When people ask, “What does Peace Catalyst do?” I typically say, “We create safe spaces for people to get to know each other.” Usually that means getting Christians and Muslims in the same room, but over the years that has expanded to other groups joining us too. 

One of our signature events is called a Peace Feast.  We held one in Louisville just a few weeks ago.  This one was a “Persian Peace Feast” we did at Ramsi’s Café on the World.  

It’s just basic contact theory that Gordon Allport wrote about back in the 50’s when he was dealing with race relations.  Allport wrote a book called, “The Nature of Prejudice.” He addressed issues we face today like scapegoating and using dehumanizing labels and how when we don’t know about the other person, we tend to fill in the missing gaps with prejudicial information influenced by our social biases.  He also said one way to overcome these inaccuracies is to bring people together in structured environments. These are the safe spaces that Peace Catalyst attempts to create.

For the Persian Peace Feast, I had met with some Iranian students at the University of Louisville a few weeks before the event to ask for their help.  I asked them, “If you could tell people anything you wanted to about Iran, what would you share?” They agreed to invite their Iranian friends to the Peace Feast and to help me frame questions for the event. 

Ramsi, the owner of the restaurant, said there were only 50 seats in the available room.  He prepared a Persian buffet of lamb, biryani rice, tika masala and rice pudding. Pricing is always tricky. Many students don’t have extra money for eating out.  We need to cover our expenses, but we also want to make the events available to everyone. We charged $20 and offered scholarships for the students.  This event was sold out. (You can see photos here.)

As the Tuesday evening event approached, people were writing saying they had waited too late to get their tickets and could we make room.  The night of the event, two women showed up without tickets saying, “We saw it on Facebook and had to be here. Can we stay?”  

We had about 15 people from Iran.  Most of the Iranians were students, but some were from the community.  One woman had recently returned from a trip to Iran to see her family.  We asked the Iranians to sit with non-Iranians so people could get to know each other. Persian music played in the background as people devoured the food. After the meal, I asked questions to the Iranians which they answered at their tables.  

“Tell about your hometown in Iran.  What were the schools like?  What were the grocery stores like?”

“Persian hospitality is famous around the world. If the people at your table were to celebrate Nowruz with your family, what would you do?”

“Sunnis, Shias, and Zoroastrians are all religious expressions in Persia. Explain the importance and role of religion in Iran.”

I asked them to share their answers with their table. The conversations go in so many different directions.  The people at the tables get to ask clarifying questions, and they begin to understand each other while friendships begin to form.  I have found this is so much better than having someone give a formal presentation.  It moves us from the head to the heart, from information to relationship, from suspicion to trust. (Good food always helps this process!)  These encounters allow us to put a face on the news stories and hopefully, one relationship at a time, we build understanding and peace.   

John Paul Lederach is a professor at Notre Dame and international conflict resolution specialist. He wrote, “The Moral Imagination” in which he said that we have to be able to imagine ourselves, in our mind’s eye, in relationship with someone before relationships and peace are possible.  Sometimes we cannot imagine the possibility that the “other” group could be our friend.  At Peace Feasts, we focus not on the group, but on the person across the table from us. We frequently hear people say things like, “This guy is different.  He was not like what I see in the news.”  

Prejudice inhibits the process.  Sometimes we cannot get people to attend events like this.  Lederach said building peace was similar to a spider weaving a web. First, a few solid relational strands must be formed. That is followed by smaller relational strands being methodically attached to the first strands until a strong and resilient web is complete. For example, I met with a few Iranian students.  They brought their friends to the Peace Feast.  I brought my friends, and the web was built.  Some events may strain or damage the web, but hopefully it can be repaired. 

Once we are connected to someone, once we begin to care about that person, we want to protect the relationship. Though the news stories may sound the alarms about the home country of our new friend, in our mind’s eye, we envision our friend, an individual. We can then compare the claims of the media to our personal experience. Many times I have thought, “That news story does not match up with the people I know from that country. I wonder what they think about this event.” With a close enough relationship, I might call or text them.  I might ask how their family is doing or about their read on the current situation. I might suggest we get coffee and talk.  That’s what friends do, right?

So, what is a Peace Feast? Peace Feasts are safe spaces where we begin building these transforming relational webs.  When storms come and people start saying hateful things about people that we have met and care about, perhaps we will not be so gullible as to be led down a path of hate and isolation.  Perhaps we will have friends in this demonized group and will feel compelled to nuance the arguments. Perhaps we will be brave enough, Christ-like enough, to stand with the marginalized and defend them.  Perhaps we will catalyze peace.