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Peace in Our Time

By Dave Oprava | Published: October 1, 2019

Guests gather to rededicate the Peace Site on Turtle River Lake.
Rededicating the Circle of Peace at Turtle River Lake.

This past summer, on International Day, we rededicated the Peace Site on Turtle River Lake. It was a pleasant, small ceremony in which approximately 60 people gathered to contemplate peace, to celebrate what we do at the Language Villages, and to show our gratitude to those who have courageously furthered the organization's mission. While it was wonderful to rededicate ourselves to the cause of creating a proactively peaceful culture, it also led me to think about what “peace” really means. My first thought was, in a macro sense, that peace is the absence of war. It is the cessation of hostilities. It is a period of calm and prosperity. However, upon reflection, it dawned on me that peace is much more than just the absence of conflict. More importantly, it is also the absence of fear.

This begs the question: what do we fear most? In my experience, what we fear most is largely the unknown. Yet how does one combat a fear of things we’ve not yet learned to understand? For instance, a foreign language or culture? Well, what we do at the Language Villages is exactly what we should be doing to remedy that fear: we actively connect with the unknown, and we make it our own.

I can give you a perfect example. Thirty years ago, I was a four-week high school credit villager at Waldsee, the German Language Village. I was part of a new program called "The Odyssey" which was half German credit and half social studies. Remember, that summer was the last summer of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall still stood. The fear of the communist other was still very, very real. 

We were fortunate enough to have a teacher who was a world traveler, a translator and someone who had been to the Soviet Union. His stories of and experiences with kind, generous people were revelatory to us relatively naive American children who had been taught to fear the “Evil Empire.”

Then, in the autumn of 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War ended. Much of our fear for nuclear destruction dissipated, but what remained was that sense of, and worry about, the unknown. Who were those people who had lived behind the Iron Curtain? What were they really like? Were they still our enemies, as we’d been raised to believe? Could the peace be trusted?

The following summer was my inaugural year on staff at Waldsee. For the first time, we had a number of East German counselors. Simply put, those staff members were wonderful. Open, funny, friendly and gregarious. All the preconceptions I might have had were quickly dispelled, because frankly, they were people with whom I wanted to be friends.

They spoke almost no English and their second language was predominantly Russian, but that made them all the more fascinating. And in terms of learning about the broader world, they were invaluable. For me, peace was not made when the Wall fell; rather, peace was made here at the Language Villages.

Those years at Concordia Language Villages in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s launched me on a trajectory that led to a bachelor’s degree in peace studies and a life-changing experience in Bosnia during the civil war there. I worked with teenagers whose lives had been destroyed by politicians and their incendiary rhetoric. I went on to earn a master’s degree in political science where I focused on demagoguery and how some leaders will demonize the perceived other for their own gain and destruction.

From those experiences, I know peace does not come from accords or simply from the cessation of violence. Peace comes from the one-to-one connections we make with the perceived “other.” We rarely fear what we know, and even less so those we have come to call our friends.

That is why I am sponsoring, in conjunction with the Language Villages, the annual Dietrich Fellowship for Courageous Global Citizens.

Peace has always had a home at the Language Villages. It is part of our nature. Those things we learn from this small, incredible microcosm can have miraculous repercussions. I like to think I and so many of my colleagues and friends are living examples. 

Remember, peace is and always has been an absence of fear. Peace is a genuine, real connection, an openness, and above all, is a trust; it is a lifelong friendship.

About the Author

David Oprava is the founder of the Dietrich Fellowship for Courageous Global Citizens. The Fellowship award is given annually to a dedicated staff member of the Language Villages community who has proven they are willing to break down the fears that divide, and to engage and learn from the wider world around us. The Fellow is expected to circumnavigate the world doing service project that bridge gaps in our misunderstandings and to make those human connections that are so crucially important to all of us. Most of all, they are expected to return to the Language Villages to share what they have learned, to shed light on misperception, and to build bridges through understanding.

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