February 15, 2015 By Gareth Young
Power of PeaceLast week I sat down with a person whose work I have followed and who I have wanted to meet for some time. Kit Cummings is a remarkable human being, but at the same time he is very ordinary. He has done amazing things, but he is flawed and broken just like you and me. There is no reason why any one of us could not engage in and accomplish the kind of things he is accomplishing. For his work is, above all, founded on the age-old principles of love and non-violence to which all of us likely aspire. I am writing about him both because he and his work are remarkable, but also because they are no more remarkable than you and yours. I am writing about him because his story is not just of working to deliver peace, but of being a role model to all of us about the difference we too can make.
Before we talked about the work he is doing, Kit and I got to know each other a little. He told me about his broken childhood; his chronic family history of alcoholism; his time as a preacher; and his fall from the pulpit once more into alcohol and worse. We got to know each other in intimacy by sharing our stories. And this is important, for it is out of sharing our stories that we learn first of all to see each other as fully human across whatever our superficial differences might be; and it is by getting to know each other that we develop trust. I will come back to this core principle before I finish this piece.
Cummings founded The Power of Peace Project in 2011 as an experiment in a maximum security prison. He brought together gang-affiliated inmates and worked with them over a forty day period to reduce violence. The small group of convicts entered the program which involved watching videos, journaling, and following seven principles of peace. In Kit’s words, the magic happened when the convicts, who had lost their sense of purpose and connection, were called upon to become solutions and to become role models. They did the work and connected with each other in conversation and respect and the net result was a dramatic reduction in violence across the prison.
You can learn more about Kit and his work by watching this video or any of the several others at the website or YouTube channel:
The results of the first program were noticed and invitations followed not just from throughout the US, but from around the world: Kit has led sessions in prisons across the US and also in South Africa, Mexico, Honduras, the Ukraine. But while Kit has continued to work with prison systems, his energy has moved to embrace youth and to carry his work into schools.
Our youth live their lives under enormous pressure. Not only are they bombarded with information through the overwhelming sea of media and social media, but the complexity of their lives is far greater than anything I experienced at their age – greater than I could have imagined! Not only are they overwhelmed with challenges, but they are also presented with vast opportunities to ease that pressure, to escape. Synthetic drugs, alcohol, sexual adventurism, video games, social media…these all afford the readily available opportunity to over-stimulate, to escape, to become addicted. Juvenile crime rates are soaring, and with them incarceration rates; addiction, drug death, and suicide rates are also deeply troublesome and growing. The generation that is soon to inherit this country is, in many respects, lacking a mooring. I believe it is a mooring that has to be those universal and timeless principles that leaders such as Gandhi and Rev Dr. Martin Luther King propounded: peace, love, respect, and non-violence.
Kit has found – and Doug Shipman, CEO of the National Center of Civil and Human Rights told me this same thing just the other day – that the youth of today do not know of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. But Kit also found that kids have siblings and parents, relatives, family friends in prisons, and that the influence of the Power of Peace Project participants extends beyond the prison walls. Kit found that the idea of creating role models in the prisons was working. So when he reached out and talked to youth first in inner city schools, and then in suburban schools, they listened. They found the principles and tools of his program accessible and adopted them. The Power of Peace Program is growing and changing lives, and the kids testify to this at the regular celebrations. It is doing work in the schools that reminds me of the work I have seen Covenant House doing on the streets (which I recently wrote about in “The Power of Unconditional Love”.
Kit talks of the seven principles of the program, of the movement, but I think that in practice this all comes down to one fundamental action. It is about taking the time to sit down and talk to the person who is not like us, to get to know them as a mother, a father, a son or a daughter and a lover; to seeing them as someone who has hopes and fears and has to put food on the table for their kids. It is about doing exactly what Kit and I did when we first met. Kit related one conversation he had had with an inmate who was a leader of the Aryan Brotherhood, a man who most would find truly terrifying. After enrolling in the Forty Days of Peace Program, this man sat down to talk with a child molester. His reflections after the conversation might not sound profound and shocking, but if you put them in context you will see that they are: he did not like the man, but for the first time in his memory, he shifted away from wanting to kill him.
Kit’s experience working even with hardened criminals – murderers serving multiple life sentences who have given up hope and have nothing left to live for – is that through returning to basic principles and developing intentionality we can instill hope, love and peace. By opening up respect, relationship, and love, we can change ourselves and change the world. Surely this is something we can each work to bring into our own lives? Surely it is something we can each vow to serve as a role model for? As Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”