At the beginning of May the 15th anniversary of the Institute for Intercultural Studies and Investigation (INESIN A.C.) was celebrated. Over the course of 3 days, a hundred persons met at INESIN’s space to reflect on and celebrate these 15 years of the project and the dream of many men and women of different beliefs to promote respect for differences, tolerance, and solidarity among different religious groups.
In the antecedents of this project, in the 1980’s, some 40,000 Guatemalan refugees arrived in Chiapas due to the civil war gripping their country. Several NGOs and churches of different countries joined together to assist with efforts that immediately took on ecumenical dimensions. Nonetheless, this closeness was not necessarily reflected in the communities of the state. On the contrary, toward the end of the 1990’s, and following the Zapatista uprising in 1994, in Chiapas the inhabitants of the land were living in a particularly tense situation. Paula Biddle from the United Church for Christ from the U.S. has described it in these terms: it was “a situation of low intensity warfare, and one of the most important things about this was the attempt on the part of the Mexican government to create divisions in indigenous communities. The State attempted to divide the communities along political and economic lines but also religious ones. They fomented strong religious divisions, and so we were thinking that it would be rather important to create a space to confront this attempt on the part of the government.”
Several persons and organizations started to unite themselves by seeking methods associated with faith, such that it would be, instead of a source of conflictivity, a source of closeness. The fruit of these meetings, in September 1997, was the founding of the Biblical School for General Formation (EBFI). Don Samuel Ruiz García, then bishop of the San Cristóbal diocese (1926-2011), suggested that they begin working with very practical aspects of this work, linking it to the daily convivial living in which necessities can be shared, in place of opposition.
Participation in this first phase included the Mennonite Central Committee, the Unified Church of Christ, the San Cristóbal de las Casas diocese, the Evangelical Indigenous Campesino Council of Mexico, and the National Presbyterian Church, as well as SIPAZ, which considered it an extremely strategic effort for peace from an ecumenical focus toward unity and the recomposition of the social fabric that was being degraded.
In 2002, the until-then “Biblical School” legally became the Institute of Intercultural Studies and Investigations (INESIN AC). The work it has carried out to date includes strengthening communal processes, both by means of practical workshops (regarding agriculture, nutrition, respect for rights, and care of the natural environment) as well as by means of spaces for reflection on the Bible and spirituality.
The event for the 15th anniversary reflected diversity as being a central aspect of the project: Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Mennonites, and others were present, and a variety of languages could be heard spoken, including Tsotsil, Tseltal, Spanish, French, and English.
During these days of celebration and reflection, those present talked about the path of INESIN, using the metaphor of fruit, with their spines and their seeds to enable the next cultivation. One of the fruits that was mentioned “is the ecumenical project of jointly confronting the roots of problems. For this it was chosen to use the Bible (the major authority in Christian churches and confessions), with Maya ancestral roots. This last aspect has been the most critical means for resolving problems—the most powerful one. To reactivate it now is the best way of mediating conflicts, because it is truly ecumenical, as well as promoting dialogue and inclusion.”
Within the difficulties, it was mentioned that ecumenism is not yet a popular attitude in different churches and confessions. Several times it was claimed that ecclesiastical structures do not change very rapidly, and that many feel they must involve themselves at the personal rather than institutional level. In the seeds to continue sowing was mentioned the lessons regarding diversity as not being a problem but rather a positive aspect. Closing this part, the present team of INESIN planted a tree, as a symbol of its commitment to continue working into the future to promote peace and more just relations in a region in which still ever-present is violence and inequality.
“Our celebration of fifteen years was a song of hope, a song that helps us remember that we are not alone in our path and that we continue, after 15 years, walking together with the people of Chiapas, accompanied by brothers and sisters from the world over,” emphasized Kelly Miller, a U.S. member of the team. Symbolically, at the end of the event, each participant received a bag of various seed types and another one full of fertilizer, reminding them that we all can be sowers of peace.