Bosnia trip #2 – advice from Muslim friends and an invitation

Even though Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston while I was gone, my second trip to Bosnia from August 22-29 was both a lot of fun and a “success.” I reconnected with friends, met new ones, and received a lot of great feedback from Bosnians of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. My first trip (read that trip reflection here) was to learn whether and how my family, as Peace Catalyst staff, could be a support to ongoing local efforts to work for peace. (We’ll be trying to nuance our understanding of how we can do that concretely for years to come.) This second trip was primarily about discerning who could be a local partner to sponsor our residency while we learned from and joined their work.

Some Muslim peace builders and a Protestant pastor offered me some of the most helpful guidance and encouragement:

  1. “Keep your identity very clear.” We have found that issues of identity are central in Christian-Muslim work, because identity and integrity are closely related. When we’re clear and transparent about our identity and purpose, we can live with the integrity that is required to build trust and peace across religious barriers even while we are transparent in our commitment to Jesus. Many Muslims are suspicious that Christians are willing to lie and disguise their true motives in order to deceive Muslims or convert them to Christianity, so we are and will to the best of our ability continue to be clear about our identity as Protestant Christians working for peace.
  2. “Be transparent about who you’re with from the beginning.” I have been told directly that people will try to find out everything they can about me, and other Muslims I’ve met with already said, “Oh, I’ve already looked you and your organization up online.” There’s no use trying to hide who we are or disguise our organizational partnerships, motives, and goals. Being up front will go a long way to tearing down barriers of distrust and suspicion. (On a related note, some I’ve met in Bosnia of other faith backgrounds have said that after looking us up and reading about Peace Catalyst’s work, they watched all of Peace Catalyst’s videos and found them very helpful in understanding Jesus-centered peace building!)
  3. “Don’t offer to do anything for anyone.” After more than two decades of ineffective foreign aid, locals are rightfully skeptical about Westerners who come to offer any sort of service. Rather than try to serve or contribute to local work, it’s more beneficial for us to take at least a year or two to focus entirely on language and cultural learning. As people get to know us over time, they will grow to trust us, invite us to join in their work, and even begin to allow us to supplement their work with the experience and expertise we can offer.
  4. “Don’t talk about interfaith peace building; do it.” Local people are tired of hearing religious elites engage in high-level dialogue with flowery statements and ritual ceremonies that don’t touch everyday people’s lives and hearts. Rather than just facilitate dialogue events between “experts,” it’s very important to invite the whole community into fun activities or service work with people of different ethnic and faith communities, so they can and get to know one another more deeply and collaborate for the common good. Some organizations in Bosnia focus on interfaith dialogue through panels and high-level lectures; others attempt to create a “dialogue of life” where people of different faiths interact and learn to appreciate and empathize with one another’s life experiences while also collaborating to help create communities that are more vibrant, safe, and just. We need both dimensions of engagement for peace building to be effective.
  5. “Work directly with the Protestant Church.” Since we are trying to facilitate relationships across ethnic and religious lines, working with an entity that is as “neutral” as possible ethnically and religiously is highly advantageous. In Bosnia, the Protestant Church seems to fit the bill – Muslims and Christians alike encouraged me to form a direct partnership with a local Protestant church, should that be possible. Why? Negative baggage is associated with each of the three main ethnic and religious communities in Bosnia, but much less is with the Protestant Church, both because it’s not very well known in the area and hasn’t been a main player in recent ethnic and religious tensions/violence. Working with the Protestant Church would also create additional consistency and clarity about our own identity, since we’re Protestant Christians.
  6. And from a local Protestant pastor: “You should work with us.” During my visits to Bosnia, I’ve been getting to know a Protestant pastor who has been deeply engaged in interfaith and peace building work for the last 20 years. Among local Protestants, he’s described as the forerunner in interfaith and interethnic peace building work. When we met, I had the privilege to learn about some of his experiences while also sharing some of my family’s hopes for how we could support local peace building work in Bosnia. He immediately said that it would be beneficial for us to work directly with his church, that they have experience with the legalities of the residency process, and that they could sponsor our residency in Bosnia. I was also fortunate enough to have time to process how partnering with this local Protestant community might be perceived by some of my friends from other faith communities. All of them were encouraging, and numerous people had met or at least heard of this pastor’s reputation and had positive impressions of him and his character. In a post-war society seeped in suspicion and distrust of the “other,” different religious leaders and peace workers vouching for the character of a Protestant pastor is a big deal!

Stephanie, Jack, and I will return to Bosnia at the end of September until early November to continue to get to know this pastor and his community as well as other Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox peace builders. Although we still have a lot of questions to ask and work to do, this process of getting to know multiple communities of people, organizations, and faith groups in Bosnia has been encouraging. We are developing a more well-rounded understanding of the interpersonal and political dynamics that we’re entering into, and we’ve begun building trust with diverse groups who are able to give us feedback and guidance.

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