Sarpiya Accepts Invitation to Peacemaking in Rockford

by Sierra Neiman Westbrook

“Somebody told me to come to you because you’re the only one who can help me.” This plea came when Samuel Sarpiya was engrossed not only in preparations for co-moderating the 2017 Conference of the Church of the Brethren, but in efforts to create a computer coding boot camp for youth in his community. Sarpiya studied the expectant face of the 18-year-old African American boy, “Micahel” (name changed for confidentiality), standing in front of him. Can I actually help? Sarpiya asked himself. In addition to the two significant projects demanding his energy, a host of everyday responsibilities vied for his attention. As pastor of the Rockford (Illinois) Church of the Brethren, co-founder of the Center for Nonviolence and Conflict Transformation (CNCT), D.Min. student at Portland Seminary, husband, and father of three daughters, Sarpiya looks back on that summer and sums it up conservatively: “I felt busy.”                                                  

“You’re the only one who can help me,” Michael implored, and then explained, “I don’t want to go to jail.” These words gripped Sarpiya. “My mother is in jail,” Michael continued. “My father is in jail. Everyone in my family has been or is in jail, but I don’t want to be in jail. Please help me.”

 Sarpiya traces the development of his work as a peacemaker back to 2009, when he responded to a call to plant a church in Rockford. For Sarpiya, transitioning from Hawaii where he was working as a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) missionary to Illinois meant more than the switch from flip flops to snow boots. Sarpiya prioritized studying his new community to “understand the culture for the kingdom of God.” Why was getting a read on the culture a crucial first step in the church planting process? Sarpiya explains by sharing an insight he gained from his D.Min. studies: “The first words Jesus’ disciples heard [from Jesus] were ‘follow me.’” Sarpiya hears Jesus’ words as a call to “so much more than reading my Bible….It’s following Jesus where Jesus is at work in the community.”

Discerning Jesus’ invitation to kingdom work in Rockford was easy. Coinciding with Sarpiya’s arrival, two white police officers shot an African American teenager in the basement of a Rockford church. “The community was in uproar,” Sarpiya recalls, and he notes that the question, “What can we do to prevent a reoccurrence?” hung thick in the air. The calling Sarpiya sought emerged as an invitation to peacemaking.Kids Learn Programming in Mobile LabThe Church of the Brethren’s historical precedent for peacemaking gave Sarpiya a sense of backing in this call, while training in Kingian nonviolence (peacemaking modeled after the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.) equipped him with tools for community organizing. Sarpiya’s local peacemaking efforts, which led to his co-founding the CNCT in 2014, began with two primary areas of focus: empowering the local police force and the citizens to partner in community policing, and educating underserved pockets of Rockford youth in being agents of peacemaking and conflict resolution. 

It’s no wonder Sarpiya felt drawn to Michael’s appeal for help. Nudging people toward reimagining their stories and instilling hope that transformation is possible are key pieces of this semiotician’s mission.  Stirred to point Michael toward practical tools, Sarpiya told Micahel, “I’m about to start a coding boot camp. I don’t have a specific program yet, but call me in two weeks.”

 The next morning Michael called. “I’m just checking to make sure this number works,” he said.  The following morning, he called again. “I just want you to know that I don’t want to be disappointed,” Michael explained. The next morning, he called again. “I just want to make sure you’re there.” Every day for two weeks Michael called, and as soon as the CNCT boot camp was ready to launch, Michael enrolled. Then each day after camp, Michael worked on his coding projects at the public library. He’d work on one computer until he got timed out at the 60-minute limit, and then immediately hop to the next computer, demonstrating his determination by continuing this process for 7-8 hours each day. 

Despite these glimpses of hope, Sarpiya knows discouragement. Recently while traveling, he received word of an incident in Rockford involving a police officer and an African American citizen, both of whom were killed. After Sarpiya’s seven years of fostering respectful police/citizen partnership, an incident like this leaves Sarpiya “shocked and heartbroken.”

 Yet stories like that of Michael, who graduated from camp as the cohort’s best student and now has a solid job prospect, give hope.  “These stories show me that we can change the world,” Sarpiya relates. Sometimes the task feels unwieldy, but with a chuckle Sarpiya asks, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Sarpiya continues: “I am convinced it is possible to see peace in this lifetime. Peace is not the absence of disagreement or war, it is the hope that…we can still live together, despite the challenges.” Sometimes moving toward peace means stepping out of busyness and helping a desperate teenager believe in a new story. Whatever form our calling takes, Sarpiya contends, we must recognize the humanity of others. This is our first bite of the elephant. This is the beginning of our kingdom work.