A performance of peace
Second-year master of divinity student Nancy Hawthorne reflects on a class project that became a public performance of peace for more than 20 local elder refugees. “Create Peace: Refugee Elders Share Stories and Talents” was a collaborative effort with Catholic Charities of Nashville and allowed Nancy to deepen her own faith by forging relationships with people in our community who deeply understand accepting others as sacred gifts.
Most people who have participated in registering for courses in higher education know that certain seminar classes fill up faster than others. Religion and War in an Age of Terror, taught by Melissa Snarr, is one of those courses. Many Vanderbilt Divinity students are interested in the emergence of terrorism, ways in which religion and violence are connected, and efforts of religious peacemaking in light of both Christian and Islamic political thought. It took two semesters and some persistence, but I had the opportunity to take this course last semester.
The course began by diving deep into the tough topics of terrorism and genocide. Some of the content was extremely difficult for me to read, and I remember closing the books and staring off into space, unable to comprehend the magnitude of the violence and pain.
One of those books, Terror in the Mind of God by Mark Juergensmeyer, emphasizes the “symbolic, ritual or sacred drama” associated with religious terrorism. He explains that terrorism is not only tactics or strategy but it is also performance violence. Each act has a stage or specific place where the act is committed, a time and an audience.
As a vocalist who has spent many years singing and entertaining on stage, the performance of terrorism caught my attention. Part of our course reflection was to write or create a public response to share with the wider community about what role religion should play in relation to political violence and conflict. In light of Juergensmeyer’s definition of terrorism, my public response would be a performance of peace with a specific stage, time and audience.
To create an authentic performance of peace, I wanted to involve community members who have personal experience with both religious violence and peace. Many of the refugees placed in Nashville are assisted by Catholic Charities Refugee Services. I contacted the staff at Catholic Charities and met with the director of the elder refugees program, Hannah Olsen. We decided to collaborate on an elders talent show where the participants would not only share their talents, but also share stories of faith that are associated with their talent and the meaning their talent has for them in the U.S. and their home country. The event would be titled, “Create Peace: Refugee Elders Share Stories and Talents” and it would be hosted in the Vanderbilt Divinity School Reading Room in late October.
The elders program has more than 20 participants from Cuba, Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Iran, and Bhutan. Through the assistance from five different translators who speak nine different languages, I was able to interview the elders on video and broadcast their stories before they performed their talent the night of the event.
Secular and religious, traditional and popular environments are laden with symbols, language and stories that are saturated with meaning. This meaning can dramatically change the outcome of events simply by virtue of the understanding that the participant attaches to such symbols, language and stories. I wanted to capture the meaning of the elders’ art and talent and how it interacts with their faith. The next step was to narrow this ideology into practical interview questions that could be understood across nine different cultures.
I asked, “What is your talent, what is your faith, and are these two things related?” Each interview was a cultural and communication experiment as I explained to the translators my questions and they relayed them to the elder refugees. It was an overwhelming honor to speak with each elder about his or her life, faith and talent. After I read about genocide in Rwanda I had the privilege to interview Esther Nyiranshuti, a woman who survived .
The excitement was palpable the night of the event. The elders’ families and friends joined with Catholic Charities volunteers and staff and Vanderbilt Divinity School staff and students to “create peace.” I have never seen the VDS reading room filled with so many colors, tastes and sounds from those dressed in traditional garments to the buffet of food prepared by the hands of the elders.
The elders’ performances were remarkable, and the videos allowed the audience to have a glimpse into the meaning of the performance for each person. Venansia Nyirababikira from DR Congo shared, "We will sing two church songs that show how blessed we are to be here from where we are in the refugee camp. The translation is: God, you know all we don’t know / and we are here because of you / we are happy that you know all we don't know."
Venance Mukandezi also from Congo explained, “We were in a situation where we could die at any time, but God never abandoned us.” Marie Claire Nindorera from Bur ndi professed, “We can’t miss saying thank you to God … God of miracles puts us in to the hands of Americans. We pray for them, may God bless them.”
Nara Maya Sarki shared her story before she performed a cultural dance with her grandchildren: “I was a normal cattle farmer in Bhutan. When the agitation began, my ethnic group was evicted from the country. We went to Napal and I spent my life as a refugee. In the camps we could participate in Christianity. Life was not really good because we were trapped in the refugee camp. When I came to Nashville I was baptized. We sing prayers and sometimes we dance. This gives us peace and happiness.”
Bhakata Chhetri who is also from Bhutan shares this in reference to his Hindu faith: “We were determined to keep our rituals and culture. That makes me believe if you are determined in any situation there is nothing that will stop you from keeping faith in what you believe.” Bhakata performed two prayer songs.
Nejat Derakhshani from Iran shared: “The reason I came to the U.S. is because of the Iranian regime does not accept my Bahá'í faith and they expelled me from my country. I was not safe in my home country, so when I came to the U.S. I was thankful. I feel safety.” Nejat energetically danced a traditional Iranian dance while the audience clapped along. He also shared that Iranian music “makes me feel like I am living in Iran. I love this music so much because it helps me relax.”
Roda Ntamubanyo from Burundi said, “We think the talent show will be a good day for us to show how God has blessed us and helped us in every way.” Roda shared the ideology of the event perfectly. It was a time to celebrate God and everyone in our community while we recognized the gift that it is to live in peace! This event for me personally was a time to develop my faith through relationships with people in my community who deeply understand what it means to trust God and accept others as a gift from God.