RPP Welcomes Nigeria's Interfaith Peacebuilders the Pastor and the Imam

April 13, 2016
Imam Ashafa shares his peacebuilding experience from an Islam perspective at the RPP Colloquium.
Imam Ashafa presents to the public at the monthly RPP Colloquium at Harvard Divinity School.

In the early 1990s, Pastor James Movel Wuye and Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa had reached a critical juncture in their roles as religious leaders in the northern Nigerian town of Kaduna. Wracked by violent interreligious conflict, Kaduna was a community where Christians and Muslims clashed, and Pastor James and Imam Ashafa, then leaders of youth militias on opposing sides of the conflict, were entrenched in the violence.

However in 1995, despite significant personal losses caused by their involvement in the interreligious violence, Pastor James and Imam Ashafa found something in their separate religious teachings and shared gatherings that inspired a different path—one of peace and friendship.

"I always call myself and my friend 'accidental peacemakers.' It is not a calling that we chose on our own that we wanted to be peacemakers," said Imam Ashafa. "Accidentally, it turned out that our circumstances changed and we found ourselves in a window of peacemaking … after having paid the price for taking the negative front."

In December 2015, more than 20 years after their joint establishment of an Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna, Pastor James and Imam Ashafa joined Harvard University students and faculty as well as community members from across the Boston area for three days of lectures, workshops, and gatherings hosted by the Religions and the Practice of Peace (RPP) Initiative at Harvard Divinity School (HDS). Their visit was made possible by a generous grant from the Provostial Fund for the Arts and Humanities at Harvard University.

"We founded the RPP Initiative to serve as a permanent hub at Harvard University for cross-disciplinary activities to explore how different communities in the world have drawn on spiritual and religious resources to cultivate positive relationships, well-being, justice, and peace across our differences," said Dean David Hempton, reflecting on the initiative’s inception in Fall 2014. The visit by the Pastor and Imam, explained Jeff Seul, Lecturer on the Practice of Peace at HDS, is an example of the powerful convening function HDS can play in the peacebuilding domain.

Since Fall 2014, RPP has grown from a small working group of students, faculty, alumni, and guest scholars and peace practitioners sharing their research interests to a multifaceted initiative and growing electronic resource for practitioners, students, and scholars alike. RPP currently supports a colloquium course and series on spiritual formation and transformative leadership—each with participation from some 20 students from across Harvard’s graduate schools—a monthly public RPP Colloquium series, as well as a growing cross-disciplinary RPP Working Group of students, faculty, alumni, and peace practitioners.

The visit of Pastor James and Imam Ashafa provided a unique context for this RPP Working Group to imagine the future of the initiative at a Fall Lunch Roundtable on December 9.

"My aspiration for coming here is to explore with intelligent minds like yours how to develop an inclusive theology that has the ‘other’ in mind," said Pastor James, sharing his own dreams for RPP. "How do we disarm with love?"

Through the Pastor’s and the Imam’s international peacebuilding work, the pair has conducted workshops and mediations with leaders and communities in conflict around the world. As part of their visit to Harvard University, the Imam and the Pastor led student members of the RPP Working Group and guests from other classes in one such experiential workshop organized by Darren Kew, Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Jeff Seul, Lecturer on the Practice of Peace at HDS.

Pastor James works through a simulation with students from the Christian perspective to help teach peacebuilding strategies.
Pastor James works through a simulation with students from the Christian perspective during a student peacebuilding workshop.

"The Pastor and the Imam embrace and confront the stark brokenness of the parties’ relationship as an early step," said Seul, commenting on the Pastor’s and Imam’s unique peacebuilding approach. "This helps promote the much deeper sense of forgiveness and reconciliation that they embody, model, and seek from participants in their process."

Barbara Sahli, a master’s candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, shared similar sentiments.

"At the heart of their method is learning to overcome entrenched positions so we can hear and try to understand the other side’s concerns," she said. "Only then can the slow process of building trust and learning to work together begin, while still remaining true to oneself."

The Pastor and the Imam also spoke at a public RPP Colloquium session, "Interfaith Strategy for Peacebuilding: Prospects and Challenges," co-sponsored by the RPP Initiative, the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at UMass Boston, and the Pluralism Project at Harvard University and moderated by Diana Eck, Fredric Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Pluralism Project founder and director.  

During the session, the pair shared the long, difficult journey they have faced in developing a friendship and shared peacebuilding strategy that is authentic to the religious teachings of their distinct faiths.

"Forgiveness and compassion are central to both faiths, but they need to be enacted, not just spoken," Eck commented. "The Imam and the Pastor gave personal testimony of how suspicion of one another began to yield to relationship, beginning with a small gesture of trust. For Pastor James, it began the very day when Imam Ashafa came to visit James' mother in the hospital."

Despite the strength of their unconventional friendship, the pair spoke about the everyday dangers they face as peacebuilders and the extensive work that countries like the United States and Nigeria still have yet to do to create peace.

"Is there any lesson that can be learned from Nigeria?" Pastor James asked the crowd of colloquium attendees. "There is. We can learn to be our sisters’ and brothers’ keeper. The strongest weapon you can use to deal with your enemy is to love your enemy ceaselessly."

In addition to this lecture, the peacebuilders participated in a number of events across campus. This included Imam Ashafa’s lecture, "Islam and Peaceful Coexistence: Conflict or Conciliation," sponsored by the Alwaleed Islamic Studies Program, moderated by Ali Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures and director of the Alwaleed Islamic Studies Program. The lecture was part of the Islam and the Practice of Peace Lecture Series, a series RPP helped catalyze, and just one of several activities on which RPP has collaborated with the Alwaleed Program.

Imam Ashafa leads one party of a peacebuilding simulation in a reflection period.
Imam Ashafa discusses his peacebuilding strategy with a group of students during an all-day workshop.

The message of the Imam and the Pastor, now captured in seven documentaries and translated into over 15 languages, is a lesson that RPP Working Group member Adeel Mohammadi, MTS candidate at HDS, and Tom Whittaker, PhD candidate in the Committee on the Study of Religion in the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, wanted to share with their religious communities, inviting the Imam and the Pastor to gatherings with members of the Harvard Muslim and Christian communities, respectively.

Whittaker remarked that this lunch discussion with Pastor James was a powerful opportunity for students and faculty from across the Greater Boston area to hear from an African Christian peacemaker.

"Ironically, I think Pastor James is much better known in the peacebuilding community than he is among the bulk of American Christians," Whittaker said, explaining that this was a moving opportunity to hear a particularly Christian perspective on pursuing the practice of peace.

Mohammadi reflected that Imam Ashafa’s sermon for the Harvard Islamic Society given at Friday prayer on December 11 was particularly impactful because it highlighted the diversity within the Islamic tradition, sharing with Muslim students perspectives and experiences from a part of the Muslim world that they might not always hear from. Moreover, on a personal level, the Pastor’s and Imam’s visit resonated for Mohammadi as offering a powerful perspective on religion.

"I think that often it is easy to get caught up thinking exclusively about the theoretical," said Mohammadi. "One of the main things I got out of their visit was that these traditions exist, breathe, and live, encountering the good and the bad. These traditions can provide us with resources to be able to engage with the practical realities that people deal with."

Visit RPP’s online RPP Series Archive to view videos of the Pastor’s and the Imam’s presentation at the RPP Colloquium on December 10 and Imam Ashafa’s talk on December 11.

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–by Maggie Krueger