of faith and development, we heard concerns that many different actors were working for peace in Nigeria with different theories of change and to some extent competing.
We know and are in communication with many of the peacebuilder organizations in that region. I think our unique space, if you like, is being transparent about the faith motivation and working with the faith motivation of our participants, but we absolutely want to connect with others when they go back into their context. We've worked quite closely with Imam Shefiu and his Lagos center. We are beginning to work more closely with Cardinal Onaiyekan and Sister Agatha and also with the Kaduna faith center that was founded by Josiah and Comfort Idowu-Fearon.
In South Sudan, how does the religious dimension come in? Clearly religious institutions are large, but I have not seen the South Sudan tensions described in religious terms. It's much more ethnic.
What's so interesting about South Sudan is that the tribal affiliations are connected to denominations of Christianity, because of the early missionary experience and impact. The Nuer are primarily Presbyterian, with many Roman Catholics being Dinka. The Anglican church has a very large presence, particularly across smaller tribes but also some Dinka. The president of South Sudan is Roman Catholic and the leader of the opposition, Riek Machar, is Presbyterian. So when you are engaging in mediation in South Sudan across tribal lines, you are also engaging in interdenominational mediation.
And there are tensions? What kind?
The tensions are intricately connected to the tribal identity: I am Presbyterian and I am Nuer and those two things go hand in hand. I'm Roman Catholic or Anglican and I'm Dinka. Our previous Anglican archbishop, who was Dinka, wept as he said, "Why did God make me Dinka?" He needed to work closely with the government, allied with the government by virtue of his birthright, and yet he's also leading a church and a church, in the case of the Anglican Communion, that straddles many different tribal groups. Tensions between the denominations are not doctrinal at all that I've seen. They are entirely played out across tribal lines. Power is clearly a factor. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has a lot of power because of its Dinka affiliation.
But where it really plays out is when you're doing a mediation. One of those mediations was between Nuer and Dinka, thus between Presbyterians and Roman Catholics. I chose the story that Jesus tells of being the good shepherd, where he says, "I am the gate" and about the sheep being in the fold and the lost sheep and that you can't trust the hired help. The bishops completely got this story in a way that I myself had never really understood. They began to take it in their own way into a whole new level of interpretation, asking: What does it mean to be a good shepherd? And who are the unreliable hired helps? Who's the wolf? And who are the sheep? They took every character and were beginning to apply it within their own context. Of course what they found was that they all sought the same answers to those characterizations of that story. That began to bring them into a space where they could share. Whereas at the beginning of this mediation they were literally sitting at opposite ends of the room, they ended up sitting at the same tables in between the sessions. They opened a space in which they suddenly could come together. A less positive side is that many of them don't even know why they're fighting anymore. They're just reacting. And the younger people in their communities are so traumatized. They've never known a time apart from war, and they too are also just reacting to what’s familiar.
So to finish your “life story,” what has brought you to VTS (Virginia Theological Seminary)?
I'm the Dean's Scholar at Virginia Theological Seminary and have been there for two months. That has meant some teaching around reconciliation, crossing divides, and the spirituality of peacebuilding, working with different audiences, some of them seminarians, some students, some general public, some practitioners in NGOs and in government and in other contexts. And I have also engaged with church congregations and church leaders. Thus a really interesting mix of audiences.
What I've noticed here in America from all the audiences is an absolute hunger for tools to begin speaking to people across divides. And what I see in America probably more than I thought is a polarized society: much more polarized than Britain. I think it's because the polarization appears to be more visceral here. I think it's fed by media who create isolated social bubbles for those who only watch one news channel. The world of truth suddenly takes on a meaning that's affirming their own view, and they rarely encounter those who have a different view. Then of course you develop this slight fear of, "Well, I don't know how to talk to somebody who has a different view; they're going to have all these other views so I won't have anything in common with them."
Of course we're not all black and white, are we? We've all got a spectrum of views across these areas. So it's been wonderful and a privilege to teach people who are hungry to learn and who have so many stories of hurt and brokenness in their own context here in America, just as deeply wounded as people that I encounter in other parts of the world where the conflict is more physical. I think it shows, doesn't it, how a war of words is just as painful as a war of action or of weapons.
So now you go back to Rose Castle?
Yes. The joy of that is we've got some new people joining, because our programmatic output is quadrupling this year. We have a lot of demand for our programs, which is good news. But we have to make sure we have the capacity to deliver them.
We started Rose Castle Foundation to continue the work of the Cambridge Interfaith Program after the university turned its focus more on research than on public programming. The vision of the Rose Castle Foundation is to equip the next generation of leaders to cross divides, to navigate conflict constructively, not destructively. We're doing that in part by connecting them with senior leaders who've already traveled some of that road before them and who've made mistakes as well as developed a wisdom of conflict transformation. So we connect emerging leaders and senior leaders, but we also connect emerging leaders with one another in peer cohorts from the same context so that when they go back they can really support and encourage each other. They do that through WhatsApp groups and through regular reunions within their own contexts. Our long-term goal, if you like, is to see these groups of alumni supporting each other within their own spheres of influence, to cross divides and proudly bring their faith and their traditions with them into that space.
All the groups who come to Rose Castle come with others across a divide within their own context. It’s usually but not always a religious divide. It could be that they are all from one religious tradition but they are divided within that religious tradition, or it could be that they are across religious and non-religious traditions. We also include people of no faith at all who are part of those divides. The divides that we experience at Rose Castle are political, socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, religious: they're all of those and more. We don't see religion as the only marker of conflict in any of those contexts. But we definitely encourage people where they have a faith to recognize that their faith can contribute to crossing those divides and building peace and that it needn't be the factor that is an obstacle to peacemaking.
I love working at Rose. It's a beautiful and peace-filled space, and I think that is because this space has been prayed in over centuries. It sits in the middle of the largest rural estate in Britain with 28 farms around it. You can see the connection between the farming community and the land, and it's literally all around us as we walk in and out of work. An aspect of reconciliation that we're really committed to is reconciliation with the land, and thus knowing what happens when our relationship with the land is broken, knowing the impact of conflict on our relationships with the land as well as with one another and with God.
I suppose what I am most looking forward to with Rose is a growing network of alumni who are connecting with other peacebuilders in their own spheres of influence. We are working to make these connections between peacebuilder organizations and especially for our alumni who are proud to dig deep into their faith tradition to find the motivation for the peacebuilding that they do. That's what we hope to inspire in them, and that's what I long to see as they take off and grow as peacebuilders and reconcilers around the world.