Volume 3 Number 9
Why the World Heads for Caux
01 October 1990
Michael Brown reports on a month sent in a conference centre half way up a Swiss mountain, where people from many countries gathered to `free the forces of change'.
Encounters in Switzerland
The two cog-railway carriages ground their way noisily up 3,000 ft of mountain slopes above Montreux, leaving the rest of the world veiled behind a hazy horizon over Lake Geneva. In the clear evening light above the haze, a jagged line of alpine peaks imposed a humbling sense of proportion. Gassan and Marina Gussejnov were at the end of a long journey from Russia - and not sure what to expect as they arrived at this small Swiss village of Caux.
Barely three months before, during a chance encounter in Moscow, the Gussejnovs had met a Norwegian and an Englishman who invited them to attend a series of conferences running through the summer in Switzerland. They knew next to nothing of the impressive conference centre in Caux, nor of the people of MRA (Moral Re-Armament) who hosted it. With the focus on East-West relations and `freeing the forces of change', Gussejnov, who is a professor of philology in the Soviet Institute of World Literature, thought the conference would be like many other academic exchanges.
But from the first session, in a hall packed with 540 people of 43 nationalities, something was obviously different. A Lausanne University professor, Werner Stauffacher, admitted that the Iron Curtain had for years allowed Westerners selfishly ,not to think too much about the countries of the East'. The curtain which divided Europe for 45 years, he warned, must not be replaced by a similar division between the rich North nations and the poor South. And an Indian social worker told how she had stood before the broken Berlin Wall, overcome with the consciousness that in India - where the concept of political non-violence was born - many were now clamouring for the erection of a barbed wire fence along the border with Pakistan.
As well as overcoming the political and economic consequences of Europe's divisions, said a Polish architect, help was desperately needed to `overcome the moral consequences of the inhuman systems which have ravaged Central and Eastern Europe, to heal the wounds between nations and within nations'. In 1940, the architect's wife, of Jewish descent, survived three weeks in a cattle wagon being deported into Russia. She spoke grippingly of a recent visit to Auschwitz, where she had cried out to God in anguish: `Where were you that you allowed such degradation?' Then, before a Cross erected for a pilgrimage of the Pope, she had struggled to the realization that she had to forgive as Christ had.
In slow dignified tones, Black South African Henri Fazzie told of his 21 years' incarceration on Robben Island, along with Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders. `We are not fighting against white people,' he stressed. `We are fighting against the oppressive laws of the government.'
And an Afrikaner, Pieter Horn, added that apartheid was not just a bad policy socially and economically, but `also a sin against God Almighty. Those of us who have been part of it have to put right what we can and then ask God to forgive us. Then maybe God can use us as instruments of healing the hurts and hates which lie so deeply in our society.'
These were hardly the abstract concepts the Gussejnovs were used to hearing at conferences. `We were astonished that questions connected with the fate of Europe and the world were looked at through personal and sometimes very intimate experience,' said Marina Dimitrieva Gussejnov, a historian at the Soviet Institute of Art History.
Yet, they admitted later, they were suspicious. And the exotic buildings must have heightened their suspicions. That first evening, over coffee in a large ornate meeting hall, they heard one of their hosts describe how this had been a luxury hotel, built at the turn of the century - and that Europe's aristocracy had sat under this same domed ceiling before gliding into the elegant ballroom for the evening. During World War I refugees were crowded into the hotel, reducing it to a state of abject disrepair. Then in 1946 a small group of Swiss had combined their financial resources to put a deposit on the place, eventually raising the funds to buy and restore it as a conference centre where people from war-ravaged Europe could meet in a spirit of reconciliation.
Conferences, for people from around the world, had been held there every year since. They were staffed almost entirely by unpaid volunteers, and supported by contributions. Those attending the conferences pay what in good conscience they feel able.
`We asked ourselves, "What is behind all this?",' said Gassan Gussejnov. `Double think has become part of us. It took us several days to realize that some things are as they seem to be; what is on the surface here is the same as what's behind. This lesson is absolutely unforgettable for us.'
Part of the lesson was joining one of the work shifts anyone could volunteer for. The Gussejnovs found themselves serving cool drinks after the evening programmes. It reminded them of the `voluntary work' they had been obliged to do at Pioneer Camps during student days - except that here the work was `really voluntary and responsible'. Another Russian, a professor of philosophy, after a week as a member of a kitchen work shift, said with a wry grin: `All Russian philosophers should come to this place... and all should work in the kitchen!'
Elsewhere in the large kitchen, Neophytos and Antigone Christodoulides from Cyprus donned aprons to help prepare lunch for some 600 people. With a Polish Solidarity organizer, they laid out slabs of frozen fish, part of a 2,000 lb consignment which comes each year as a gift from a fishing village in Norway. A bearded Australian musician was turning 190 lbs of sliced carrots in a huge fritter; and a demure Sudanese woman, who turned out to be a lawyer, was cutting leeks. While preparing salad bowls, a Swiss engineer and a Polish nuclear physicist vigorously discussed the pros and cons of nuclear power in the Eastern bloc.
The Caux conferences are full of such encounters. A German university student, Helena Pick, had been into Eastern Europe twice, but found it `grey and depressing'. Her view had changed, she said, during the hours she spent talking with her Romanian roommate. Several times the Romanians in Caux had asked, with some anguish, why the world had forgotten them for 45 years. `We just did not know you. But now that we know you, we can never forget,' said Helena Pick. `For me, the Iron Curtain lifted this week.'
Germans and Poles
Just before her, Artur Grzbowski from Poland spoke of `two levels of understanding: one is stamped by culture, the other goes deeper and is the same for all people. Caux is a challenge to get to this deeper level; it creates the possibility of overcoming our national egocentricity. Here we see the problems of the world and can look on ourselves as Europeans, not just Polish.'
Of all the meetings across boundaries, the `dialogues' between Germans and Poles were perhaps the most difficult. In the first week of the summer programme about 50 from the two countries met informally, translation provided. The first minutes were filled with awkwardness, said Heinz Krieg, a retired art teacher from Berlin. Then a young Polish woman confessed the fear she had felt when she saw huge Mercedes arriving in Poland, with West Germans shooting videos of their former homes: `Here they come again,' she had reacted. Her bluntness did nothing to reassure those present. Two Germans got entangled in a heated argument.
At the end of the session there was a sense of disappointment: `We cannot leave it here,' said Krieg, who with his wife has worked for years to create human links between East and West. Next day they began again. Discussions were intimate and not reported - but the Poles publicly thanked the Kriegs as they left. `Friendships were made for life,' said Krieg.
The Kriegs had similar exchanges with professional actors of the Moscow Arts Group who presented scenes from Chekhov and a contemporary drama, both in Russian. `This place is like the dream we had at the beginning of Communism,' said one of the troupe. Krieg spoke with contrition of his participation in the Third Reich, and of serving in the siege of Leningrad. Not a family was untouched by the war with Germany, said the Russian actors; but not a family remained untouched by the suffering inflicted by their own government also.
Russians and Estonians, Hungarians and Czechs, Poles , and Ukrainians, exiled dissidents and long-serving authorities of the regimes they opposed - for days Caux was a ferment of such meetings. But there was a note deeper than just glasnost.
`We Soviets are guilty before so many people,' said journalist and philosopher, Vladimir Zelinski. He recalled watching a TV newscast of Russian artillery being used to destroy large parts of Beirut. `I did not have anything to do with the production of those weapons, but I felt a strong sense of shame in the face of so many people... Lebanese, Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs, Afghans. We must find the strength to repent within.'
Referring to a young German who spoke before him about the Berlin Wall, Zelinski continued: `These walls which we must smash are first of all within our souls. We don't have a free Russia and an oppressed one. The two Russias are intermingled within us. Repentance, a search for inner freedom and individual responsibility - these can contribute to the solution of our problems.'
Gassan Gussejnov was amazed. `Quite honestly,' he said, `before we came here we didn't feel we had any personal responsibility for what has happened in our country - we always felt alienated from the State.' Visiting Caux, he said, had encouraged them to find `a moral involvement in affairs - the most important thing for our country'.
Gussejnov took a seminar on 'Inter-ethnic conflicts in the Soviet Union', his specialization. The collapse of ideology, he said, leaves `not an empty place, but an ugly place where we are all searching for someone to blame - we live in an atmosphere of diffused hatred where you do not see exactly who is the cause of your problems. And the best scapegoat is always a minority.' The involvement of the world community was needed, said Gussejnov, to correct the wrong understanding of democracy `as the right of a majority to suppress a minority'.
As often seems to happen in Caux, answers to his plea came from unexpected sources. Like the Christodoulides from Cyprus, who left their cooking shift for 30 minutes and came to the conference hall to describe how in 1974 they had fallen to the floor of their home, filled with fear and bitterness, as the bombs of the Turkish invasion exploded around them. On their knees they had asked God for protection. God's message, they felt, had come very clearly: `Trust me, get rid of your hatred, and leave now.' They had left with only the key of their home, and had not returned since. But they had never lost the vision of curing hatred and blame in Cyprus - starting in a refugee camp where they lived for 13 months. Today they meet with Turks at their place of work `to create bridges for the future of Cyprus'.
Or like one of the 13 in Caux from different factions in Lebanon, a place of ethnic hatreds if ever there was one. Living in the Christian side of Beirut, he had `accepted the traditional view that Muslims are our enemies'. After his first trip to Caux three years ago, he started making visits to the other side of Beirut, `without telling my family, for I knew they would object'. Recently, he and three friends had been stopped at a checkpoint by militiamen and taken off, fearing the worst... only to be suddenly released. `Yes, I was afraid and may be again in the future,' he admitted. `But I did not and will not stop meeting the people of the other side of Beirut. Love is the cure for our nation, and love means to sacrifice and seek the welfare of others.'
Brave words. But hatred does not `turn into love just like that', as a gently-spoken Finn put it. Anja Snellman was one of several young Europeans who had planned and coordinated `a youth-hosted session' in Caux on `Shaping a new Europe'. It drew a large influx of young Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, East Germans.
One meeting focused on the need for reconciliation and renewal. Anja Snellman related simply how for years she and her step-mother had kept on hurting each other. `It is strange how you can draw the worst sides out of each other; every negative word would bring up floods of bitterness.' She could not say exactly when `the evil circle turned the other way'. But she knew that none of the heavy feelings towards her stepmother remained. `It is not a human thing. It has to do with Almighty God... a miracle. I would not stand here if this was not a real thing to me,' she said with quiet conviction.
That, in essence, is the heart of what happens at Caux - a process in which struggle and suffering in a person or a community become not a means of compounding bitterness and divisions, but of creating an alternative. It is as if the past redeemed provides a platform of wisdom and experience for the future.
Such was the case for the German parents of a drug-sufferer, whose addiction started after sexual abuse by a relative forced her from home. The turning point came, said the parents, when they could face the offending relative, not with blame but liberated from all bitterness. Only then could they start to restore the relationship with their daughter, who not only broke her own addiction but is now helping other young people at risk.
And such, one could say, was the case of 12 young men from rough neighbourhoods of Atlanta, in southern USA. The Black Teen Advancement organization they began was both the product and the process by which they emerged from uncontrolled Blackon-Black teenage violence.
The Atlantans were among 76 Americans - ranging from a police chief to local activists - who flew in for a week's consultation on `Getting to the root of the crisis in our communities'. Again, it drew a wide range of participants and problems - from the Solidarity-activist Mayor of Lodz, grappling with Poland's unemployment crisis, to the community leaders from Rio de Janeiro who are trying to establish noncriminal leadership among their 13 million fellow shanty-town dwellers in Brazil.
Arching over everything that happens in Caux is this sense of a task being tackled, of social and international reform, of a 'moral involvement in affairs' as the Gussejnovs put it. Doctors and health practitioners closeted in one room, wrestling with professional and ethical issues , in their industry. Trade unionists and shop-floor managers talking about quality and motivation at the workplace. Actors and artists in a forum on expressing truth in their creations. An exchange between scientists on critical environmental issues. Managing directors and corporate executives of American, European and Japanese companies engaged in the latest 'Caux Round Table' on overaggressive trade competition and Third World development problems. `We can no longer leave it to others to put pressure on governments to make changes,' declared these business leaders. `A change of attitude on the part of corporations will provide the necessary momentum for social change.'
Such a wide range of issues and people can be perplexing, even overwhelming, to the newcomer. 'Caux is like the world - too big, too many countries, too many situations,' said Laure Ziminski, a student from France. `I'm a timid person. But I decided to go towards people, and the response was so encouraging.' Those who have the courage to plunge in find relationships and insights which are empowering.
To some the whole amorphous structure of the MRA operation at Caux - or, more precisely, its lack of structure, with informal meetings planned by many varied groups under no chain of command except an illdefined `collective leadership' - is close to anarchic. Yet profound things happen in people and situations: `miracles... the work of God Almighty', to use Anja Snellman's terms.
Quoting from the Qur'an - that God has never changed those people who have not first tried to change themselves - Ghayasuddin Qureshi, a leading spokesman for the Muslim community in north-east England, said his visit to Caux had been `a great moral renewal'. MRA was common ground where people of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish religions could meet, added Prof Qureshi, who is also Chair of the Information Panel of the Tyne and Wear Racial Equality Council.
Whether it was `the work of God' was vigorously debated amongst the 15 Hungarians, often till well past midnight. But, as Miklos Szabo put it: `Being an atheist or having another religion doesn't lead to any sort of discrimination here. God is between us, among us, and the language is the same in every country.'
As if to illustrate his point, a Hungarian violinist followed him on to the platform: `Instead of words, I want to play for you my music.' She played Meditation on Thais with such feeling that her young audience - more accustomed to Madonna than Massenet - burst into thunderous applause.
For in the last analysis, the conferences in that large old hotel above Lake Geneva are dialogues of human experience and spirit, eloquent in any language -even without words.