Can enemies become friends?

Jean Claude (Whitehall)
Jean Claude Nkundwa shares his story of living through Burundi’s civil war. Photo by Patti Connolly.

by Rose Bender, Whitehall

I guess I started thinking about this earlier in the summer.  I was acting as ‘crowd control’ at a peace camp at Franklin Park in Allentown. The story teller had the kids acting out Acts 10—where Peter and Cornelius move from historic animosity toward friendship and salvation.  A Jewish fisherman, a Roman Centurion, and their respective cohorts took on a decidedly urban, Latino flavor. The kids seemed to enjoy the story, but when they were asked to think about why someone like Peter would be friends with someone like Cornelius their answers were painfully honest.  When asked to imagine creative ways to respond to bullies—they couldn’t seem to think of anything but fighting back.   And I could see why a white woman of privilege, suggesting Jesus would have them do otherwise, didn’t necessarily sit well with them.

The story time ended as it had each night, by the children passing around a ‘blessing cup’ filled with apple juice and saying words that went along with the story.  That night they said something like “The Spirit of Jesus can make friends out of enemies’.  One by one, children who had eagerly taken from the cup on previous nights refused to drink.  And I went home with an uncomfortable knot in my stomach.  The story of peace hadn’t seemed like ‘good news’ to them. (Read Samantha Lioi’s reflection)

The memory of that evening stayed with me all summer.  It was why I was looking forward to having Phoebe Kilby, from Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, come and share with our congregation in worship on August 5.  She was bringing a current student from Burundi, Jean Claude Nkundwa.   In planning the worship, we had chosen to read Matthew 5:38-48 and entitle their talk ‘Can enemies be friends?’  I wanted to hear a modern-day, real life story, from someone who had been willing to drink from the blessing cup of reconciliation.

At a Saturday evening gathering and during our worship on Sunday morning, I heard the complicated story of Burundi’s civil war and Jean Claude’s experience during it.  He was a teenager when his village exploded in violence from which only three of his family escaped—hiding by day and traveling under cover of night—not knowing who or where the enemy might be.  In his words, his “mind was paralyzed” and he questioned the existence of God. He began to believe the only way to peace was through military dictatorship.

Phoebe Kilby (Whitehall)
Phoebe Kilby tells Whitehall congregation about discovering her ancestors had been slave owners. Photo by Patti Connolly

But slowly and mysteriously, through a variety of people and situations, he was able to believe again in the God of Moses—present even in the wilderness.  His journey toward healing has included reconciliation with folks in his village.  He is a remarkable man—who feels called by God to continue working for truth-telling and justice in his own country, and dreams of starting an Eastern Africa Peace-Building Institute.  “Africa will be prosperous when the heart of Africa will be healed.”

After our time together, I wanted to bring Jean Claude to Franklin Park.  I wanted the kids to hear God’s story about Peter and Cornelius from his lips.  I wanted them to hear about his village and his family’s land that is now being farmed by former enemies.

I would like them to hear Phoebe’s story, too.  When she discovered that she was a descendent of slave owners, she reached out to the descendants of the slaves her family owned.  Her journey of reconciliation includes working together with her new-found cousins to fund and install a historic marker at the high school their family had worked to desegregate.  I think that each of them would have made the story of Peter and Cornelius come alive to the kids in a new way.

Can enemies really become friends?  After listening to Jean Claude and Phoebe, I know it is possible, but it requires holy imagination and committed perseverance—joining the work of the Spirit.  In reflecting on their stories and my time at Franklin Park, I have been struck by the importance of sharing where my own story intersects with the biblical narrative.  Perhaps that is what bearing witness really means.  We speak about the Good News we have seen and heard and lived.  I wonder if that would have made a difference to my young friends at Franklin Park.  I wonder if they would have been more open to imagine another way.   I am trusting there will be more opportunities to bear witness and live into the story together—the blessing cup of reconciliation overflowing.