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Peacemaking Over the Long Haul: Ten Tips for Christian Activists

By Jim McGinnis

"You are the salt of the earth.  But if salt becomes tasteless, what can make it salty again?" (Matthew 5: 13)
"With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, we too, then, should throw off everything that hinders us, especially the sin that clings so easily, and keep running steadily in the race we have started." (Hebrews 12: 1) 

At various times over the 34+ years that I have been involved in full-time peace and justice ministry with my wife Kathy, I have experienced my salt going tasteless and my desire to keep running grind to a halt.  I have come through those times with deeper insight, greater humility and gratitude, and a desire to share with others those factors or graces that have been so important in sustaining not only my own commitment, but that of other peacemakers with whom I have been privilege to share the journey.


1.  Prayerful union with Jesus.

Probably more than any other single factor, it is a deep sense of being in this ministry with Jesus, of being called, blessed, and sent forth by him that sustains me for the long haul.  I know that the time that I felt really burned out and the other times that I was approaching burn out were times when I allowed myself to be overworked to the point of not having real quality time for communion with Jesus.  For me, this "quality time for communion" means daily placing myself in silence before the Word of God in Scripture and before the image of Jesus on the cross.  I also find it helpful to offer myself in service on my knees -- asking for his blessing as he sends me into the day.  Weekly Communion ("Eucharist") is a must for me, and whenever I make time for a weekday reception of Jesus in Communion with a small faith community near our home, I experience a special closeness to my Lord.  I also find prayerful walks, especially at sunrise and occasionally under the night sky, to be opportunities for praise, thanksgiving, intercession, listening, and renewal.  My conversation with Jesus and reflection on my ministry are also enhanced by journaling and a yearly retreat of some kind.  Finally, tapes of prayerful music for those solitary rides in the car help to rekindle my vision, sense of purpose, and prayer.  I have found one chant in particular -- "Rainbow People" on a cassette entitled RAINBOW PEOPLE -- to be especially reinforcing of the vision and sense of purpose I have.  "We are a rainbow people.  We are beams of golden light.  We are the bridge to the dawning of a new day."


2.  Realistic expectations.

Despite my perfectionist personality, I am coming to accept my limitations and to set more realistic expectations for myself and for change in others and in the world.  As my "Rainbow People" chant proclaims, we are at "the dawning of the new day", not the fullness of that day to come.  Our moment is perhaps at 7:15 AM in the dawning process.  Having received the vision and passion from previous generations at 7:14, I have to be faithful to this moment of 7:15, and pass on the vision and passion to the next generation who will take responsibility for 7:16.  I am not the Messiah.  I donít have to do it all.  But I do have to do what I can.  I have some time, some talents, some energy, some contacts, some issues that really interest me, some opportunities to use those talents and contacts to respond to those issues or situations.  I am also learning how to accept and forgive myself when my memory or courage fails or my desire to control runs amok.  Having a spiritual director and access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in my Catholic tradition are truly graces for the long haul.


3.  Having a faith community

In its broadest sense, I am sustained by a sense of being in the struggle with so many other people of deep religious and moral conviction across the globe.  I am personally linked to them through solidarity projects in Nicaragua, through networks like our Parenting for Peace and Justice Network and the Families Against Violence Advocacy Network, through membership in organizations to affect public policy on issues of global economic injustice, hunger, racism, militarism, the death penalty, poverty, and the environment; and through interfaith efforts locally and globally to challenge racial and religious oppression and to foster a "Global Ethic", as well as efforts to renew our own Church. 

But itís the more immediate experience of my local faith community that sustains me even more.  Itís the staff and boards of our Institute for Peace and Justice, the Peace and Justice Committee at our church, and our family support group and prayer group that have carried us daily through 3+ decades of peace and justice ministry.  And Sunday worship at St. Alphonsus "Rock" Church in St. Louis is a incredible weekly grace -- linking us with the struggle and faith of African American people then and now.  Truly, as we proclaim in our Gospel hymns, "I Know Iíve Been Changed", because now "I Canít Keep from Singing" and "We Keep on Moviní".  I sense there a faith that can sing with deep hope and courage that "Everythingís Gonna Be All Right", "We Shall Overcome", and "Move, Mountain; Mountain, Get Outta My Way!"


4.  Models and mentors

From a distance I place myself in the presence of models of faithful ministry and nurture my own commitment through reading and videos.  I have drawn deep inspiration from the lives of Gandhi, King, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Jean Donovan, Elie Weisel, Francis of Assisi, Robert Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Sr. Helen Prejean, Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, Rigoberta Menchu, John Muir, Thomas Merton, Desmond Tutu, Etty Hillesome, and others.  What a "great cloud of witnesses" to keep us faithful to running the race to the end!

More recently, I have experienced the power of pilgrimage and focusing even more intensely on the lives of Jesus and Francis.  Going prayerfully into the places and lives of these two models and mentors has drawn me further into the power of their witness.  What a grace it was to pray with Francis in Assisi!  What a grace it is to regularly "put on" Francis and model his commitment to the poor, to peace, and to creation as "Francis the Clown"!  
Finally, it is models and mentors up close and personal who can affect us deeply.  For me, Jim Douglass -- his personal witness as well as his writings -- has long been an inspirational "thorn in my side".  Placing ourselves in relationship with people like Jim and Shelley keeps us humble, hopeful, inspired, and moving.  Especially when we are starting out in social ministry, it is important to have a model or mentor we can turn to for guidance and inspiration.


5.  Personal relationships

This factor plays out on several different levels.  At the deepest level, without Kathy, I donít know who I would be or what I would be doing.  Her love, example, collaboration, and support are priceless.  Whether it is a life-long partner or a close friend, unless our human need for intimacy is being met, we arenít likely to be joyful models, effective prophets for others.  At another level, I have found real satisfaction over the years in maintaining friendships across the country and across the world.  Greeting cards, phone calls, annual letters and follow-up calls, and visits while traveling have deepened and broadened my sense of communion, expanded my vision, and provided sustenance, balance, and inspiration for the long haul.  The "Beloved Community" is something to be lived in the present, not just worked for in the future


6.  Inspiration from those who struggle against injustice

One of the most encouraging aspects of the life of Oscar Romero is how clearly this conservative intellectual churchman was transformed and emboldened by the personal relationships he began to develop with the poor of El Salvador when he was named their archbishop.  The more he came to love them, the deeper and more enduring his commitment became.  Friends in  Peace Brigades International who have accompanied peasant leaders targeted for death in Central America offer the same witness.  And Iíll never forget the response of Nicaraguan friends during the Reagan-Bush years to the discouragement we expressed about our inadequacy to change US policy -- "we canít afford your depression", they stated bluntly.  In large measure, it is our friendship with Noel and Gretel Montoya and others in the remote village of Mu
lukuku that keeps us coming back to Nicaragua, raising funds, and challenging US policy.
In my own life and in helping others deepen their own commitment, I have discovered that most people sustain their commitment to an issue or cause to the degree that they are developing personal and mutual relationships around that issue.  Kathyís and my commitment and willingness to risk for racial justice are directly affected by the extent and depth of our interracial friendships.  So too with our commitment to stand against violence, poverty, AIDS, and the death penalty.  If we were not making friends with people who are experiencing these evils, I donít think our involvement would
be courageous and enduring.  This is also true of a long-term commitment to protect the environment.  I agree with John Muir, the great American naturalist, that knowledge will not save the earth, that saving the earth begins with savoring the earth.  I have tasted some of what Francis of Assisi tasted in his joyful experience of creation and found wonderful results from my own experiments in developing a friendship with the earth. (1)


7.  Beauty and gentleness

Part of sustaining a commitment over the long haul is precisely this joyful communion with creation, providing a healthy dose of both beauty and gentleness.  Some of the best antidotes to burn out for me have been those places of beauty I frequent -- the garden I cultivate, a little corner of beauty I have arranged near my favorite living room chair, the Japanese Garden in St. Louis, and some special place of beauty I search for as part of most trips I take.  Photography to enhance, preserve, and share these places of beauty has been a life-giving addition to my spirit.  So too have been music, art and poetry.  My meditative walks at sunrise and under the night sky have been especially helpful in learning and practicing what Thigh Nhat Hanh means by "being peace". (2)  Working for peace needs to be informed and sustained by "being peace".  The more agitated, frustrated, driven, overworked I have felt in my ministry, the less effective I have been and the closer to burn out I have come.  It took becoming a clown eighteen years ago to finally learn how to smile.  For Thigh Nhat Hanh, smiling is the most basic of all peacemaking tasks.  Smiling makes us gentler, radiates compassion and peacefulness, comforts and affirms others, and inspires others to act.  It helps to make us those "beams of golden light" from the "Rainbow People" chant and gives us a way of peacemaking that can be practiced even when we get to the point where age and health limit our activities.  This powerful peacemaking tool can be exercised even on our death bed.


8.  Physical exhilaration

My encounters with natural beauty drew me outdoors more and more.  Hiking became a passion and I began to experience the anti-depressant character of physical exhilaration and renewed joy and self- confidence.  As I age, I find even greater satisfaction and health in extending myself physically, whether itís gardening and chopping wood or (still a little) tennis and hiking.  I have more energy, more confidence, and a more peaceful spirit, all critical factors in staying the course to the end.


9.  Breaking new ground

It was a time of deep depression in 1986-87 that I recognized the need to break new ground, if  I was going to make it for the long haul.  I was joyless.  My self-confidence was gone. I was running on empty and relying on "old notes".  My salt had truly lost its flavor and zest.  During weeks of struggling just to get out of bed in the morning, my prayers for light intensified.  The tunnel was dark and I saw no way through, until the inspiration to try clowning was planted in my heart.  With clowning came the opportunity to experiment with a whole new persona -- to add the playfulness, the creativity, the courage, the compassion, the music and dancing I so sorely was missing.  Each day as a clown, I got to improvise and grow.  A whole new ministry for compassion and peacemaking began to open up, and it continues to open wider eighteen years later.  Gandhiís sense of life as a series of "experiments with truth" became real again for me.  Daily "random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty" offer all of us countless opportunities to keep from going stale.  I am learning two other important lessons for the long haul through all this -- (1) donít stay in any one spot beyond its life-givingness and (2) focus on what you can be wholehearted about, whether itís the issue(s) we are addressing, the approach(es) we are taking, or the people with whom we are working.


10.  Balance

This final factor is really a combination of the preceding nine.  Some great agents of social change bordered on fanaticism.  Others didnít have a great personal life. But Jesus as our main model shows us a life of integrity and balance.  And all the prophets and peacemakers in my experience who are still going strong are striving for a similar integrity and balance.  This balance is about many different things on many different levels.  Itís a balance of ministries -- involvement in social change efforts, compassionate direct service, and life-style/environmental concerns.  Itís a balance of ways to be involved -- using my head, my heart, and my hands.  Itís a balance of commitments and issues -- longer term and shorter term actions; local and global issues; peace, justice, and integrity of creation issues.  Itís a balance of personal life and ministry and a recognition that the time and energy we pour into relationships are part of the total package, maybe the most important part of the whole package, especially when we consider the ripple effect of our life and actions on generations to come.  Itís a balance of continuity and change -- staying with those aspects of ministry that correlate with our skills, passion, and opportunities, but open to change the particulars of that ministry should need or circumstances change.  Itís  a balance of prayer, study, and action; of work, rest, and play; of being and doing.
To maintain such balances in my life, I have found two additional factors helpful.  First, besides good personal support from family, friends and colleagues, I am blessed with good professional support, especially a good internist and a good spiritual director.  Secondly, I think we all need to build a sabbatical into our lives.  God gave us the Sabbath because God knows what kind of beings we humans are.  Besides making the Sabbath a day of rest and renewal, I have found a need for sabbatical moments in each day, a sabbatical day each week, a sabbatical weekend each month, a sabbatical two weeks each year, as well as the traditional academic sabbatical every seven or ten years.  While this more extended sabbatical may not always be possible, if we are faithful to these other mini-sabbaticals, we are more likely to remain faithful to Jesusí call to be his prophetic, peacemaking disciples for life.  Our salt will have zest.  Our light will beam brightly.  We will finish the race.


For a fuller unfolding of this article, see James McGinnis, JOURNEY INTO COMPASSION: A SPIRITUALITY FOR THE LONG HAUL (Orbis Books, 1993; also available from the Institute for Peace and Justice, 4144 Lindell Blvd., #408, St. Louis, MO 63119)



(1) See James McGinnis, EDUCATING FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE and FAMILIES CARING (both available from the Institute for Peace and Justice), for a 12-step process for becoming friends with the earth.

(2)  Thigh Nhat Hanh, BEING PEACE