Ryan Bell interviews the founder of the New York Center for Conflict Dialogue in his second report from a recent gathering of Religious Peace Fellowships:
I sat down for breakfast at the Stony Point Retreat Center for the first full day of meetings of the Religious Peace Fellowships and as I spoke to a Mennonite leader about the Seventh-day Adventist peace work, the man to my right leaned over and said, I'm a Seventh-day Adventist. I was shocked. There were only about thirty of us and we were intentionally chosen a representatives of different denominations and religious groups. What follows is a brief introduction to Spencer Chiimbwe and an interview focused on the way his faith has shaped him in the work he does today.
Spencer Chiimbwe is a Zambian national residing in the United States since 2006. Throughout his life he has been involved in conflict transformation at a national and international level including being a Peace Fellow, Action Researcher and Coordinator for both the Coalition for Peace in Africa in Southern Africa Region and for the ACTION Support Center. He is also a member of the Global Partnership
Tell me about your childhood. Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like economically, socially, religiously? My childhood can be traced in the interactive neighborhoods of Mindolo in Kitwe, the hub of the Copperbelt province of Zambia. The environment was socially inspiring, economically challenging and a wide choice of Christian religions to choose from.
It was socially inspiring in the sense that I draw most of my inspirations to move forward from a diversified and interactive social stratum from Mindolo and its surrounding neighborhoods. A strong sense of neighborhood and parental involvement in the welfare of children was key to our upbringing and most friends from Mindolo and surrounding neighborhoods are in positions of academic, religious and professional prominence because in my humble estimate, we all tapped into the social motivations.
Economically, with an exception of teachers and other people that had managerial and administrative positions in surrounding companies that were mostly service providers to the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines, most parents, including my father, used to go underground to mine copper and it was with this mining occupation that our parents got meager salaries that allowed them feed huge intended and extended families and of course send us to school. I am the third born in the family of seven.
The poverty levels in Zambia are generally high. Families and institutions alike have challenges sustaining their welfare. For example, when I was preparing to go to Junior Secondary School, I was sharing a book called Get way to grade 8 with my friends until my father bought one. More than 10 kids were sharing that book so when it was my turn, I made sure I read the whole night to get the most out of it. The system of book sharing continued throughout high school.
How and when did you become a Seventh-day Adventist? Religiously, my mother, who was from a Jehovah’s Witness background, introduced us to a Seventh-day Adventist Church that was opening at the nearby school. That was in the early 80’s. My brothers and I started attending and were taught Seventh-day Adventist doctrine. I have served in most Adventist positions at the church level from Usher to Elder.
When did you realize you wanted to be involved in conflict resolution and reconciliation work? I may not necessarily remember when I realized but during the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development held in South Africa, I attended some parallel forums where I felt I found my passion to add value to the world of conflict resolution. Further, I was inspired by the work of the ACTION Support Center which I came in contact with during the International Peace Conference held in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2003.
Tell me about your education from college through any graduate school? I went to Mukuba Secondary up to high school and later on got a professional project management diploma from Damelin, South Africa. The program is administered by Cambridge University. I have also done some courses in international relations with the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.
What role has your faith played throughout your life and work? I always feel the presence of God in me, and I am bold to say that even without the presence of a church, masjid or synagogue, the presence of God in me will always be a cutting edge in all circumstances. Faith in God in my life and the lives of others has always been a tower of strength. The church has provided an incubation and platform through which I realized my leadership capabilities at a younger age. I started understanding leadership before I knew the word ‘leader’ and the church, together with my community, provided that environment. From Busy Bee to Master Guide, I have seen a coherent thread of theoretical leadership which, when put to use, one could not help but become a leader for all seasons.
A moral compass is always challenging and difficult to maintain without the spiritual fiber that God provides through the church or any house of worship. I got this from the Seventh-day Adventist Church and I have seen colleagues that have tapped into this from their houses of worship.
The only frustration is that, with the changing dynamics in our generation, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has misplaced and misinterpreted the power of old time religion. I believe the principles of evangelistic or any other outreach are the same but the methods must change according to time. The church has a challenge to bridge the generation gap without which it will lose the youth. A church without youth will be tough mission to sell to the world. And, by the grace of God, I am up for the challenge.
When did you come to the United States and what were the circumstances? Initially, I came to the United States in 2005 as part of the South Africa delegation to the Global Partnership for the Prevention Armed Conflict at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. I finally came back in May of 2006 to continue engaging in Civil Society work and later on founded the New York Center for Conflict Dialogue.
Tell me about the New York Center for Conflict Dialogue. What do you do? What is your objective? The New York Center for Conflict Dialogue was formed out of the need to organize, coordinate and facilitate platforms through which thematic forums on conflict can be conducted with a view to resolving conflict.
We have hosted a number of forums including the prospects of peace in Sudan, in the Democratic Republic Congo and have also addressed the impact of the global economic collapse in world peace and poverty. We have facilitated parallel forums on Arms Control at the United Nations and we have screened documentaries on behalf of our partners to spark dialogue.
How do you see your current work in conflict dialogue and peacemaking intersecting with your spiritual and religious life? I am a believer in the fact that knowledge brings responsibility and responsibility brings accountability. I would like to see the church embark on the process of empowering pastors and the laity with conflict resolution tools that are not only confined to theology. Where I see my work intersecting with my religious life is where I sit in the faith based or interfaith forums and suggest processes that may be injected in resolving conflict should the church be receptive to ideas.
Have you heard of the Adventist Peace Fellowship before? No! But it is high time the Adventist articulated clearly about its position on peace, injustice, civil liberties, etc. Blessed are the peace makers! I hope we will never assume a passive role in our dying quest to prepare the world for the Kingdom to come.