Peacebuilding and the Hard Work of Honest Friendship

At our weekly office meeting, a colleague read a passage from The Purpose Driven Life by the Christian writer Rick Warren:“Relationships are always worth restoring….. Broken fellowship is a disgraceful testimony to non-believers.” 

Often the most painful breakdown in relationships occurs between people who are working for the same cause. I recall a conversation with Ron Kraybill who has spent decades as a mediator, group facilitator, and trainer in peacebuilding. He remarked that some of the worst conflicts occur between people in the peacebuilding community. 

Ego, competition, and hurt feelings undermine the most idealistic projects. Those who build teams and coalitions in efforts to effect positive social change can expect to find among themselves the same tensions, prejudices, and fears as in the communities they hope to impact.

As I wrote in Trustbuilding:“Sometimes people are not prepared for the difficulties and disappointments they encounter in working with people with whom they thought they shared a common vision of community. It is often easier to love the dream than the actual people we are asked to work with.  Because they will disappoint and even hurt one another, the members of the core group must practice the art of forgiveness.”

A core principle in the Hope in the Cities team is that we will not walk away from difficult relationships. We must demonstrate the quality of relationships that we advocate in society. One key is to keep short accounts and deal honestly and quickly with issues as they arise. It’s humbling to acknowledge that I hurt my friends and colleagues. But being transparent about mistakes and weaknesses is a basic building-block for trust.

It is said that God gave us pride in order for it to be hurt. Some years ago I wrote a note to a colleague pointing out places where our teamwork might be improved. The response was a four-page rebuttal and an accusation of unworthy motives. My pride urged a rapid and outraged counter-reaction. But calmer reflection suggested instead that I call my friend and offer to go to her home. When I arrived, I found a completely different person. There was welcome, warmth, honesty, and vulnerability. The next day I received a one-sentence message: “What a journey!”

Peacebuilding is hard work and it does not mean avoiding conflict. Sometimes conflict is necessary. My most difficult moment as a leader was to have to tell a gifted and visionary person with whom I had worked for a decade that a particular pattern of behavior was causing unacceptable harm to our team. The parting was painful and for two years we had no contact; the feelings were too raw. And then, by an act of grace, the relationship was restored. Although we no longer work together, we find that the friendship and respect we have for one another is still intact and in some ways has grown stronger. 

True friends tell each other the truth in love. In Community and Growth Jean Vanier cautions about false friendship that “can very quickly become a club of mediocrities, enclosed in mutual flattery and approval.” He also notes that “If we come into community without knowing that the reason we come is to discover the mystery of forgiveness, we will soon be disappointed.”