Sentinels of the Aurora

Por: Yarelis Rico

Yarelis con el Padre Leonel Narváez y Paloma A. Monroy

The Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation (ES. Pe. RE.) in Cuba celebrated their sixth anniversary. From that inaugural experience in Havana in 2012, others have been detached in eight provinces of the country thanks to the multiplication of a volunteer who believes in forgiveness as the foundation for building an authentic culture of peace.
A national meeting that brought together more than fifty animators of this initiative on the island, had among its guests Father Leonel Narváez, missionary of La Consolata and creator of the Foundation for Reconciliation, who was born in Bogota with the purpose of accompanying people and communities suffering from the Colombian armed conflict. Narváez is also the inspiration for the ES program. Pe. RE., whose methodology (awarded in 2006 by UNESCO) seeks, through participatory dynamics and conversational spaces, to stop a cycle of violence and generate peace. Accompanying him was also the director of the Foundation, psychologist Paloma Andrea Monroy.
Their personalities, with the naked eye, surprise. He, a man of intellectual background, paused in his speaking but passionate in criticism, perhaps because of that conviction that accompanies him after having lived the violence in Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda, Rwanda, Eritrea and in his native Colombia, where he accompanied for three and a half years the peace processes. She, an expressive woman, builder and entrepreneur of actions, open to new possibilities and the sum of new interests and disciplines that enrich the ES methodology. Pe. Re. With both, Word New converted.

In times when many people suffer the irrationality of violence that comes, even, justified on liberating and emancipating grounds, it may seem illusory to create schools or foster spaces where reconciliation is promoted, where people are encouraged to forgive. Despite the Christian teaching of not responding violently to your aggressor, politics, economics and even relationships between people follow more the popular saying of “eye for eye and tooth for tooth”. Why then is this still-sustained desire for a Foundation for Reconciliation and Schools of Forgiveness?

Padre Leonel Narváez.
Padre Leonel Narváez.

Leonel Narváez (L.N.): “After my experience in peace processes, I thought that the subjective causes of many violent conflicts (rages, grudges, fears) were never discussed agendas, that is, ignored, passed, if anything, below the negotiating table. On top of that they were, right or wrong, but discussed, the economic, political, military… but the issue of anger and grudges was never addressed. Over time we come to realize that only in the Latin American continent, the one that deals most, 80% of the killings (to talk about the purest and cruelest violence) happen by account adjustment, by revenge. And against that serve neither the military, nor the prisons, nor the death sentences. Something needed to be done, people’s hearts had to be worked on.”
Pigeon A. Monroy (P.M.): “And reconciliation was the way, not the goal. The Foundation was born when Colombia was in the midst of a crisis, in the midst of many clashes. At the time human rights defenders said, ‘Come on, what we need is recognition of the damage that is being done to us: there is an absence from the State in the face of the coverage of basic needs; there is a lack of respect for each other’s minimal humanity.’ But this attitude of demand, of belligerence, of application was not a climate conducive to building peace, because the insistent claim in my rights ends up going above those of the other. The right to claim, the right to confrontation ends up being the home conducive to a new confrontation. In the midst of this problem, Leonel and the founding team brought hope into the word and possibilities. That’s why Foundation for Reconciliation.”

That is, to work for that reconciliation to come…
Q.M.: “That’s right, to work so that we can develop, as people, as communities, as a school, as a ward, the skills that contribute to the exercise of reconciliation, that enable the encounter with the other. If we stay only in the mediating exercise, in the exercise of the requirement of rights, or only in the exercise of justice, we will probably remain carers of what we are missing as a society and not caregivers of the potential that we have.
“This is also a change in saying, ‘Yes, we have many needs, but let us also realize that there is a possible path in us. Let us begin to realize that we can regain trust, it is possible to begin to restore a series of principles and values as a society.’ In this exercise of the restoration of the subject, that is, when we think and build from the inside out, we not only value the importance of the development of an action plan, an agenda of reconciliation, a deliberative and democratic exercise, we also have the possibility to think about each other and to create together a better atmosphere to bring out the best in each one.”

Father, you are a man of the Church. To what extent did your religious formation and faith influence your decision to want to influence a society of violence since the proposal of forgiveness?
L.N.: “In 2000 and perhaps before, because I had the possibility of residing for some time in the region where the guerrillas lived, I constantly wondered, ‘How can the Church influence this reality of violence?’ I was not only concerned about guerrilla-related violence, but also interpersonal, family, school violence. It seemed to me a contradiction that what Jesus expressed about forgiveness and mercy did not come true in our Church, that although he lived doing charity, liturgies, ceremonies and a lot more things, he lacked to influence with concrete action in the political reality that Colombia lived: a guerrilla, an army, Colombians killing us among us.
“Jesus’ proposal to bring forgiveness to the last consequences, to forgive the unforgivable, has always seemed vital to anyone, regardless of the religion he professes or the ideology he defends. Undoubtedly, Jesus’ message was a great inspiration for the birth of the Foundation, although the project itself was organized by experts and scientists from the social sciences who were not necessarily Christians. A while ago I said in Madrid, at the University of Comillas, that the entity that least reflected on forgiveness was the Catholic Church, and that, in my opinion, was scandalous. It still is.
“The Catholic Church worldwide needs to regain the immense power of Jesus’ proposal. We have not realized that forgiveness is the backbone, it is the heart of Jesus’ proposal. I always say, ‘forgiveness is the core, it’s the heart, the rest is cosmetic.’ To what extent you achieve communion with God, if you have not forgiven before; if before you submit your offering, you have not reconciled with the brother.”

How much love can a process of forgiveness and reconciliation demand as those experienced by the victims of the war in Colombia? I am thinking of those mothers who forgave their children’s killers, the families displaced by this armed conflict, or those who live in mutilation today.
L.N.: “Love in excess. Forgiveness is the gift in excess. And that is God’s example to us. The Jesuit father Elias Palma defines it as ‘excessive love’. And that’s the proposal of Christianity, you have to love too much. Everything else is cosmetic.
“It has been difficult for me to understand how some people, victims of the most extreme violence, have been able to forgive. And the only answer I have for that is that they’ve gotten out of the God inside. God dwells in us, more than we believe. In Colombia we have more than fifteen contemplations of trauma, horror, victimizing facts: they took you out of your land, raped you, killed your husband or your son. There are people who can have twelve and up to fifteen of these enumerations, and one does not know how they forgive. Forgiveness is also challenging. He constantly challenges us.”
Q.M: “Something miraculous happened in Cuba. Dialogues between the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the Colombian Government could be accompanied. And those sitting at that table say that what really contributed to diminishing the polarization of the prospects between each of the two forces was the presence of the victims among them.”

Paloma A. Monroy, directora de la Fundación para la Reconciliación.
Paloma A. Monroy, director of the Foundation for Reconciliation.

How can we reach out with this proposal of forgiveness to those who have no faith?
Q.M: “Our methodology has no religious connotation or seeks to settle in any biblical passage. Forgiveness is a world heritage site, we are all called to live it. Usually, the person arrives on the first day at reconciliation school wondering ‘what did I come from?’, and one of the first questions released has to do with it: ‘Ask yourself for your memoirs: who are you? And the person, from gratitude, returns to that question of ancestral love.
“In an experiment conducted with an ES experience. Pe. Re. in Mexico, which included only women, participants were photographed on the first day of the meetings and at the end of the school experience. In the initial photos they were clearly seen the smallest iris, some level of dark circles and a more decayed look. At the end of the process, not only because more makeup was done (which is already a fortress itself, because you have the impetus to put yourself back in front of the mirror), but, really, their irises were dilated, they had a much more positive expression, fewer dark circles and fewer wrinkles. According to psychological evaluation studies in Colombia, particularly with victims of violence, within the framework of the war context, we realized that the Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation help reduce insomnia, anxiety and increase emotional regulation, which are three variables of emotional health.
“So, speaking a little love, not only related to faith, but also to self-esteem, scientific studies support this kind of process that stimulates forgiveness. Walking towards forgiveness is not an easy exercise and requires some courage to overcome a past event that is painful. But when you’re anchored in an ungrateful memory, that becomes an issue that stagnates your life project. There’s definitely an anchor that needs to be solved, which has to do with your self-love and love for others.”

Do forgiveness and reconciliation necessarily go hand in hand?
L.N.: “Reconciliation carries implicit forgiveness. To work on forgiveness is to walk towards reconciliation. Both are effective means of healing hatreds and desires for revenge. The theme of forgiveness is accompanied by another word, I would say that one points to the other: forgiveness is a subject of mercy or compassion. Both words gain increasing strength in academic universities, to such an extent that they come to say that forgiveness and compassion are the most powerful forces in the universe. We are happy, but well impressed, because very important institutions of the world, not Catholics, have expressed an interest in measuring the impact of ES. Pe. RE.”.

And has the Catholic Church, in particular, expressed any interest in this proposal?
L.N.: “No, and I take the opportunity to tell priests and bishops that it is worth sticking their teeth into a proposal that we have not yet used properly. We have a powerful tool in our hands, first to renew the Church inside (priests and nuns who fight, religious communities that live like dogs and cats) and, second, to help those 20-foot Christians who come to our churches so that they have a concrete proposal to solve their problems with the husband, wife, neighbor… family members, in the company.”

So you propose to take out the pardon of the confessionals?
L.N.: “And bring it to everyday life. We must leave the churches, wander the gospel, as the Pope says.”

To what extent can all the ungrateful memory of the past hinder this process of forgiveness, much more so when in that memory (focused on a person) it also influences or is crossed by a reality, a system, a policy?
L.N.: “A great manager of an international entity said that the Foundation, with the proposal of forgiveness and reconciliation, has contributed greatly to peace in Colombia. We, in my country, have not even come to touch a million people, we are barely in the nine hundred and something (we are almost fifty million people in Colombia) and yet I think that, either by the press, television, the interviews that do us, we have been generating an enabling environment in which they may not believe in forgiveness , but they also do not believe in weapons, violence, prisons and the two death sentences for the same person. We in Colombia, inadvertently, have made the scent come. The sorry proposal has made it much easier for us to continue building peace in Colombia.”
Q.M.: “Offense bursts into ideas, in the imaginary about love, about life, about relationships, about trust, about principles. The school of forgiveness, taking one of the approaches to managing emotions, shows that emotion results from what you think is going on, that is, it is thought that will generate an emotional reaction. That’s what one of the theoretical approaches to emotions says. Inviting the person to name and identify a person’s offense helps him reorder his thoughts and ceases to be dominated by remembrance, which, to the extent he is messy in it, generates him the level of emotional crisis or the level of reactive crisis he may be feeling. Hence the name of school, because it seeks to train, to teach.”

What future strategies do you have designed to take this proposal to other audiences, to other scenarios?
L.N.: “We want to extend the experience to the two most important scenarios of human life, the two spaces in which human beings occupy most of their time today: schools for children (where they stay eight to ten hours), and the company or factory (where the employee is also eight or more hours). The churches are running empty for us. And we priests, bishops, have to figure out how to get to the scenarios where people are today. Our foundation is determined to ‘cross’ the school with this proposal of mercy and care. For this purpose we have designed a methodology to get into school. We think geography, history, mathematics, biology should be taught… but always for coexistence and reconciliation. The future of humanity depends on how we live together.
“Factories and companies host a lot of rivalry and revenge. Some of the productive results are not achieved because people are not reconciled. The company raises problems, realities, conflicts that do not leave people to sleep well. And that insomnia, that concern, negatively impacts productivity.”

Although the issue of forgiveness and reconciliation has been talked about for more than two thousand years, today, in the face of wars, religious conflicts and violence that arises in social spaces and families, it resumes with some pre-eminence. Can humanity assume a culture of forgiveness? Can we learn to forgive?

Yarelis con Leonel y Paloma
Yarelis with Father Leonel Narváez and Paloma A. Monroy

L.N.: “The issue of forgiveness and reconciliation is marking a change of epoch. That we are coming with other religions to similar terminologies: mercy, compassion, care, forgiveness… announces that we are entering a different time. In fact, what is unceding religions is not the rites, nor the popes, nor the patriarchs or managers they have. We’re in the post-elected era. For many people, religions are starting to count little. But people do care about spirituality. So what a beautiful power to learn from Hindu, Baha’i, Jewish… of the Muslim! How beautiful to enrich yourself with the spiritualities of all! But that’s what you need to have a reconciled heart for.
“Catholics at one time wanted to kill Muslims, at another time, we wanted to eliminate indigenous tribes, ancestral cultures; just to mention two cultures that we need to reconcile with. That is, if we look to the future, a Catholic Church, truly Catholic, has to open up to these new ecumenical expressions, it is the reality to which history is taking us.” Ω

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