Volume 14 Number 5
The House of Love Has Many Rooms
01 October 2001

Mary Lean finds some remarkable companions on the road from fear to love.
Where else would you find fighters from opposites sides in Lebanon's civil war sharing a platform to talk about the windows of faith in their lives?

The setting was spectacular, high above Lake Geneva with blue mountain peaks framing the horizon. The theme—taken from the Dutch spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen—was profound: 'Moving from the house of fear into the house of love'. But, as always, it was the people who made this session of the summer's conferences at the MRA/Initiatives of Change centre in Caux, Switzerland, so extraordinary.

Where else would you find fighters from opposite sides in Lebanon's 15-year civil war sharing a platform to talk about the 'windows of faith' in their lives? Or survivors of the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia asserting that 'the house of love has many rooms'? The discussion groups which met afterwards to chew over these contributions were unusual too: ours included 13 people from eight countries and five continents.

The conference—the third in an annual series on 'Life, faith and fellowship'—provided an opportunity for people of different faiths and many nationalities to reach together towards that encounter with the transcendant which makes us truly human.

Besides the speeches from the platform and the group discussions the conference included a guided reflection every afternoon, culminating in a shared period of silence; workshops on 'painting from within', 'bodymind/movement awareness', the songs of Iona and Taizé, and the basic ideas of MRA; and an early morning opportunity for 'walking meditation'. A play on the American poet Emily Dickinson—which some might consider an esoteric subject—moved a multicultural audience with its interweaving of the lives of its subject and its performer, Edie Campbell. The meals were prepared and served by volunteers drawn from the discussion groups and led by trained—and courageous—shift leaders.

The theme for the week was set on the first morning by a British doctor, John Lester, who described the different fears he encountered among his patients and in his own life. Fear of going against peer pressure had caused Western society to discard a long agreed moral code, he said. 'In the past, when the code of conduct was generally accepted, fear made people hold back. Now it makes them go too far too fast.' He saw the results in the girls who came to his surgery with unwanted pregnancies.

He called on his audience to cross the bridge of faith from the house of fear to the house of love. 'The house of fear is a house of selfishness, self-centredness: of looking inwards,' he said. 'The house of love is a house of selflessness, of other-centredness; of looking outwards. The house of love is the house of God. When we live there we reflect his love to others. We don't possess it, we reflect it.'

Over the following days an astonishing range of speakers shared their experience of making the journey from fear to love.

Muhieddine Shehab, the Mayor of Ras Beirut in Lebanon, admitted that, as a leader of a Muslim militia in Lebanon's civil war of 1975-90, he had 'committed atrocities'. 'Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a man who fears for his life and property,' he said. 'Self defence can quickly turn into vengeance and the wrongful taking of life. What motivated me and people like me to take up arms was absolutely evil.

'The atrocities I personally committed or was accomplice to have in the end rent my conscience and turned me into a person who suffers nightmares, a person torn by regret for wasting his life and the lives of others.' And then, very slowly, in a manner which left no doubt of his sincerity, he said, 'I want to say that I am sorry for what I did.'

He went on to describe how once, after a long night of fighting, he had sent some men to collect breakfast for 30 militiamen from a local shop. When the shopkeeper told them they had not brought enough money, Shehab sent back three thugs, who took the food by force.

'Twelve years later, when I started to walk the path of repentance, faith and love, I knocked on the shopkeeper's door at night,' Shehab continued. 'He was frightened. I told him that I had come for two reasons: to apologize to him, in front of his wife and children, and to give him the price of that breakfast I robbed from him.' Two years later, when Shehab ran for mayor, the shopkeeper and his wife offered to campaign for him. 'Now he is one of my best friends,' said Shehab. 'That's what love does.'

The next speaker, Jocelyne Khoueiry, had fought on the other side of the barricades from Shehab, as a leader of a corps of Christian 'girl soldiers'. She described how, in 1976 at the age of 21, she had led 13 young women who occupied a building in the centre of Beirut which had previously been used by Muslim snipers. One night, just before an attack, she had a powerful spiritual experience which eventually led her away from military action and back to her studies.

Four years later, the commander in chief of the Christian forces, Bashir Gemayel, asked her to take command of all his women soldiers. Khoueiry was planning to refuse, when he told her of his concern that young Lebanese women were losing their sense of values and of belonging. 'I accepted without any hesitation. We had to work quickly to help open hearts to respecting the fine, fragile line which separates the right to self-defence from unbridled violence,' she said. In the process, she found her attitude towards the enemy shifting. Khoueiry left the militia in 1985, and in 1988 founded a women's movement which focusses on education, prayer, family relationships and the fight against poverty and ignorance.

For Didacienne Mukahabeshimana, a nurse and trade unionist from Rwanda, the journey from fear to love had led to founding a women's group, which visits prisoners accused of taking part in the genocide.

Mukahabeshimana spoke of the desire for vengeance which possessed her after she lost relations, neighbours and friends in the killings of 1994. 'I thought that to gain inner peace, I had to resort to vengeance. During this period my life had no meaning and I asked myself why I had not died with everyone else. I became more and more ill and desperate.'

A turning point came when she had the courage to revisit her life and look towards the future. 'An inner voice told me. "Your life is not over. No one can change the past, but everyone can prepare their future: recognize your wounds, accept your anger, then bit by bit, begin to change your behaviour towards those you call your enemies."'

In 1998, she went to witness the public execution of some of those involved in the genocide. As the prisoners arrived and were prepared for execution, the crowd in the stadium was overcome by fear. 'I began to shake and sweat. When the first shot was fired, we wanted to escape, but the police would not let us. What we had seen as a punishment had become a new crime. As I shook, I asked God's forgiveness for my feelings of hate and revenge and asked him to rest their souls in peace.'

Thanks to the visits of her group, she went on, many prisoners had repented and turned to God. 'They have admitted their crimes and await their sentences in peace.'

She was followed by Son Soubert, a member of Cambodia's Constitutional Council, who spoke of how he had worked for 30 years with his late father, Son Sann, to restore democracy to his country. They had learnt from MRA, 'to light a candle rather than to curse the darkness'. In the mid-Seventies they had founded the General Association of Cambodians Overseas, to unite Cambodian exiles at a time when the West seemed indifferent to the genocide taking place in their country.

Son described how his Buddhist faith—and the psalms of David which he had learnt at school—had sustained him when shells fell on a village of displaced persons where he was working in Cambodia, and when his father and he were subject to political and physical attacks.

'The prisons of fear still exist in my country,' he concluded. 'The fear of young people facing their future without the prospect of work and employment. The fear of farmers confronted by the guns of the soldiers who] ]occupy their land and by food insecurity. Fear caused by intimidation, harassment and political assassination on the eve of local elections in February 2002 and parliamentary elections in 2003.'

The final speakers that morning, a couple from South America, spoke of their pride in their well-behaved, talented sons and of the nightmare which began when they discov]ered that the eldest had a problem with drink and drugs. 'For three years I did not sleep at night until I heard his key in the door and there was always this great fear of how he would be when he arrived,' said the mother. They had begun to blame each other for their son's problems, until they finally found the courage to talk openly together about their fears.

Eventually their son had chosen to seek help. The process of recovery had been slow: on the day he smiled for the first time, his mother had burst into tears. For the last 11 years he has been helping other addicts on the path to rehabilitation.

These were dramatic stories, from people who had triumphed over fears and events which most of their audience hoped would never come their way. Others spoke of more universal challenges: the young man who had become reconciled with his mother and stepfather and with the father who had abandoned him as a child; the woman who had risen to the challenge of new responsibilities, overcoming her fear of loss of control; the doctor who had recognized that all her life she had been afraid of admitting her need for love.

On the final evening of the conference, people spoke from the floor of what the week had meant to them. For one it had been a chance to spend time with his family, away from the pressures of his work: 'the most wonderful six days of my life'. For another, a Christian evangelist, it had been a] challenge to meet people of other faiths. A Vietnamese refugee expressed her pain at her country's role in the sufferings of Laos and Cambodia—and spoke of her decision to return to work in Asia later this year. And as Muhieddine Shehab, the Lebanese mayor, lit a candle alongside the week's other speakers, he said, 'I have moved from the house of fear to the house of love.'
Mary Lean