By Sharon Goens
AFSC Twin Cities Healing Justice Program Director 

What does it mean to forgive? How do you define community? What is justice? Would it change if you’ve been harmed? What if your family was murdered right in front of your eyes?

These were some of the questions and situations we grappled with during a recent restorative justice course at Eastern Mennonite University. EMU is on a beautiful campus in Harrisonburg, Va., in the spectacular Shenandoah Valley.

Every summer EMU hosts a four-session summer peace-building institute (SPI). AFSC was awarded a Quaker scholarship for one session, and I was very fortunate to be able to attend.

Approximately 65 percent of SPI students come from other countries. My class included people from Rwanda, Liberia, Korea, Sudan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Papua New Guinea, and Syria, among others.

As we sat together and explored our experiences and attitudes about healing and restorative justice, I experienced a feeling of community that was transformative. I felt seen and accepted for who I was regardless of my opinions, nationality, or life choices.  It led to a quickly developed sense of belonging that doesn’t happen often for me in this country.

In fact, as we sat in circle one morning, many Americans struggled when defining community. “It can be your church, your neighborhood, or a chosen group of people,” one student declared. “Hmm…I don’t know,” said another.

In our American culture, we often parse out and silo “community,” giving it as many definitions as there are people to define it. For many of the African and Pacific Island students, however, it was much more simple. “It’s who you are,” explained Rukiya from Kenya. “It’s who picks you up when you fall.”  

What is lost when we can’t easily identify with all who inhabit our environment? What’s lost when we create “siloed communities” rather than learn to live with and love those who are there?

In Race-Baiter, author Eric Deggans points out that we currently live in a world where it’s very easy for us to live in and consume media tailored to our beliefs and interests. We can live among our people (e.g. class, race, political party), watch media that only supports our views, and don’t really have to have our perspectives challenged very often.

Sitting in circle, sharing stories, and watching videos about traumatic events with people who came from diverse cultural, religious, and ideological backgrounds helped me challenge my (often unconscious) beliefs. To hear firsthand from those who have experienced horrendous atrocities, like my classmate Steven*, left me feeling alternately horrified, shaken, and inspired. (Steven's story can be read here.)

We can cause great harm. As my classmate Johanna succinctly put it, “Hurt people hurt people.” And, because hurt people can also help and heal people, we carry within us a deep capacity for transformation, forgiveness, and healing.

My time at EMU gave me the opportunity to learn about other ways of doing things, to shake up my own pre-conceived notions, and to participate in community in a meaningful way. It was a rich and rewarding experience.