ARK: Architects for Peace Through Relationships and Knowledge: A piece of the peace puzzle

Photo by Chiqui Ryan. Elaine Klaassen at ARK for PeaceBY ELAINE KLAASSEN

For peace is not mere absence of war, but is a virtue that springs from, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.  
– Baruch Spinoza

There are many ways to work for world peace. One of them is to create the world we want—a world where war isn’t necessary, nor even possible. That might be a long way off. But ARK for Peace (Architects for Peace Through Relationships and Knowledge) is a step in the right direction. It’s the idea of warding off war at the pass—preventive medicine. It’s people (mostly young people) learning to solve the problems that lead to armed conflict, such as misunderstanding between cultures, lack of food, economic inequality, etc.
In June I was privileged to attend ARK VI, a gathering in New York City of peace builders from the U.S. (one of whom was born in Iran and maintains close ties to family still living there); Pakistan; San Lucas, Toliman, Guatemala; Bethlehem in Palestine; the Baltic country Lithuania;  and the southeastern African country Malawi. We ranged in age from 13 to 91. There were 47 of us, including ARK’s founder and director, Ms. Judy Maghakian, and her husband, Rev. Harry Maghakian. Many of the people knew each other from the five previous ARK meetings, held in Guatemala, Palestine and the U.S. since ARK was founded, in 2003. Over the past 12 years ARK has become a global family, so, for many, the NYC meeting was a big, nine-day family reunion. Those of us who were new are now part of the ARK family.
Over a 24-hour period, all participants arrived safely at our Manhattan hotel. Immediately next door were steps leading up to the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant where we gathered daily to cook, eat, study, talk to each other, dance and sing.
The first evening while we were eating, the group from Lithuania jumped up and sang a beautiful folksong in perfect harmony. It turned out they perform as a folk group, called Vorusnele, the name of a famous river.  They sang many times throughout the nine days. One night, blending their voices with the group from Guatemala led by Chiqui Ryan, a well-known Guatemalan singer songwriter in Minneapolis,  they sang the most soulful version I’ve ever heard of Beethoven’s “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” It brought tears to my eyes. Veronica Dawkins, a friend of the pastor of the church, Rev. Dr. Cornell Edmonds, came to teach the whole group how to be a backup choir for “Oh Happy Day,” that tune made popular in “Sister Act,” with Whoopi Goldberg. We sang it in the church service on Sunday, with Veronica and Julia, one of the Lithuanians in ARK, singing the lead. I think it was an unforgettable experience for the global family to be singing gospel music.
To get to know each other culturally we had “Guatemalan night,” “Palestinian night,” etc., in which each country cooked a typical meal for everyone and then presented a program representing their own traditions and experience. I don’t have space to list all the wonderful menus we tried, the lovely dances and costumes we saw, and the sobering truths shared.
Every morning we went out into a nearby park or a quiet cul de sac to play games. Anybody on the street could know we were together because we all wore     the same color of T-shirt (different each day) that said: “Agenda 2015 and Beyond. ARK/ THE WORLD WE WANT/United Nations New York/June 16 – 25/” We were a group of old and young, and many different flesh colors, laughing and playing games like tag or duck, duck, gray duck, or whatever anyone wanted to teach from their culture.
We met daily in small groups, each made up of people representing all the countries in attendance, to discuss issues facing our countries, to find our common problems, and to find the problems we should be witness to. Whenever we talked about women’s rights suddenly everyone talked at once. The moderator gave up. It was a very emotional topic. On the last day, we met with all the people from our own country to determine a course of action. What can WE do to build a better world? was the question. The list from the U.S. was: 1) Advocate for Palestine and Guatemala, two oppressed members of our ARK family; 2) Lobby policy makers about the environment, watch our consumption, talk to people about loving the environment, etc.;  3) Promote education!! Volunteer to read to kids, attend school board meetings, make preschool available to all children.
We had speakers from the United Nations talking about the Millennium Development Goals, which, since their implementation in 2000 until 2015, have made a lot of progress in reducing extreme world hunger, securing more equality for women, and controlling deadly diseases, for example. We also learned about the U.N.’s history and structure and reviewed The Declaration of Human Rights. A member of the U.S. delegation, Kevin Parsneau, a political science professor at Minnesota State University in Mankato, presented a concept known as “The Three Faces of Power,” which describe the dynamics of who controls whom within a society. I believe that until we understand these really well, we will never be able to work toward justice—which is the basis for peace. We were scheduled to be present at a meeting between the NYPD and a group of New York clergy, but it didn’t work out. That was disappointing.
There were a lot of informal field trips, with Times Square and Central Park being the usual destinations. Mostly I hung out with my roommate, Chiqui, the musician, and her Guatemalan friends and relatives. We especially liked the CVS down the street for its cheap souvenirs, OJ, milk and chocolate. One of the cashiers, whose unidentifiable accent blended with the hundreds of others we heard (half of NYC is from somewhere else), asked about our T-shirts. As we left she said, warmly, “When you achieve world peace, let me know.”
As a group we visited the United Nations, about four blocks away, the Ground Zero memorial and Staten Island.
So, how did all of this get started, who paid for our New York trip and what did we accomplish?
In the year 2000 Judy, the founder and director, had a vision to bring together a diverse group of young people who could get to know each other, form friendships and gain political knowledge of each other’s circumstances. The Maghakians had already designed and hosted over 42 work-study opportunities around the world, so this global peacebuilding program grew naturally from that long-term effort.
The Maghakians are accomplished and gifted fundraisers. I’ve been with them informally at restaurants or wherever to hear them say to some stranger, for example, “Hey, what’s your tattoo? Tell me about it.” They can start a conversation with anyone and they know everyone. Charismatic doesn’t begin to describe their hopeful, energetic demeanor. And I know their charisma is rooted in a deep, deep faith in the love of God. They raised all the money to pay the expenses of every participant in ARK.
Just to demonstrate the kind of force behind ARK: The Maghakians have started three successful organizations in the Twin Cities that continue today: Liberty Plaza, an affordable housing project, 1968; People Incorporated, a mental health program; The Loft, an inner city youth program.
Given that the core principles of ARK are “cooperation, caring communication, appropriate expression of feelings, appreciation of diversity, responsible decision making and conflict resolution,” I would say all of these were at work in our gathering. These ways of interacting will go home with these exceptional and outstanding ARK participants as they grapple with the particular issues of their local and national  situations.

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