How Women of Faith Fought a Dictator with Nonviolence
To commemorate the International Day of Peace (September 21st), I had the opportunity to attend a screening of the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. I first caught this film at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. I reported on the God's Politics blog how this documentary tells a compelling story of how Christian and Muslim women of Liberia joined forces to combat the violent warlords and the corrupt Charles Taylor regime. During a press conference, I learned from Leymah Gbowee, the leader of this movement, that Roman Catholic Archbishop and former president of the Liberian Council of Churches Michael K. Francis became her spiritual rock. The behind-the-scenes prophetic presence of Francis and other religious leaders gave these women the faith fuel they needed to walk the walk.
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Armed with white t-shirts, the power of prayer, and their Bibles and Qurans, these women won a long-awaited peace that led to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female head of state and Liberia's first elected female president. In one scene that had the audience cheering, these women barricaded the site of the stalled peace talks in Ghana. The men could not leave the room even to eat until they drafted a workable peace plan. When the guards tried to arrest these women, they evoked the most powerful nonviolent weapon in their arsenal by threatening to remove their clothes. This strategy worked, as the guards chose not to bring shame upon themselves by forcing the women to expose their naked bodies. The women kept their clothes on but they also kept their promise that if need be, "they'll be back."
Following the screening, director Gini Reticker and producer Abigail Disney introduced a panel discussion with international women activists, which was moderated by journalist Lynn Sherr.
Leymah Gbowee, one of the subjects in the film and a Profile in Courage winner, was unable to attend the screening. I had met her at the press conference last year, where I asked about the role that faith leaders played in this campaign for peace. So I sent a question via email asking how faith leaders continue to assist her and got this response from Leymah:
My faith as a Christian plays a major role in the work that I do, having said that, faith leaders are extremely important in the work that I do and in my personal life. Peace activism is one of the most rewarding fields but has a lot of stress and related challenges associated with it. You constantly find yourself at a place where you are listening to more pains of afflictions and violence, while at the same time dealing with leaders that are not committed to protocols that they sign to or laws that they enacted.
For someone like me who is overly passionate about what I do, I tend to get angry at these contradictions in society at the same time striving to bring some relief to the individuals in a particular situation. Over time I realized I am over-worked and over-stressed but also sometimes at the end of my rope where God the just God is concerned. Many questions of how a just God can allow people to suffer. It is these times that the leaders of faith are of true essence to me. They help answer some of these questions and more.
Secondly, leaders of faith have over the years been the voice reechoing my call as a peace activist through their support. I have encountered Bishops and Imams who don't just encourage me but also are actively involved in ensuring that my work is a success. I often give the example of the Arch Bishop of the Catholic Church in Liberia, who was advising me back in 2003 and mobilizing resources for our campaign. I tell the story of an Imam in Liberia who spent an entire night at a prayer vigil we had. Even when all the Pastors had gone home he stayed giving us words from the Koran about the blessings of building peace. He stayed from 6pm till 6am through a night of heavy rain.
Women of faith have also proven to be my anchor when I feel like my strength is failing me through the prayers and constant reminder of where God is taking me through my work.
I count myself truly blessed having all the support from people of faith. I have no choice but to succeed in all that I set out to do because I have the prayers and the Grace backing me up.
During the month of September and into early October, the filmmakers are launching the September Global Peace tour to carry this film's message of peace in the face of violence around the world. For information on how you can host a screening or for information on any screenings near you, log on to their Web site. For those who cannot make the screenings, DVDs of the can be pre-ordered from the website starting October 15th and will be available at Barnes & Noble and other retail outlets on November 10th.
Becky Garrison is one of the many voices featured in the documentary The Ordinary Radicals.