An evolving experiment toward solidarity

Peiman Talib lays on a bed on the left side of the room while CPTer Mohammad Salah documents the testimony accompanied by her familiy members
CPTer Mohammad Salah documents the testimony of Peiman Talib, a survivor of Turkish bombing that hit her shop in Kuna Masi on June 25, 2020.

Many of the people who joined the first Christian Peacemaker Team trainings in the 1990s came inspired by Ron Sider’s 1984 vision of brave, committed Anabaptist Christians risking their lives to stand between warring parties. They did not realize that the activists, organizers, and those who had served in Mennonite, Brethren, and Friends organizations in North America and overseas had started CPT believing that Sider’s vision would not work. They knew that the kind of political work they wanted CPT to do—engaging the church in Nonviolent Direct Action—required building relationships with communities.

But those of us who joined the first training in 1993 did not.* Some had a commitment to the Ron Sider vision and wanted to be heroes;  some did not care very much whether they lived or died because of life circumstances at the moment—and there was some overlap between the two.  

The first project for newly trained CPTers was the accompaniment of the Parish of Ste. Helene in Jeremíe, Haiti that became the target of Haitian army and paramilitary attacks after the military coup that ousted Jean Bertrand Aristide. We came prepared to use all of the NVDA skills we had learned in training, but the Parish wanted us just to…be present, to walk around the neighborhood in a highly visible manner visiting with our neighbors. In the evening, back in the unfinished priest’s residence, we would talk strategies about ways to challenge the systemic violence of the coup regime, but we had no electricity and thus no way to bounce our ideas off our point person in Port Au Prince or the Chicago Office. Days, weeks, months passed, and we watched our neighbors grow hungrier and more desperate. We kept looking for reassurance from our translator that we were making a difference until he told us he was tired of the conversation.  Instead of enjoying the time spent with our neighbors and learning to deflect requests for aid graciously, many of us just became frustrated that we couldn’t prove we had caused something not to happen.

As we carried the CPT template of accompaniment, NVDA, and public witness into subsequent projects in Palestine, Chiapas, Washington, DC, and the Oceti Sakowin encampment in South Dakota, we began to notice something about CPTers who loved hanging out with people in the community, going to their dances, parties and listening to what was happening in their lives. They experienced less burnout, were learning more about what the people living in these locations wanted us to do, and in general, were more effective at the work. We began to understand that we needed to reconsider what we called “work,” and what we thought was “just visiting.”

The CPT accompaniment template was beginning to break down, and once Colombians joined the Colombia team, its demise was all but certain.

Nigerian author Teju Cole introduced the term “White Saviour” in 2012. Had we heard the phrase in our first 1993 training, perhaps we would have reflected more on the governing principles of accompaniment that other accompaniment organizations and we were following.   We had had antiracism training before we went into the field. Yet, at the same time, we were using as a core feature of our work that the Powers oppressing the people we accompanied considered our lives more valuable than theirs.  A person highly placed in the Peace Brigades (PBI) organization once told me that PBI called this advantage “effective racism.”  Most CPTers preferred the term, “passport privilege,” but when you stripped aside the rhetoric, the concept revealed itself as just…racism.

As we saw that the Colombia Team functioned more effectively with Colombians on the team and realized that our organizational culture had been traumatizing racialized people within the organization, we knew we had to overhaul how we worked. In 2009, we hired Sylvia Morrison as an Undoing Oppressions Coordinator, who confirmed that our accompaniment model was oppressive and having a negative impact within our teams, delegations, administration, and communications.

We began to focus on forming partnerships instead of protecting people, and our Mission, Vision, and Values, drawn up in 2014, reflects that change. We now build “partnerships to transform violence and oppression,” and “strengthen grassroots initiatives.”  These partnerships and initiatives now give us our direction. People on the ground tell us what they need, whether it is accompaniment, a social media campaign, political advocacy, or sometimes, accepting their hospitality.

You may think that I have judged the early years of CPT harshly. But by the time you read this article, I will have retired from the organization for which I have worked 27 years—in the field, as a writer and editor, and on social media.  I have written two histories of its work and origins. And I see that from the beginning, Christian Peacemaker Teams has been an experiment kept going by the love, commitment, hard work, creativity, and passion for transformation of its founders and those who came after.  This creativity has taken us to places where no other NGOs have worked and has often inspired others to follow us. It helped us respond to crises that happened to our teams and to our partners. It always keeps a bright, dynamic space open for responses to other invitations, when we have no money, when we have no people, when we have to say, “no.” It still, through the grace of God, keeps that space open.

* One lingering problem that the organization struggles with is the passing down of institutional memory.  Few participants in the first training were aware that CPT was on a track to become an organization of activist delegations, like Witness for Peace.

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