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Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Blossoms of Humanity Emerge from the Seeds of Consciousness

The Blossoms of Humanity Emerge from the Seeds of Consciousness

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

(I delivered the following message at the January 15, 2015 Power of Peace Project graduation ceremony held at the Muskegon Correctional Facility (MCF).)

It takes courage to do and stand for the right things in life. This is especially true in the prison setting. For this every participant in this program is deserving of accolades. They took the time to do something meaningful with their lives when they could have elected to sit in the day-room and play cards or lay in their beds and watch TV.

The men who participated in this program did so even though it may not have been a popular thing to do among the people they live around or associate with. They understand what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he said, "There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politics, nor popular, but one must take it because it's right."

They were willing to make personal sacrifices and take risks to challenge their thinking and do better. And, they took this chance understanding the adage, "What is to give light must endure burning." (Victor Frankl)

Much of what we read and discussed during this 40-day program weren't things we didn't already know. What the program did was help us align each principle and value into a constellation that formed a clearer image of what peace means and can do for our community. It is a package of carefully woven together ideas that can serve as a blueprint to foster peace and empower the lives of others.

It is now our responsibility to carry the torch we have been handed. We have to do our part to make this program attractive to others and encourage their participation.

"A genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus." (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), meaning that we have to share this message with those who don't already agree with its philosophy to change our environment one person at a time. We won't produce meaningful change by "speaking to the choir." It will occur by doing the work necessary to convert people to a new way of thinking.

The Power of Peace Project: Forty Days to Peace

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

November 5, 2014 I began participating in "Forty Days to Peace," a program created by Kit Cummings, author, motivational speaker, and founder of The Power of Peace Project.

Kit traveled from his home in Atlanta, Georgia to visit the Muskegon Correctional Facility and speak to potential candidates, encouraging their participation in the Forty Days to Peace. Kit's inspiring message resonated with those in attendance and generated wide interest in the program. He delivered his message to nearly 200 prisoners about peace, responsibility, transformation, and other important issues germane to self-development.

For some, Kit's message was the catalyst they needed to help unlock their consciousness and awaken the desire to end the cycle of violence that destroys our communities. One prisoner told me that hearing Kit's message was the first time he felt compelled to engage in service to others and become an agent of positive change.

Forty Days to Peace teaches people to cultivate inner peace, foster peace in others and, by extension, produces harmonious communities. At the onset of the program participants are given a black rubber wristband that states, "I Am the Power of Peace," to wear daily and a copy of the "Forty Days to Peace" booklet.

For 40 days participants wear their wristband as a symbol of peace and a reminder of their commitment to sincerely work on one step a week for the entire 40-day journey. These steps include working to break th destructive habits and patterns of complaining without gratitude, blaming without integrity, excuse-making without effort, playing the victim, never saying "I'm sorry," never saying "thank you," and never asking for help.

Participants also pledge to live by the following Seven Steps to Peace during that time: being a peacemaker wherever they go; treating their adversaries with respect; when provoked not retaliating, but finding a better way; when cursed not cursing back, and using deliberate language; not lying, cheating or stealing; when they are wrong promptly admitting it and quickly making amends; and treating their enemies the way that they wish to be treated.

The program requires reading and meditating on inspirational quotes from various twentieth century peacemakers daily, visualizing themselves living that way that day, and journaling about epiphanies, ideas and breakthroughs.

Each week participants meet in the facility auditorium to view a brief 10 minute video message from Kit about the lesson that week. Afterwards they convene in small study groups with program facilitators to engage in discussions about progress, obstacles and failures in their daily program.

At the end of the program Kit returned to the prison to deliver an important message at a graduation ceremony held January 15, 2015. The day had special significance because it was the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and marked the fourth annual anniversary of the inception of The Power of Peace Project. Sadly, it was also the anniversary of the death of Kit's father; a story he shared with us in his message.

Three prisoners read essays they wrote about a peacemaker who has influenced their lives and six speakers selected by the program facilitators spoke a few minutes about how the program impacted them and/or others around them.

A few songs were performed by one of the program facilitators and afterwards Kit issued certificates of completion to those who successfully completed the program. Kit then invited all the graduates to join him in the gymnasium for turkey deli sandwiches, potato chips, chocolate chip cookies and fruit punch. The meal was purchased by the Prisoner Benefit Fund.

This was the fourth time the program had been launched at the prison. The men who participated thoroughly enjoyed the program, but most of all, they were able to develop important communication, conflict resolution, and life skills to foster internal and external peace.

The Power of Peace Project has proven to reduce violence in some of the most dangerous prisons in the country. Kit has shared his program in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. He also works with high school students, organizations and others.

The day of the graduation participants of Forty Days of Peace, me included, were invited to take a new pledge to begin another 40-day program named "Forty Days to Freedom." I accepted the invitation and am embarking on a new journey I know will be as rewarding and edifying as the first program.

I would like to extend a special thanks to Kit for creating these programs and also thank Warden Sherry Burt, Special Activities Director Sharon Haner, and the program facilitators for bringing the program to the Muskegon Correctional Facility and providing participants the space and opportunity to generate and foster peace.

The entire prison is a safer an better place when we produce new ambassadors of peace.

As we wrap up this phase of the program we should all be encouraged to continue expanding our consciousness and building on the foundation we have established. Participating in programs that reinforce positive growth and development is one way to keep contributing to this positive Movement.

It all begins with us. None of this would be possible absent our participation. We serve as the nexus between yesterday and tomorrow. Through our actions we will carry on the legacy of the Power of Peace project and sustain its success.

We should all be grateful for this opportunity and proud of our accomplishments.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Nelson Mandela, Soldier for Peace

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

For 27 years Nelson Mandela surmounted myriad battles he confronted daily against an oppressive government intent on breaking his spirit. He did it all while categorically rejecting the use of violence. Had he chose the use of force as the solution to the problems he faced his legacy would have likely been terminated early by a senseless act of violence.

It took enormous courage and fortitude to combat the barrage of attacks Mandela faced at the hands of his ruthless captors. His struggle taught him that life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage. In this truth was a seed he planted in the hearts of people for generations.

Mandela always strived to give birth to the best within himself. He remained unwavering in his steadfast commitment to draw immeasurable wisdom and strength from the Creator. In his story we learn that what doesn't destroy you can only make you stronger.

To be imprisoned nearly three decades and experience the cruel injustices of South African apartheid would have defeated many people. Instead, Mandela transformed his anger, disappointment, and pain into a powerful weapon that lead to his eventual release and an end to apartheid. He ascended from the bowels of a dismal prison cell to the comfort of living in the opulent South African presidential palace as the nation's leader.

Mandela taught us that the Creator will never give us a burden greater than we can bear. His resilience never capitulated to oppression, psychological brutalities, and the incessant injustices he faced. He knew that as long as he continued to tap into the infinite Source of life (i.e., the Creator) he would continue to not only survive in the worst conditions known to man, he would thrive in them.

I have studied Mandela's life for over two decades to learn how he was able to survive so many years of wrongful imprisonment and not allow it to destroy his life. Incorporating many of his practices and beliefs into my daily life has helped me perpetually grow and continue bringing myself more in alignment with the Creator.

One of the most profound lessons Mandela taught us was the need to forgive others. I learned to understand that forgiving others was not something I was doing for them; it is something I do for myself. Forgiveness means letting go of the narrative that pain has had on my life, disallowing its toxicity to poison my life, and liberating myself from struggling under the crushing weight of hatred, anger and the thirst for revenge. It means not allowing my past to define my future.

Mandela was a living example of how not to sabotage our lives because of the mistakes and negative actions of others. Once we realize our capacity for brilliance we can soar above the negative forces that keep us obsessing about the past.

I was able to begin healing from years of wrongful incarceration once I jettisoned the false belief that I will always remain tethered to the darkness (e.g., anger, resentment, pain, etc.) of the past. I discovered that healing occurs in the present not in the past. And, once I made a conscious choice to sever that connection I could move forward.

I also learned that in every experience, painful or otherwise, is a lesson for us about life; something we need to learn. If we remain angry and hurt we will miss the lesson and be trapped in a cloud of pain. It prevents our upward mobility and keeps our lives descending in a downward spiral.

Too often people elect to remain captives to distorted views of themselves than to do the necessary work to liberate themselves from these self-imposed shackles. They continue looking for sources of peace externally and avoid cultivating it internally. Mandela recognized this mistake and did the inversion.

Holding on to feelings of revenge and a vindictive mentality diminishes our quality of life. We torment ourselves and remain enslaved to others. Once we learn to forgive them we desist hearing painful voices of the past or giving them power over our lives. We create space to be occupied with positive energy when we eradicate negative energy.

Mandela taught us that rejecting dis-empowering thoughts and infusing ourselves with the Creator's power and wisdom allows us to realize the law of reciprocity that teaches us the adage, "As we do unto others so will it be done unto us." Espousing this reality collectively can transform the world one person at a time.

In so doing we can, in the words of Mandela, "turn our common suffering into hope for the future." We can also eliminate societal ills that prevent us from seeing peace manifest in the world.

(This essay was written as an assignment for The Power of Peace Project as one of the requirements for successfully completing the "40 Days to Peace" program.)