Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

Establishing the Culture of Encounter

One year ago this week I found myself standing on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the midst of a crowd 3.7 million strong.  The occasion was World Youth Day and the multitudes of young people present had arrived from almost every country in the world.  Beyond the breathtaking beauty of Rio complete with the iconic Pão de Açúcar mountain in the background, something even more beautiful was happening all around me.  Flags from almost every nation in the world were waiving together side-by-side in friendship and unity.  For a lover of international peace and understanding this was a foretaste of heaven.  One of the major attractors of the crowd was the presence of the newly elected Pontiff – Pope Francis.  As Francis delivered a beautiful message to the crowd, I learned a new term that has defined the mission of my life.  On that day Pope Francis called on the whole world to establish a culture of the encounter.  Now, one year later, I find it surreal that I am sitting in a classroom in Bangkok, Thailand with 17 international leaders from 11 different countries discussing issues surrounding world peace.  I can’t help but think that this is a significant piece of what establishing the culture of the encounter is all about.

On day one of our classes at Chulalongkorn University, we set out to define terms surrounding the study of International Peace and Conflict Resolution.  In the context of our studies, “conflict” was defined as any situation in which two or more parties perceive that they possess mutually incompatible goals.  As I contemplated implications of this definition, it occurred to me that naturally, resolving conflict would involve one or more parties acquiescing their interests.  I then contemplated what it takes for anyone to acquiesce interests.  In reality, some of the conflicts that this life produce are grave.  It is very difficult to acquiesce anything if one feels that their life is on the line.  The only circumstance in which one would acquiesce interest is if there were a degree of trust involved.  It therefore naturally follows that the only way to move from conflict to resolution is by establishing trust.

Given that trust is essential to resolve conflict, the question then becomes what establishes trust?  Thinking back on my own life experiences around the world I am drawn to recall one of the most successful peacemakers that I have ever met.  In Brazil I met a Catholic priest who entered a notorious favela slum controlled completely by an extremely violent drug cartel.  No outsider would dare enter where he went because it would likely be a death sentence.  He was armed only with words of love and care for those he met.  Today this priest lives in that same community.  He is trusted.  When no one else dares, he walks the streets at night, approaching the armed drug cartel leaders and lets them know that they are loved.  Since he started working there the violence has dropped drastically.  Literally lives have been saved, and the community is one step closer to peace.  So what was the key to his success?  What was the key to him establishing trust?  He established a relationship with the members of the drug cartel.  Relationship is the key to establishing trust.

When I think about a culture of encounter I think about establishing relationships.  I think about sitting in a classroom like I am now working to solve complex issues of conflict with new friends from Sudan, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines.  I think about how we can sit together and come to mutually beneficial solutions – even when it involves acquiescing personal interests – because we have encountered each other personally.   Our encounter has led to relationship and relationship has yielded trust.  I am also drawn to think of the personal trust it takes to be the first to take a step to foster the encounter.  Those who are on the front lines of peace are the people sitting around me in this classroom.

Pope Francis took the namesake of the patron of peace – Francis of Assisi.  As I study international peace and conflict resolution I realize the profound wisdom behind the culture of the encounter.  I am eternally grateful for the Rotary Peace Fellowship which is working to build the culture of encounter that this world so desperately needs.

Jeff Runyan, USA
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2014 Session


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