Dr. Marites Guingona-Africa: From Fear to Peacemaker
“Something was wrong with me, I feared, and I was going to die! This fear was fueled by thoughts of eternal damnation that I believed awaited those who were not ‘good enough.’ I was going to die, and I was surely bound for hell for not being good enough for God.”
From a Fearful to an All-Loving God
In her book, “Breath of a Stone God,” Dr. Marites Guingona-Africa describes her experience of faith as a child was one of fear of a vengeful God and going to hell. She feared that “hell was an abyss of eternal darkness with a snake pit at its bed, and that a punishing God would banish all those who displeased him into that abyss like he banished Adam and Even from Eden.” All throughout her childhood, her mind was filled with thoughts that she was constantly disappointing a cold, distant, and demanding God.
Years later, Dr. Guingona-Africa would search for meaning beyond her Catholic faith by studying Eastern spiritual traditions. After years of meditation and mindful practices, she experienced a spiritual awakening — recognizing and experiencing God’s loving presence all around her.
“When I learned to empty my mind and sit still in meditation, I began to experience God as immanent, God as intimate and present in everything within and around me — in my very breath, even in my DNA” she says. No longer was God a cold, all-powerful force determined to condemn her for her sins. Instead, He was a warm, loving God that treasured all of His creation, including her.
Over time, Dr. Guingona-Africa explains, “I began to experience Christ in holistic ways that enabled me to transcend the fear-based human constructs of my religion so that I was finally able to be truly Catholic, or ‘universal,’ in my Christian faith.” And so her study of Eastern religions enabled her to overcome her deeply-rooted fear of God and experience His presence in new and powerful ways.
Dr. Guingona-Africa’s new understanding of her Catholic faith motivated her to engage in interfaith dialogue. Interestingly, she takes her motivation from Bible verse John 14:16, which reads, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” While many Christians interpret this verse to mean that believing in Jesus is only the way to reach heaven, Dr. Guingona-Africa interprets it with a fresh perspective.
“In John 14:16, Jesus is saying that being human, weak, and imperfect though we may be, is okay. It is the way toward our realizing the truth about who we are: that we may be in this world but we are not of it; and that there is life eternal in the hereafter that awaits us after this one. This message is universal and is beyond any fear-based human constructs of religion. It liberates the human spirit from the fear of death, and unites us in the oneness of our human experience even as we strive for transcendence albeit by way of different paths.”
Dr. Guingona-Africa believes that God’s presence is everywhere, that it is all encompassing and finds motivation to participate in interfaith dialogue and cooperation in choosing to see the godliness in the other.
Her interfaith journey began, in a time before Google, by flipping through a yellow pages book to find and invite people of other faiths to her house for a small gathering. She was also introduced to the United Religion Initiative (URI) and drew inspiration from it’s goals to promote peace and harmony among people of diverse religious, spiritual, and indigenous beliefs. Inspired by URI’s core values and empowered by her new experience of an all-loving God and new interfaith relationships, Dr. Guingona-Africa and her colleagues founded The Peacemaker’s Circle in early 2001.
The Peacemaker’s Circle
The mission of The Peacemaker’s Circle is to bring about world peace and healing of the Earth through individual and social transformation. Over the years, the organization has conducted workshops and activities aimed at creating successful interfaith dialogue. In the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, The Peacemaker’s Circle began to actively promote Muslim-Christian dialogue and relationship building. As their work gained popularity and grant funding, they began to work directly in troubled neighborhoods in Metro Manila and the Philippine island of Mindanao, where people have faced decades of religious conflict.
As for the future of The Peacemaker’s Circle, the organization will be challenged with the task of building peaceful communities in the midst of ISIS’s recent arrival on the island of Mindanao. The ongoing siege of Marawi City in Mindanao by ISIS marks a new chapter in violent conflict in the Philippines. Religiously motivated violence in the Philippines, and particularly in Mindanao, was generally characterized by “banditry, piracy, and separatism.” (1) According to Dr. Guingona-Africa, the rebels’ battle cries are changing.
“What used to be a struggle for the right to self-determination among the Bangsamoro [people] seems to now be turning into a fight for a broader Islamic State among extremist Muslims (from different parts of the region and the world) who subscribe to violent Jihadist ideologies. There is fear that what is happening in Malawi would spread to other parts of Mindanao, as it seems to already be happening, and ISIS might find their way to other parts of the country, including Metro Manila.”
But there is cause for hope. Dr. Guingona-Africa explains that the efforts of The Peacemaker’s Circle proves that "peace is possible and attainable” between Muslims and Christians living in communities with a history of conflict. She is even hopeful that the strategies of the organization can be used in a multi-pronged approach to build peace in communities affected by the advancement of ISIS.
“But, for it [peace] to be sustainable, different stakeholders and sectors of society must participate in creating a conducive environment for peace to thrive. Effective poverty alleviation programs must be part of the long-term solution along with interfaith dialogue, and various values formation and peace education and training programs must be in place for the long haul.”
Dr. Guingona-Africa’s personal and professional journey proves that transformation is possible. Fear, whether it be a fear of our own God or fear of people of other faiths, can be transformed into peace. Peace with ourselves and peace with others.