As we step off the train in the centre of Luton, Peter Adams points out the notable sights. Across the road is Youthscape, just beyond it the tower of St Mary’s Church is visible (home of St Marys Centre for Peace and Reconciliation), and in the other direction is the estate in which the notorious English Defence League was formed.
In such a diverse city, with right wing extremists living in a neighbouring estate to a large Muslim community (with a few extremists of their own), it is easy to see why there is a need for reconciliation. In a place where conflict can easily spiral into violence, it is crucial to create safe spaces in the middle where people can engage in difficult conversations without condemnation. As Peter Adams calls it: ‘holding the centre ground’.
Peter started working at St Mary’s Church in 2007. Although the transformation into the Peace and Reconciliation Centre only began in earnest in 2015, it could be said that St Mary’s – sometimes described as ‘the black and white church’ due to its chequer-board walls - had a ministry for reconciliation built into its architecture 900 years ago.
It is impossible not to be inspired by the experiences and stories that Peter has gained through a life-long career as a reconciler. One particularly moving story centres around demonstrations in January 2016. A group of right-wing extremists marched into Bury Park in Luton, the site of one of the first purpose built mosques in Britain, carrying large crosses. In that busy street, they came across a young Muslim mother with her children and began to verbally abuse her; the video they took of the incident had millions of views. In the aftermath of the incident, St Mary’s and other churches decided to intentionally reach out to the Muslim woman and the wider Muslim community, taking bouquets of flowers with them as an act of support and friendship.
Later, when a priest was killed by a jihadist in France, this same woman reached out to return the favour. She joined Muslim leaders in presenting flowers to St Mary’s. It is through these acts of friendship, through her ability to testify against her abusers in court, that she realised that the right wing extremists no longer had any power over her. ‘She has walked a journey of forgiveness’, Peter tells us.
In contrast to Peter’s more active role in social justice, St Mary's Vicar Mike Jones focuses on cultivating ‘peaceable people’. He believes that many of us, especially activists, are responding to personal trauma, and thus from ‘gaps in their inner being’. To prevent conflict, it is necessary to equip people with the brain skills to overcome their own trauma before they are able to find more healthy ways of disagreeing and handling tension.
Mike and Peter see their different perspectives as complementing one another. Peter, as a conflict mediator, has always sought to engage with extremists and hear about the events and issues that has led to their anger. Mike seeks to reach out to individuals within his congregation and beyond with understanding and tools for personal growth, creating space for lamenting and conversation and gratitude.
The theme that we return to again and again in our conversation is that peace is never passive: the term that Peter uses for it is ‘waging peace’. Because peace is not simply the absence of conflict. Peace is something that we have to actively pursue through the way we inhabit our roles in society, our relationships with others, and even within our own thought patterns. Reconcilers Together will continue to work closely with St Marys Centre for Peace and Reconciliation as our Journey of Hope programme supports people to wage peace in their own communities.
by Bathsheba Wells Dion