Member Spotlight: Cassandra Lawrence

Lawrence, Mediator and Public Theology Fellow at the Institute for Community Engagement at Wesley Seminary, was interviewed by Emma Bohman-Bryant, MBBI Writer, on October 24, 2017

Inspired by a trip to Israel and Palestine at age 19, Cassandra began her journey in the peacebuilding field striving to understand why people fight and how society can better resolve conflict. As she visited Bethlehem, the Sea of Galilee, and Jerusalem, she ‘viscerally understood’ the impact of war but struggled to find an answer as to why people fight each other. “Being taught that everyone should love each other,” Cassandra could not reconcile the conflict in such holy places with her own experience. While challenging, this experience inspired her to learn about the Middle East, its history, religions, and conflict transformation which began her journey of mediation. Currently, as an independent consultant for the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers and the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, her work, through facilitating and leading workshops, helps multilateral institutions understand how religious peacemakers work. Cassandra is an active member and a strong supporter of MBBI and plans to become more involved in projects as opportunities arise.

Building upon her personal experiences, connection to her own faith, and curiosity, Cassandra’s work focuses primarily on understanding the role religion plays in the drivers of peace and conflict. As “many conflicts have religious connotations both overtly and covertly,” she strives to understand the different religious elements of a conflict,” to help people overcome secular and religious divides during peace processes and intra-religious engagement. Her work involves grassroots organizing, collaborating with interfaith groups to facilitate training, and engaging the UN to help transform their understanding of religious worldviews.

Cassandra’s affiliation with MBBI began with the organizations’ network. While studying for her master’s in Belfast, Northern Ireland, she connected with Kenneth Cloke and became involved with and learned from the mediators’ community in Belfast. She acquired 40-hours of mediation training from community mediators in Belfast connecting mediation theories with the practice. This provided her an “insight into an important nexus that academic institutions do not always connect to.”

On advising young peacebuilders, as she reflects on this experience, “show up,” she said. “At the end of the day,” she elaborated, “I think that the most important part is showing up and listening.” In the field of peacebuilding, because this work is context-dependent, there is no ‘best’ process/approach, she believes. Although, the best mediators, she elaborated in this interview, are those who are not only creative but also flexible, those who are “trained in multiple methods and tools” and know when to step in and step back.

Cassandra also works with the arts to promote a more peace-able world. Currently, she is curating an art show for her church on “the diverse expressions of the Holy family – Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” An image of Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son, for example, while a still life, speaks to deeper themes such as welcome, return, and grace. Images like this, Cassandra explained “can function as a snapshot of time that allows people to disconnect from their personal experiences and use an art piece to reflect on something in a way they wouldn’t do personally. Art can be a vehicle used to talk indirectly about individuals’ experiences. If there is a good facilitator involved, these indirect discussions can be moved to direct conversations about individuals’ experiences.”

The most meaningful experience in her career as a peacebuilder was her work with Auburn Seminary’s Face-to-Face Faith-to-Faith, a program that brought together youth across conflict lines to engage in dialogues with one another. In the process, she taught youth mediation and conflict resolution practices. With youth of 16-17 years old, Cassandra noticed that while they were aware of political conflicts, they wanted to talk about home and school conflicts. She realized that political conflicts “had distilled into the family level, increasing stress and anxiety levels for everyone involved.” For youth, she said, “this can be even more distressing” as they may not understand why their family acts in a certain way which is often “exacerbated by the fact that families often try to shield their children from the reality of a situation.” This experience, Cassandra stated “helped me understand the inter-family dynamic that exists within conflict zones and areas of conflict, whether it is a war zone or a place of incredible tension.”

Peacebuilding is not an easy task and it inherently addresses a difficult question.  Reflecting on Re-Centering: Culture and Knowledge in Conflict Resolution Practice, and recent conversations, Cassandra is contemplating “my/our” role as peacebuilders and mediators in building, sustaining, and recreating power dynamics, and how the peacebuilding community can become more intentionally aware. “This also made me realize that in mediation, you have to work not only to create the new vision of community but also how justice can play out within the new vision,” she said. While often pondering how to model processes where justice, equity, and peacebuilding can happen? And how to build into the processes new visions? Cassandra thinks that conflicts are also inherent to societies and relationships. “It is how we respond to conflict and what we do with it that creates negative or positive reactions,” she explained.

“I have begun to use more language relating to justice in my peacebuilding work, moving from racial reconciliation to racial justice and equity. Primarily because I’ve become increasingly more aware [of] how white and economic privilege are central to conflict in the US. As a middle class white woman, it has made me more conscious of the access I have within our systems and the role that I can play in ending the cycles of dangerous conflicts.”

While she is inspired by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, Cassandra has also learned from other figures such as Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, and Badshah Khan. She considers Jimmy Carter pivotal in her understanding of religion’s role in conflict and diplomacy, and how it can be engaged at the highest levels. On the personal level, she finds inspiration through “living peacemakers…the ones without any books” and has learned from leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement; “I am inspired by their engagement in both internal and external transformation. Not only do they pursue justice they also pursue reconciliation and healing of the self,” she concluded.