Saboi Jum, a Kachin Baptist leader and peacemaker from Burma/Myanmar, died last month. I dedicated my first peace book (Christian Peacemaking, available for free download on this website) to Saboi. He was a friend who challenged me to take my peacemaking to a profoundly different level.
I first met him when he walked into my office when I directed the Peace Program for the American Baptist Churches back in late 1987. I was new on the job, and he asked for help to end a civil war in Burma of which I knew nothing. I had nothing to offer but a few books and my best wishes. Later when I was involved on the planning for the International Baptist Peace Conference to be held in Sweden in August 1988 I suggested Saboi as a panelist for peacemaking stories from around the world. His presentation electrified the conference as he called for Baptists from around the world to help bring peace to his country. Many of us were in tears, but Mennonite guest John Howard Yoder challenged us Baptists to get serious about peacemaking beyond prayers and protests. He encouraged us to check out what John Paul Lederach was doing in Nicaragua.
So that winter Saboi and I spent a focused time consulting with Lederach and with Walter Wink and Richard Deats of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Out of their wisdom and Saboi’s understanding of the context in Burma we developed a strategy for a new peace initiative in Burma. We worked with Jimmy Carter and the International Negotiation Network at the Carter Center. From that time until 1992 I was the only non-Burmese citizen on the Burma Peace Committee that sought to open negotiations between the military dictatorship and the ethnic insurgent groups. We began with the Kachin Independence Organization, headed by Saboi’s childhood friend Brang Seng, but then broadened out to the entire Democratic Alliance of Burma. It was an amazing journey with secret meetings in Hong Kong and Thailand, sending communications back and forth between rebel leaders and junta generals.
And in the middle of some of these communications Saboi would be in our home, playing with our children. He was a guest our kids grew up with over the years. Saboi and his wife Nang Bawk and their daughter Ja Nan (who later became the director of Saboi’s Shalom Foundation) were guests in our home many times.
That negotiation process in Myanmar was a partial success, leading to a ceasefire with the Kachins that lasted for almost 17 years. However, the alliance between the Karen and Kachin groups and those on either side was fractured over disagreement about whether to pursue peace or continue the fight. Beyond that complex situation in Myanmar, I discovered that in many conflicts around the world non-governmental actors, including religious leaders like Saboi and like Lederach and the Nicaraguan church leaders, were playing key roles in mediation efforts to end wars. We also saw many religious leaders taking key roles in nonviolent efforts to end oppressive situations. It was a ripe moment in history for peacemakers to step into many conflicts with courage, creativity, and hope.
But then I was pulled off the Burma peace process by my agency at that time. It was another complex story I tell in Peace Warrior. Again the breakthrough was stimulated by Saboi. We were at another International Baptist Peace Conference, this time in Nicaragua in 1992. I told Saboi I could no longer work with him. Many of us were devastated, and Saboi was angry. But one night in Nicaragua a few of us stayed up dreaming about what might be the way forward as religious peacemakers with all these opportunities for engagement crying out from around the world.
That night gave birth to the dream that became a fund and project for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. I eventually joined the BPFNA staff to lead the international projects. We continued our work in Myanmar with Saboi, who received the first grant of the fund to support his mediation efforts. We also began our partnership with Naga peacemakers in northeast India. Eventually, seeing the impact of the BPFNA work in Myanmar and Nagaland, International Ministries of the American Baptists called me to do the same work full-time as their Global Consultant for Peace and Justice. The results have been incredible to behold, training hundreds of peacemakers in over 50 countries. We’ve seen mediation processes that have halted violent conflicts. Many of us have become international peacemakers in ways we’d never thought possible. True, we’ve seen many disappointments, but we also participated in far more eruptions of hope.
Saboi Jum was that spark and initiator for thinking bigger. My job today wouldn’t have even been dreamed of if Saboi hadn’t pushed us. For that gift I will be forever grateful. Rest in God’s peace, my dear friend. You never saw the fullness of peace in your own country. There was progress and there was regression. Peace has always been a messy process amid our human realities. You plunged in and did what you could. Now you can rest in God’s grace knowing you stirred us to work that is rippling to distant parts of the world you never saw. Bless you, my brother!