As chair of Mennonite World Conference Deacons Commission, I and three others traveled to Hong Kong to stand in solidarity with our Mennonite brothers and sisters. After worshiping with Agape Mennonite Church on Dec. 1, we donned gas masks and went to the center of the city where demonstrators were enveloped in clouds of tear gas. In this volatile environment, I learned that the Chinese word for conflict, Wei Ji, is a composite made up of "danger" and "opportunity."
This new understanding of conflict shed light on an experience I had several months earlier in my home country of Burkina Faso. I frequently take the bus from Ouagadougou, the capital city, to Bobo-Dioulasso, where I live. I boarded the bus and found another man in my assigned seat.
"I'm sorry, sir," I said politely. "You are in my seat."
The man erupted in anger, "I can't take this kind of problem any longer!"
"What problems are you talking about," I asked in a calm voice.
By this time, the bus stewardess had arrived and asked the angry man to sit in the seat that corresponded with the number on his ticket. Unfortunately, there was someone already sitting in that seat! The stewardess finally resolved the confusion by telling the angry man to sit in the empty seat next to me.
Thus, we became neighbors for the five-hour ride!
I love to get to know people. And I've had a lot of experience resolving conflicts from personal misunderstandings among Mennonite church members to national crises. So, I asked the angry man questions about himself and showed him that I wanted to move beyond the tension that arose over seating.
I told him my name was Siaka and that I was a pastor. He said his name was Issa and he was a Muslim. He had been in Ouagadougou to get a passport so he could make a pilgrimage to Mecca. From religion, our conversation moved on to cover culture and our society, economics and politics. A rapport was born that turned into a friendship by the end of our trip. We exchanged phone numbers as we said our goodbyes.
Several weeks later, I called Issa. He is a businessman and gave me directions to his workplace. When I arrived, Issa introduced me to his colleagues in glowing terms, giving me all kinds of compliments!
Another time when I returned home from a trip to Sierra Leone to present a seminar at Christ Salvation Mennonite Church, I found some beautiful cloth and a watch left at the house by some mysterious person. I had to do some serious detective work before finally learning that it was Mr. Issa Sawadogo who brought me these souvenirs from Mecca! I couldn't believe it!
And then, as I completed pastoral visits to celebrate Christmas and the New Year in our Mennonite congregations throughout the country, I found two chickens waiting for me. Again, courtesy of my friend, Issa.
I was so moved by his generosity that on Jan. 4, my wife, Claire, and I visited Issa's family. I continued to call him, Issa, the name of Jesus in Arabic, even though everyone else called him El Hadj, the honorific title given to a Muslim who has completed the pilgrimage to Mecca.
While I show him respect, I ask you to join me in praying that God will bestow on my friend the same joy and peace that God has placed in my heart. What could have turned into a dangerous quarrel over a seat in a bus led instead to a friendship. It became an opportunity to live out the good news of Jesus Christ in a country where there is much blood shed between Christians and Muslims. Armed Muslims have increased their attacks on churches in our country, killing six people in April, another six in May, and 14 in December. Many more were wounded in these ambushes on churches.
May this Mennonite pastor and this El Hadj guide others in paths of peace.
Siaka Traoré has retired from national leadership positions with Eglise Evangélique Mennonite du Burkina Faso (Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso), but continues to serve with Mennonite World Conference as the chair of the Deacons Commission. He lives in Bobo-Dioulasso with his wife, Claire, where he continues to work as a pastor in a church-planting ministry.