Watu Kwa Amani

Watu Kwa Amani is a Swahili phrase meaning "people of peace." It is also the name of a conference to be held in Nairobi, Kenya, from August 8 to 13, 2004, to address violence and peacebuilding in an African context. It is in response to a challenge by World Council of Churches (WCC) to the Historic Peace Churches (HPC) to share their experiences and insights with the ecumenical church.

The Decade to Overcome Violence—Churches Seeking Reconciliation and Peace (2001-2010) was adopted by WCC at its Eighth General Assembly held in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1998. It builds on the Program to Overcome Violence (POV), adopted by the Central Committee of WCC at a meeting in South Africa in 1994 shortly before the vote ending apartheid. It also parallels the United Nations Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World.

The setting in Harare in 1998 was the last day of the General Assembly: a day in which all official business had been completed. Many participants at Harare had urged the extension of POV. As the Assembly was ready to adjourn, Fernando Enns, a young Mennonite pastor and scholar, declared that many at the assembly were in favor of extending POV, and he moved the adoption of the Decade. The chair put the question to a vote, and it passed overwhelmingly.

WCC invited churches around the world to find their own ways to participate in the Decade. HPC—Friends, Mennonites, and Church of the Brethren—were specifically asked to share their own experience in addressing different forms of violence in their communities. Although many churches are deeply committed to a mission of peacemaking, historically the HPC are widely recognized to have taken a more radical stance in resisting violence as a method of solving problems. They are seen as committed to reconciliation, education, and service as a way to peace.

WCC has regularly addressed warfare and violence since its founding in 1948 in Amsterdam. Between 1955 and 1962 representatives from HPC and other churches debated the issues of war and violence in meetings known as the Puidoux Conferences.

At the Fourth General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Upsalla in 1968, a Quaker, Wilmer Cooper, offered a resolution in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This resolution was adopted and became the basis for the Program to Combat Racism (PCR). Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela both credit PCR as a factor in overcoming apartheid in South Africa.

The Central Committee of the World Council met in South Africa in January 1994. With elections only a few weeks away and expectations that the vote would end apartheid, Stanley Mogoba declared that the WCC should initiate a program to combat violence. At first it fell on deaf ears, but WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser suggested that such a program could be initiated without additional expense or additional staff as an emphasis rather than a new program, bringing together the various efforts of WCC to address violence. Rephrased as the Program to Overcome Violence, it was unanimously passed by the Central Committee. Its success led to the adoption of the Decade to Overcome Violence in Zimbabwe in 1998.

Responding to WCC’s invitation, the HPC met in 2001 at the Mennonite Bible School and seminary in Bienenberg, Switzerland. The results of those discussions are being published this year in Seeking Cultures of Peace: A Peace Church Conversation. Participants were unanimous in their opinion that a second Bienenberg conference should consider the perspectives of people in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. When the HPC planning committee came together, it realized that each of the three communions had more members in Africa than in North America and Europe, and further, that these members were asking what it means to be a peace church.

Therefore, "Bienenberg II" was to be in Kenya. Many Friends are located in Kenya and the Great Lakes area. Most Church of the Brethren members are located in northern Nigeria and Sudan. Mennonites are found in Congo, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zambia, Burkina Faso, and Kenya. The name Bienenberg has no particular significance in Africa, and so the Swahili phrase Watu Kwa Amani was chosen for the conference name. The phrase reflects the discussion among Africans on what it means for the church to be a "people of peace."

The purpose of Watu Kwa Amani is to provide an occasion for various church leaders, principally from the African peace churches and the ecumenical community, to address the theological, institutional, and praxis issues that arise in the African context. Three-fourths of the participants and most of the principal speakers are to be from Africa. It is anticipated that 80 to 100 participants will attend.

The conference is built around accounts of violence, conflict, and reconciliation that participants bring from their home communities across Africa. What is the role of faith and of churches in addressing violence, encouraging reconciliation, and promoting healing? Does it make any difference to belong to a peace church? There will be three themes on successive days: Threats to Peace (warfare, disease, poverty); Christian Faithfulness and the Common Good (areas where radically different religious commitments and tribal loyalties prevail); and Forgiveness and Renewal (the role of churches in overcoming violence with nonviolence).

The conference is to be set in worship, with public services each evening to be led by the different religious traditions present at the conference. The proceedings will be published on videotape, so the presentations and discussions can be available around the world.

Donald E. Miller

Donald E. Miller is emeritus professor of Christian Education and Ethics at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana, and convenor of the planning committee for Watu Kwa Amani.