Love in the Face of Violence

Twenty-some years ago, Ron and I sold everything we owned and flew off to Africa. We landed in Southern Sudan in the middle of a civil war and worked with refugees from another war in Uganda. Motivations for changing our lives at the ripe old age of 30 were many. One was that we thought we could help change Africa. Instead, Africa changed us. After nine years in Southern Sudan and Uganda our African friends taught us that our Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality are not just good things to believe in, or just something we do, but our testimonies must define how we live. We must be these testimonies to our world.

A petite Ugandan woman named Susan Ubima taught me about "being peace" in our world. I met her shortly after Northern Ugandan rebels killed her husband in an ambush. I admired her grace in the face of tragedy. Several years after the death of her husband, Susan was traveling on the same road where he was killed when rebels attacked her bus. In the rain of bullets, many on the bus died and Susan was shot in the arm and a bullet grazed her scalp. She and several other survivors managed to crawl out of the bus and were taken hostage by a large group of rebels, most of them barely teenagers.

Susan knew what she faced—possible death at the hands of men who killed her husband, or being forced into being a sex slave to this group of rebels. For six hours Susan and the captives were marched deep into the Ugandan bush where they witnessed the murder of one of the captives who tried to escape. In those hours facing the unknown, Susan felt a leading to pray for the young men guarding her. They were close to the same age as her son. She began to engage them in conversation and to reach out to them, as she knew their mothers would want her to do. Slowly they began to respond to Susan. They talked a bit about playing soccer, about their homes and their families. She watched as their demeanor changed; they began to look her in the eye and spoke to her in kinder tones. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the rebels released Susan and the other hostages and they walked back to safety.

When Susan told us her story several days after the capture, she spoke about the peace studies she and her husband did under the tutelage of Quaker Peace and Service volunteers years before. The inner work of preparing for peace gave her a foundation to stand on when she found herself face to face with her husband’s killers. In the moments when she feared for life, she was drawn to look for that of God in her captors instead of seeing them only as rebels and killers. She was in the process of traveling a path towards forgiveness when this incident happened. She knew in those moments that somehow, someway the cycle of violence, revenge, and killing had to stop and that she could choose to be a part of that plan through forgiveness and mercy. God made it possible for Susan in those moments to see the rebels as children of a mother just like her and she chose to forgive them.

Susan’s witness prepared me for life back in the U.S. After years in the war zones of Africa, we moved to a safe home in the middle of the U.S. where there were no landmines or civil wars. On a spring afternoon three years ago, a prisoner from the county jail a block from our home beat up a guard, escaped, ran down the alley, found our back door, and broke into our home. I was home alone and found myself face to face with an angry, violent, and broken young man. I was held hostage for 20 minutes while policemen searched our neighborhood in vain for this escaped prisoner.

In those moments, my commitment to peace made a difference. Because I knew I did not want to harm this young man, I was able to respond calmly to him. My husband’s and my own commitment to peace meant we owned no guns. He searched our home for a weapon to use against me and the policemen outside my home. He found nothing. In the moments alone with this young man in our home, he broke down and cried on my shoulder, he told me about his children for whom he broke out of jail to see—also about the 20-year sentence he’d just received. I was able to give him a cup of cold water and told him that I was praying for him. In the end, he still tied me up and stole our car.

But the few scrapes and bruises I had were incredibly minor to what this encounter could have been. I continue to pray for him and write to him in prison.

Face to face with this young man in my home, I did not know how things would turn out. But I discovered I did not fear harm or death. God’s presence was tangible and real and I faced the unknown with peace and confidence that God would help me through whatever was to happen. My relationship with God does not mean I’m protected from pain, suffering, or death. Susan’s husband, the Amish schoolchildren in Pennsylvania, and the many men, women, and children who are the victims of violence and war in our world each day remind us that few escape violent encounters unscathed. Those who do are visible witnesses to the power of peace. For those who do not survive violence, the peace community can remind our world that it is possible for those who live in peace to face harm or death in God’s peace.

The peace community—my own faith community—can be a living witness that the cycle of war and violence can end. The peace community—my faith community—is a living witness that peace is possible, as is
forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. The peace community—my faith community—is a visible expression of God’s active, redeeming presence in our world. And I can think of no better community of which to be a part.

The above was written to be a part of the closing worship service for the Friends Committee on National Legislation Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., in November 2006. Ron and I have been Indiana Yearly Meeting representatives to FCNL for the past six years. It is always good to be with a diverse and engaged group of Quakers who care deeply about our world. And a group who believe it important to lobby our government for peace, for a society with equity and justice for all, for communities where every person’s potential may be fulfilled, and for an Earth restored. Our participation with FCNL is
one active way we work for peace, both nationally and for our African friends. We are privileged to represent those who care deeply about the Christ-centered origins of our peace community—my faith community—the Religious Society of Friends.

Pam Ferguson

Pam Ferguson is co-pastor with her husband, Ron, of Winchester (Ind.) Friends Meeting.