Sometimes memorable things happen in obscure places. It was January 1995, in Delphi, Greece. A group of officials from several countries had come together, under sponsorship of a U.S. university, to promote Arab-Israeli peace. The Cold War was over, Saddam Hussein had been driven out of Kuwait, and these people – members of a multi-national working group on Middle East security that I helped run – had been meeting for four years. Over that time I had seen Israeli officials talk, laugh, and argue with their counterparts from over a dozen Arab countries – Algerians, Yemenis, Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians, Palestinians, Jordanians, Omanis, and others.
This gathering was different. The venue was ancient and impressive. The tone was friendly and informal. Frozen in my mind are the faces of an Israeli general (later ambassador to the US) and a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official (Russia co-sponsored our peace talks back then), smiling and strolling among the sunlit ruins. And many delegates brought their wives, an innovative wrinkle made possible by the good will built up over time and the unofficial nature of the meeting.
Predictably, the spouses created perhaps the most memorable moment of the conference. They had gone off to a mountain resort where they resolved to climb up to a look-out point that gave a brilliant view of the sea far below. Huddling in the icy parking lot they realized that those wearing high-heels could not make the climb. Quickly the others, in running shoes and snow boots, had everyone link arms and thus gained the traction they needed. They reached the top and enjoyed a breath-taking view, but the most enduring image to those who were there was the strength they felt pulling together for a common goal.
Why bring up this story now? Two reasons. First, it is good, valid, even essential to recall that there was a time when this kind of trust existed, on both personal and official levels. Second, it is also good to recognize what can be done in settings that are not dominated by government involvement. Delphi was such a setting. It included government officials, but the power of the gathering came from the creativity of a handful of American academics and the leavening presence of our spouses.
Fast forward twenty-two years to today. It’s a different world and a very different Middle East, with bad news prevailing on all sides. But there is a thread in the Delphi experience that points to an important underlying change that has taken place in world affairs. I refer here to the fact that more and more of the consequential work in the world is being carried out by those who do not work for governments. This change is both reassuring and empowering. At this time of deep divisiveness, with the role of governments becoming less predictable and less far-sighted, the opportunity and need for meaningful involvement by individuals and non-governmental institutions is greater than ever. Here are a few powerful examples that illustrate my point.
Just a few days ago, on Martin Luther King Jr. day, the sports giant Nike announced a community partnership with a small group called PeacePlayers International (PPI). The aim is to strengthen American youth and communities by using sport to promote diversity, inclusion and equality, just the kind of work PPI has been doing around the world for years. Chad Ford, a professor of conflict transformation at BYU Hawaii, actively promotes basketball as a way to break down barriers. He has been at the center of PPI’s award-winning work in the Middle East, where Israeli and Palestinian youngsters ages 7-16 play together on 25 mixed teams. Practicing and competing together enables players and parents from both sides of a longstanding political conflict to see each other in human terms. PPI has produced similar results in Northern Ireland, Cyprus and South Africa and also has partnerships with the US Department of State and the Utah-based Arbinger Institute.
A different type of non-governmental involvement can be seen the ‘I Was a Stranger’ (IWAS) initiative begun by the LDS church in 2016. IWAS is a global undertaking, in which LDS women and girls are invited to get involved in providing relief for refugees. They are encouraged to do so through local or wider outreach efforts, as individuals, families, members of groups, or in partnership with other organizations. It is difficult to gauge the impact of such a decentralized effort, but stories are accumulating that show women and girls working on their own and with institutions to make their communities a welcoming place for refugees (see www.lds.org /refugees/stories). Meanwhile, the church formally cooperates with a wide range of organizations to provide international support to refugees, including the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Catholic Relief Services, International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent, International Medical Corps and the International Rescue Committee. Even this shortened list of partners forcefully shows the lasting good being done by faith-based groups and humanitarian institutions that do not represent governments.
One more example comes to mind, which again demonstrates the positive role of religious faith in world affairs. The Community of Sant’Egidio is a public lay association of the Catholic church. It was organized in Italy in the 1960s by a group of high school students who, quite simply, wanted to do good. It has since grown into a global community with some 50,000 members which has a history of promoting humanitarian causes. However, Sant’Egidio first came to my attention for their role in international diplomacy. Because of their work on behalf of the poor in Mozambique, the group was invited to mediate between warring factions in the country’s civil war. The result was a peace treaty in 1992, which began an era of democracy and stability in Mozambique that continues today.
Some might consider Mozambique an obscure place. They might also think of the work being done by Sant’Egidio, PeacePlayers International and the ‘I Was a Stranger’ initiative as just a drop in the ocean. Others might insist that governments remain the only ‘real’ actors on the international stage. Such views miss a vital point. Today there are more non-governmental groups than ever before doing good things at the community, national and international levels, many of them faith-based and many led by women. For those who feel called in this direction, there is an expanding horizon of opportunities for personal involvement as well as professional careers. They can also expect to experience something that rarely if ever happens through government involvement – the deep, inward, personal change that happens when people use their own volition and energy to reach out and strive to make a positive difference in the world around them.