the bricolage peace {guest post by J.R. Goudeau}

Friends, I am so pleased to welcome J.R. Goudeau to this space. She and I began a spirited conversation online about the messy work of peacemaking, and I invited her here to share more. J.R. works alongside refugee-artisans with the Hill Country Hill Tribers, the non-profit she directs in Austin, TX. Please show her some love (and ask her questions!), and be sure to visit both HCHT's beautiful fair trade shop and J.R.'s powerful blog.

[Trigger warning for war trauma and rape.]

I never spent much time thinking about peacemaking. Why should I, when war was just
something I read about it books? I had some vague ideas of how bad it was, but I’m an academic,
a reader, a tourist.

And then one fall day I fell in love with a group of Burmese refugees.

It was love at first sight; it was coming home and community all at once. I had lived for two
summers in Thailand and visited a refugee camp. I recognized the faces and feel of that unlikely
band of travelers at a fall festival in Austin. I had the most basic sense that there was some sort
of trouble in Burma. (Or Myanmar? What did we call it? What had happened? And who was that woman under house arrest who won the Nobel Peace Prize?)

We didn’t start with war, not at first. We started with weaving and English. Because they
wanted income and they wanted a voice, we did what we could to find both. We taught them words as they wove their futures and their past together in bright hot-pink-and-teal or red-and-orange designs.

Over the last five years, I slowly filled in my knowledge of what war does to people through my friends. When we picked up scarves and bags, when we sat down to piece together necklaces, over dinner and babies, they told us stories: fathers killed by land mines, junta who burned down villages; neighbors raped while they hid under bushes; babies born in burnt out villages, scooped up while the still-bleeding mother ran for her life from the army who wanted to kill.

I became familiar with regions and ethnic disputes. I learned to say Burma because the junta that killed their families and tore apart their lives changed the name of their country to Myanmar. My eyes teared up at the sight of a freed Aung Saan Suu Kyui.

I learned what one man on a hunger strike can accomplish in the name of God. I sat at the feet of master peacemaker who protested the persecution of his people and lived to tell the tale. I watched him bring his wife home and cried as he stroked her white hair for the first time in years.

In my small pocket of Austin, I glimpsed war through my friends. But theirs is not the story of war. It is the story of peace. It is the story of new roots and new lives, of new births and new languages, of new seeds of hope planted in strange new soil.

The peacemaking that I see is artistic and creative. The peace my Burmese friends make is woven out of scraps and memories and whatever is at hand. They are experts at scrounging and finding just what they need. There is a French term for art that is made out of these leftovers and random materials: bricolage.

Bricolage is the type of peace my artisan friends weave.

The peacemaking that I see looks like homemaking. It’s the smell of the mustard drying on the apartment rail. It’s a tiny diaspora of ten apartments around a courtyard with a dirty swimming pool in the middle. It’s the odor of traditional dinner, garlic and rice and chicken, wafting out an open window every night.

Their peacemaking is faith-based. It is people who have loved God longer than I have been alive, teaching us from the depths of their wisdom. It is a faith that binds a group together in ways our privileged churches can only dream of. The fruit of missionaries who journeyed to Burma in generations past is alive in small neighborhoods in Austin. These hill tribe Christians rely on a God who has truly been with them in prison and in darkness, in hunger and in great distress.

Their peacemaking is working hard. It is income. It is not just sitting down over dinner to chat; ours is a friendship of sweat and labor. It is a woman who would die if she thought I viewed her as a charity case. It is respecting the artist’s eye and listening to her artistic voice.

My role in this bricolage-type of peacemaking is that of the artist’s assistant. I will be perfectly frank: I have had other ideas. I thought at one point that I might be the peacemaker herself. I envisioned getting to the root of the problems. I thought that by helping them get money and educate their children I was really going to do some good in this world.

I have been in love with the idea of myself as a peacemaker.

But most of my big ideas fall flat. They have moved suddenly, all but one artisan, just when we were ready to grow. They received their paltry paychecks with stoic faces in dark rooms lit by one cold bulb. They were still hungry, still in want.

My big ideas fade when I realize—I have no sense of what war means. And therefore I cannot truly understand peace. My privileged life and happy home bar me from the suffering that truly needs peace. And that is OK. My role isn’t to make peace; it’s to witness the process. I realized a couple of years in, if I made this about me, if I were the peacemaker who wanted to be blessed, I was missing the entire story.

Instead, I learned to listen and assist. I watched in amazement as they settled in and created spaces that include me but are not made by me. They minister to me with their hospitality and open arms. They taught me to weave, literally, but also to watch in joy as they weave their new lives with artistic flourish.

And I learn that the true art of peacemaking isn’t rushing in with cameras blazing and triumphant songs on the soundtrack. It is going to the same apartments day after day, sharing watermelon or spicy noodles, listening to stories, respecting artists. It is listening. It is loving. It is repeating those habits until they become ritual, until they become prayer.

The bricolage peace my friends create is an artistic masterpiece. I assist the masters in their craft every day. And like all art, it changes the way I view the world every time I see it.

Photographs by Kelsi Williamson

J.R. Goudeau is the Executive Director and co-founder of Hill Country Hill Tribers and a grad student in English literature. When she’s supposed to be working on her dissertation, she can usually be found writing about books, babies and Burmese refugees at Love Is What You Do or on Twitter.
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