Just Children: Mobilizing Young People as Peacemakers
Today’s post features guest blogger Michael McGill with Breakthrough Partners, a ministry whose work I deeply appreciate. Eternal Perspective Ministries has supported their work for many years. Through an initiative called Just Children, they’re now working to carry out Christ’s call to be peacemakers and to care for vulnerable children through an innovative strategy that equips young people—in places impacted by both poverty and conflict—to be peacemakers in their communities. I love what their ministry is about and look forward to seeing how God will use their efforts to spread the gospel and bring glory to Himself.
Shreya’s Story of Exchanging Cycles of Violence for True Peace
by Michael McGill
Ask a typical American teenager about their experience with war and violence, and you’ll find that it’s usually limited to R-rated movies, explosive video games, and snippets from news programs. But for fourteen-year-old Shreya*, who grew up amidst the horrors of war in northern Sri Lanka, this was her reality.
As part of the Tamil ethnic group, she hated the ruling Sinhalese and their military that killed her father, her little sister, and other villagers when they attacked. But she also grew to hate the Tamil Tigers who took her brother when he was only thirteen and forced him to fight and die on the front lines of their battle for an independent state.
There was little opportunity for education and virtually no healthcare in such a place of instability and violent conflict, and sometimes little food as well. Shreya and her two remaining siblings often went hungry.
When Shreya was twelve, her mother moved the family to a makeshift squatter’s slum just outside the capital city in hope of finding work. It proved to be a fateful choice for her daughter. In these poor communities, sexploiters often prey on the vulnerable who have little hope of seeing justice done. Not long after they moved, Shreya was tricked and sold to be raped by a well-protected man in the city. She was devastated. When she found her way back to her home in the slum, she felt hopeless, ashamed, and angry.
As the weeks passed, Shreya considered taking her own life or escaping from the slum in some other way. She knew that some of her friends had joined the Tamil Tigers to fight and they usually had enough to eat; but she also knew the girls were often sexually abused or died in battle. Other girls and boys turned to prostitution to get by. Shreya saw how violence had lead to so many problems in her life and country; but she knew few other options.
Not long after, a friend providentially brought her to a gathering where she could get food through a project of a local Christian organization. There she discovered that they also had an active children’s program. Shreya was skeptical at first—mostly just watching and listening. She was surprised to see children working together to bring peace and prosperity to their communities and receiving help from adults to do so. She was even more surprised to see once-hopeless children appearing joyful and speaking of “Jesus forgiving, and giving new life and the ability to forgive others.” A glimmer of hope began to rise within her. After months of watching, Shreya decided to risk trusting Christ as she saw other children doing. She soon felt her burdens lifted and found a new ability to forgive others as she had been forgiven, which gave her freedom to serve others.
Shreya joined the Youth Safety Patrol, where small groups of children regularly patrol her community acting to help prevent violence, educate other children, and report crime to trusted adults. Shreya was thrilled to have an opportunity help others avoid the abuse she herself had suffered. She also began working with other children building reconciliation between Tamil and Sinhalese people groups through sports, song and dance activities, and special ceremonies of repentance and forgiveness.
“I feel hope for the future,” Shreya said. Her problems were far from over, and she knew she alone could not save all children in her community from violence and exploitation. But she also knew that she wanted to join with others to bring peace and healing to her country as Christ had begun to do in her own life.
Sadly, Shreya’s experiences of suffering are all too common today, and the opportunities she found to bring peace to her community are all too rare. Nearly 90% of our world’s 2.2 billion children live in developing nations (UNICEF 2011). Nearly 80% of the poorest nations in the world have experienced a major civil war in the recent past, and in some countries, over half of the population is under 18 years old (UNICEF 2004). Countries where youth represent a large percentage of the population have a much higher risk of terrorism, war, and other violence (Urdal 2004; Heinsohn 2005).
Breakthrough Partners’ Just Children initiative believes children and young people in these high-risk countries are not a burden—rather, they are a valuable asset to be nurtured. We have a unique opportunity to show Christ’s love by better helping his little ones be known as peacemakers who shape brighter futures for their nations. The abundance of young people in these high-risk areas provides a chance to equip and mobilize peacebuilders like Shreya, and thereby, help to break cycles of violence and build cycles of peace.
*Shreya’s story is an amalgamation of several children’s stories in order to protect their identities and give an image of the many challenges these children face.
Learn more about Just Children at www.JustChildren.org. If you would like to contribute to their cause, you can send your designated contribution to EPM and 100% will be passed on to the ministry. You can also give online at www.breakthroughpartners.org/giving.htm and select “Just Children” from the drop down menu.