'If you were to look back at your life, what would have fulfilled your deepest yearning?' Dr. Alan Channer was asked this question by a Jesuit brother, 25 years ago. It was part of a set of spiritual exercises that involves anticipating your own obituary. Using the question as a guide, Dr. Channer reflects on a key aspect of life - vocation.
My work centers on the relationships between safeguarding the environment and building peace. Since humanity depends on it, the natural environment can be a powerful driver of both conflict and cooperation. According to the farmer and poet Wendell Berry, ‘To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival.’
Berry also proposes the idea of ‘solving for pattern’. This involves searching for the interconnections that will best serve the bigger picture in a sustainable way. ‘Solving for pattern’ is an alternative to the more prevalent reductionist approaches, which tend to generate fresh problems when applied to complex systems, like human societies.
I find the notion of ‘solving for pattern’ useful in personal discernment, too. A key to discerning the next step in life can often be to understand the pattern you are being given. During times when the path ahead has been unclear, the most helpful advice I’ve received is, ‘Dig where you stand’ and ‘To thine own self be true’.
In my own life, there have been three main threads:
One is ‘peacebuilding’. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; Angami Zapu Phizo, the father of the Naga nationalist movement; Alec Smith, son of the prime minister of Rhodesia, and the Thai Buddhist Master Venerable Ajahn Chah, all came to our family home. The home is an Initiatives of Change centre in London, hosted by my parents, and peacebuilding was around the dining table.
Another thread is communication. One day my father, David Channer, who made films inspired by Initiatives of Change, came home and said, ‘Irène Laure called the French team together in Paris and told me in front of them, “I agree that you can make a film about me. But if you mis-represent me, I will rise up from my grave and condemn you.” She then asked if I would accept to make the film, and I said yes.’
While I imbibed an approach to peacebuilding and an appreciation of media and communication at home, I had my own path. I studied agricultural ecology - the third thread - and lived and worked at agricultural research stations in Tuvalu and Malawi.
Seven years after embarking on that path, I was on holiday with my parents. I had returned from a three-month assignment in rural China. My father had returned from an IofC-inspired conference in Cambodia, where he had presented the Khmer version of the film For the Love of Tomorrow, on Irène Laure.
As we walked and talked, an idea emerged: we could make films to serve as catalysts for reconciliation in Cambodia. Shortly afterwards, we went to Cambodia for three months. Several thousand copies of our films, The Serene Smile and The Serene Life, were distributed across the country. We received an award from the Cambodian government and a letter of thanks from King Norodom Sihanouk.
We went on to create ‘For the Love of Tomorrow Films’. The zenith of our father-and-son collaboration was The Imam and the Pastor, which premiered at UN Headquarters in New York and won first prize at the Africa World Documentary Film Festival.
The film’s sequel, An African Answer, was filmed in Kenya. Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa, the protagonists of both films, came to Nairobi for the premiere. They said, ‘We like your energy here. Don’t let your life go cold in Europe but spend some time in Africa with your family.’ I had a deep sense to respond positively to that suggestion, as did my wife Mary. With the encouragement of the Initiatives of Change team in Kenya, we moved to Africa.
It’s only in looking back that a pattern shines clearly. A hinge moment was when leaders of pastoralist communities in Baringo County hosted screenings of An African Answer. With curious synchronicity, the Caux Dialogues on Land and Security conference, organized by Initiatives for Land, Lives and Peace (ILLP), of which I am now a part) were taking off in Switzerland. One result of these conferences was the Deputy Governors of Baringo and Elgeyo Marakwet Counties requesting ILLP to support them to address the issues in Kenya.
In working to catalyse multi-sectoral dialogues on the intersection between land, security and climate, we were ‘solving for pattern’. The strands of my life in agricultural ecology and peacebuilding had come together. But the basis was fragile. I was in Africa with my family and we had run out of funds. While Mary and our daughters were finding it fulfilling being in Kenya, trusted friends advised us to give up the mission. We were in crisis.
Fortunately, life often gives you guides in times of uncertainty. Numerous mentors manifested at that critical moment: Rev Dr Sam Kobia, former Secretary General of the World Council of Churches, and a senior advisor to the President of Kenya; Dr Dennis Garrity, former Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre, headquartered in Nairobi and Geoffrey Lean, eminent writer on the environment and co-founder of ILLP. All three, and others, went out of their way to advise me, both on the line of work that was developing, and personally.
We found a way to see the mission through and it has spring-boarded much of my work since. Throughout the crisis and beyond, we experienced a moving level of care and support from colleagues, friends and wider family.
The programme of ‘Initiatives for Land, Lives and Peace’ is still expanding. I have just co-directed a second online ‘Summer Academy on Land, Security and Climate’, part of the ‘Caux Dialogue on Environment and Security’, with funding from the African Development Bank. 28 participants from 20 countries participated. At the end the organisers were moved almost to tears and the participants didn’t want to leave the final session!
Looking to the future, the Chief Minister of the state of Meghalaya in North East India, Conrad Sangma, has invited ILLP to contribute to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the creation of the state - in January 2022. Meghalaya, which has the highest rainfall in the world, faces mounting environmental challenges - flooding, landslides and deforestation - in a region of long-standing local and geopolitical tensions.
IofC played a role in the peaceful division of the state of Assam and thus the creation of Meghalaya in 1972. Today, there is a pressing need to foster environmental trustbuilding across NE India, and with neighbouring Bangladesh and Myanmar.
25 years after being asked to complete the obituary exercise, what have I learnt? I can relate to Shakespeare’s line in Hamlet: ‘There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.’ I also know, more deeply, that we just don’t know what is around the next corner of our lives.
I am grateful for three sustaining practices – discerning the next step in silent reflection; sharing key discernments with one or two close friends who have your best interests at heart; and carrying your convictions with courage whilst at the same time acting on feedback.
Going forward, my hope and prayer is that I can continue to attempt to solve for the pattern of peace in the world. It’s not easy. It starts with solving for the pattern of peace in my own life.
Dr. Alan Channer was a runner-up for the Bremen International Peace Prize in 2019 and a speaker at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in 2015. He has spent much of his working life with Initiatives of Change and has been involved with ‘Initiatives for Land, Lives and Peace’ since its inception.
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.