“When I arrived here on the first day of the course, I had a hard heart, full of desire for vengeance”. I felt like a dry withered flower without hope” the symbol of how I felt is this empty cup”. I was like this crumpled-up tissue broken by pain.” These are same of the statements made by participants of the ESPERE (Schools of Pardon and Reconciliation) course that we recently gave to a group of educators at the Center for Human Rights and Popular Education (CDHEP) here in São Paulo.
ESPERE means hope in Portuguese/Spanish and the course helps participants learn to transform anger and desire for vengeance. It also offers theoretical and practical training in pardon and restorative justice so as to build a culture of peace.
We live in a society marked by violence: structural and interpersonal. Violence in the family and society from injustices, misunderstandings, and a lack of dialogue affect all of us. The cycle of hate and vengeance destroys so many families and communities. Political peace or cease-fires can be proclaimed by government or warring factions but these are ineffective if social peace is not constructed at the community level.
At one time, Colombia was considered the most violent country in the world. Today, it is one of the few countries in our world that has successfully lowered its levels of urban and interpersonal violence.
ESPERE Schools of Pardon and Reconciliation have been a helpful strategy in this process. ESPERE was begun in Bogotá, Colombia in 2001 by Leonel Narváez, a Consolata missioner and sociologist with a doctorate from Harvard University.
For many years, Narváez worked in Kenya and, later on, in the Amazon region of Colombia. It was there that he saw how the cycle of violence repeats itself with the victim becoming aggressive and continuing the cycle.
Narváez found the Fundacion para la Reconciliación (Foundation for Reconciliation) and ESPERE has spread throughout Colombia where reconciliation centers work with diverse populations such as victims of violence, displaced people, gang members, children, adolescents, adults, prison inmates, community action groups, etc.
Over 60 neighborhoods in the most violent areas of Bogotá have been implementing these Schools of Pardon and Reconciliation. Territories of peace have been established in neighborhoods. Significant changes have been noted in the transformation of familial and neighborhood conflicts.
In 2004, the city council of Bogotá passed a resolution to implement a compulsory class of Human Rights and Reconciliation in all of Bogotá’s educational institutions. Throughout Colombia, violence within families has decreased, along with a marked improvement in personal and community relationships.
Narváez mediated negotiations between the Colombia government and the leaders of the revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, the largest of Colombia’s guerrillas groups). He has worked with more than 1,000 ex-combatants of Colombia’s para-military and guerrilla groups and helped to disarm and reintegrate them into society.
Most of these ex-combatants are young people between the ages of 18-25 who have witnessed, and sometimes participated in, horrible and cruel acts. ESPERE provides them with an opportunity to recuperate, heal, and rebuild their lives. In Colombia, more than 20,000 ex-combatants have been reinserted into society.
Internationally, more than 3,000 facilitators have been trained in the methodology of ESPERE. They are from 11 different countries including Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Italy, Senegal, South Africa and Ethiopia. ESPERE has won many awards including one from the United Nations as well as the 2006 Honorable Mention Education for Peace Award from UNESCO.
How do the Schools for Pardon and Reconciliation function?
In our world today, there is much information about methods to resolve conflicts, mediation, non-violence, and how to build a culture of peace. ESPERE uses this theoretical information but also offers individual and group dynamics in which participants learn to transform their anger and rancor.
It works with four fundamental aspects of human beings: cognitive (knowledge), emotional (feelings), behavior (actions), and spiritual (transcendence). In a violent situation, the victim, as well as the offender needs help. Victims in a conflict, many times, feel that they have little power.
Those who continue to feel that they are victims eventually turn into aggressors unless they learn to deal with their hurt and angry feelings. Rage and resentment accumulate over time and in some communities, this rage and hatred are collective and get passed down from generation to generation. For centuries, societies have passed law after law to combat violence yet our world seems to get more violent.
ESPERE works on restoring relationships by giving people a safe place to tell their story, to free themselves from the bottled-up anger and pain, to forgive or ask for forgiveness. Pardon is seen as a process and a decision that benefits, not only the aggressor but also the victim.
It is not a matter of forgetting what happened or excusing destructive behavior but learning to perceive the situation in a new way. Manifestations of anger and aggressions are many times a cry for respect or help. It is a willingness to look with new eyes and see more than the limits of the person who offended. Some of the modules of the program have titles such as: “I see with new eyes,” “I learn how to listen,” “I decide to forgive,” “I share the pain,” “I construct the truth,” “I work for justice” etc.”
The program helps to identify and understand the origin of conflicts and offers strategies and training in non-violent conflict resolution techniques. Restorative justice principles are an integral part of the ESPERE program.
Restorative justice is a process that involves, to the extent possible, those involved in a specific offense or crime (victims and offenders) to meet together and identify harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal .
It is a way to help offenders understand how their actions have impacted others, to take responsibility for those actions, and to make restitution. Restorative justice provides an opportunity for dialogue between the victim and offender. Many times, the process involves the community and provides for the restoration of relationships, thus improving the social fabric.
ESPERE in São Paulo
ESPERE is being implemented in São Paulo at CDHEP ( Human Rights and Popular Education Center), which is located in Capão Redondo, an area marked by social exclusion and high levels of urban violence. CDHEP works on community leadership formation, violence prevention, and the formation and articulation of social movements.
One major goal is to form citizens who actively participate in society to bring about more justice. CDHEP works with educators, the family, the community and with public agents. It participates in municipal and state forums, promotes courses for popular legal promoters, and educates leaders in the defense of human and environmental rights.
The ESPERE course of 40 hours has been given to a group of municipal police offers and to groups of educators. Those educators who have been trained in the program are now giving the course to their students in 15 different locations.
Our goal is to break the cycle of violence and to deepen the notions of “real” forgiveness and reconciliation as well as to build ‘territories of peace.’ The course with children and adolescents is part of a larger program called “I Am a Citizen”, whose objective is to deepen the notion of citizenship and to strengthen values, attitudes and actions in defense of life, thus overcoming violence.
In evaluating the course, comments from the educators and the police included:
* This course made a big difference in my life. Now when conflicts occur, I think, I reflect, I try to listen to both sides.
* I am less aggressive. This course helped me learn to deal with others and their conflicts.
* I thought that it was weak to ask for forgiveness. Now I understand differently.
* I feel an inner peace and am ready to bring the light of Espere to my students.
* My family and co-workers have commented that I am different. I am calm and I listen. I don’t explode in anger.
* It is my pride that keeps me from forgiving. I’m learning how to deal with my anger.
* I am ready to take this knowledge and compassion to others.
* I understand now what it really means to forgive.
ESPERE acknowledges the role of spirituality in generating compassion and solidarity which are essential parts of social change. It recognizes the importance of individuals and communities to cultivate spirituality as a way to build a future without violence. Our work is on an individual and social level. Forgiveness can heal the wounds and stop violence. Building a culture of peace demands social commitment to join with others in working to change the economic, social and political structures that also cause violence.
Joanne Blaney is a Maryknoll Lay Missioner in Brazil.
Brazil Justice Net – http://www.braziljusticenet.org