For 490 years the liquid continent of Oceania has been called by the name that Ferdinand Magellan gave it, the Pacific Ocean (Mar Pacifico) because of its apparent stillness. World class navigator he may have been, but I believe history has proven that he was a bad judge of character. Or perhaps he was not aware of the adage that 'still waters run deep'. For far from the idyllic paradise described by artists and authors, beneath the calmness was a raging sea.
The Pacific region has had its share of wars, conflicts and tensions based over the past four centuries. In the last century the conflicts have generally been homegrown issues. But conflict is not something that exists merely on a provincial or national level but also on a social, communal and personal level. Wherever relationships exist there have been, or is the potential for, tension or conflict.
Wherever there are conflicts, there are people working towards peace and reconciliation. People who work in the field of domestic violence, crisis ministries and counselling programs, community conflict resolution or national peace-building in a post-conflict situation. As the churches continue to be an integral part of oceanic society, ministers, pastors and lay workers of the church often find themselves called to become peacemakers, sometimes despite a lack of formal skills and expertise or the opportunity to effectively equip themselves for this complex task.
On Monday approximately 40 Christian peacemakers from around oceania gathered at the Pacific Theological College's Jovili Meo Mission Centre for a three-week conflict analysis, trauma healing awareness and conflict resolution skills training intensive programme aimed at strengthening skills in peace-building and conflict transformation and developing the capacity of our churches to embrace this role.
This training intensive is the result of collaboration between the God's Pacific People program of the Pacific Theological College and the Pacific Centre for Peace-building.
At the official opening of this historic training program, the coordinator of the God's Pacific People program, Reverend Rosalyn Nokise, shared the origins of this collaboration.
"The seeds were planted for us over the past few years as we began to receive requests for learning attachments for church workers involved in working with conflict - some working at the personal and family level, others working at community and national levels, some at all levels."
The God's Pacific People program's Inspirational Stories project had also been working closely with the Anglican Church of Melanesia to document stories of how their church responded to the outbreak of armed conflict between 1998 and 2003. The documentation was published in the form of a book, Mission in the Midst of Conflict: Stories from the Solomon Islands. The book and the stories shared in it reinforce the need for our churches to be proactive, prepared and resourced in order to respond more effectively to the conflicts erupting in our region.
Reverend Nokise said that it became clear to them that there was a need for a training program to address these issues in a comprehensive way; ensure there was follow up support and to begin to build a network among the churches working in this field.
At the same time the Pacific Theological College was looking to how these expressed training needs could be addressed in conjunction with its academic programs at the college.
This need to equip the church in the area of conflict resolution found support from the Pacific Centre for Peace-building which was already making plans to be able to offer training with a local partner here in Fiji and so the collaboration began.
While this is the first Oceanic program of its kind for churches, both the God's Pacific People's program and the Pacific Centre for Peace-building acknowledged the work of UNDP through its CPAD project, (Capacity building for peace and development) to draw together peace practitioners from the region to further develop capacity building, share experience and expertise and develop a community of practice for peace drawing on stakeholders across the board, government, private sector and civil society including the churches.
The diverse, dedicated and vibrant group of peace practitioners involved in this new program are from those churches and country areas from where the initial training requests have come, together with some Masters in Theology students at PTC; members of the CPAD community and practitioners from the Pacific Centre for Peace-building networks.
In his reflection during the opening devotion of the program, the principal of the Pacific Theological College, Reverend Dr Feleterika Nokise said that just as exchange is the link between uniqueness and diversity; peace-building is one of the most crucial exchanges in the Pacific as it is an exchange that sustains life. He added that to "work as a peace-builder, is a commitment to connect us to the human family."
A group of men and women, representing participants from various parts of Oceania -Papua New Guinea, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and Fiji - gathered around to light the peace candle as a sign of God's presence and guidance, of their burning passion for peace and for the strength to shine this light in their communities.
As they spend the next three weeks participating in the Pacific Peace-building Training Initiative, this candle will remind them of their commitment to being bridge- builders, road-makers and agents of reconciliation. It will also remind them of the many people in oceania who are still living in the darkness of conflict.
May their time and your week be blessed with the light of unconditional love and just peace.
"Be still, stand in love, pay attention. "
* Reverend J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva.
* This article is the sole opinion of Mr J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org