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To a nation whose “values deficit is more serious than its trade deficit,” Gail Hambleton offered up interfaith peacebuilding work in two very different places — Nigeria and Jersey City, New Jersey — to show a crowd of about 40 people Saturday how peace can begin in the neighborhood.

Hambleton, the Baltimore-based senior program specialist for interreligious and community peacebuilding with the Global Peace Foundation, was keynote speaker at the foundation’s fourth annual peace conference, held at the Vegas Hotel in Billings. The theme of this year’s forum, organized by Billings City Councilman Mike Yakawich, was “Community Peacebuilding: Where Peace Begins in the Neighborhood.”

In Nigeria, the foundation brought together tribal elders as well as women and children, to conduct “train the trainer” workshops. “It was the community that did it, not someone who came from America,” she said.

Jersey City, like other American cities, “is a melting pot, but we really don’t mix that much,” she said. A Department of Homeland Security grant helped the foundation train police to see “red flags of radicalization,” especially among young people.

“These techniques work in your faith community, at the PTA and in the Elks Lodge,” she said. “There is unity in diversity.”

For Yellowstone County Commissioner Denis Pitman, “the frustration becomes, how long will it take?” especially in an era of shrinking government budgets. “I have seen people hunker down in their silos and sandboxes. Sharing resources really hasn’t happened. The good news is that we are at the table together.”

Billings Mayor Bill Cole urged the crowd to follow the biblical imperative of removing the plank from our own eye before we point out the speck in the eyes of those with whom we disagree.

“In a contentious world, citizens crave peace and voters will reward candidates they perceive to be peacebuilders,” he said.

Dr. Brian Schnitzer, recently retired from family medicine and whose family’s experience with hate led to the local Not in our Town movement that spread across the nation and around the world, called the community’s response to KKK and Aryan Nations threats “generally very supportive, but it takes a lot to get good people to do the right thing … Peace, or shalom in my tradition, is not just the absence of conflict. It is an active, positive state of being, and it requires acting on your beliefs.”

Perry Roberts, executive director of the Montana Rescue Mission, talked about the kind of poverty beyond resources poverty, including the paucity of relationships and faith. He said he draws God’s instruction to the prophet Jeremiah as his motivation to do ministry: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

“That’s my modus operandi as I go through my daily work,” he said.

The lunchtime speaker was Rocky Mountain College President Bob Wilmouth, a former heart surgeon who, before becoming the college’s president, led its physician assistant program.

“I was trained as a heart surgeon, but I was not an educated man,” Wilmouth said. He said his current job “is harder than heart surgery, in my opinion, but it’s been a blessing to get educated. I care now. Now I want to do something about the underserved and the homeless, and I have a big microphone.”

Two weeks into his presidency, he told Rocky’s board of trustees his institutional vision was to “get better and elevate the human condition in Yellowstone County. I think we have an empathy deficit. I don’t see enough of people putting themselves in other people’s shoes.”

His self-scored report card so far: “I’d give myself a B-minus in empathy and an F in slowing down, but every time you slow down, something good happens. It always works.”

Empathy and leadership are key ingredients to elevating the human condition in the community, he said, but just as important is courage.

“People are afraid to stand up, but you’re not going to get anywhere without courage,” he said. “Sometimes that gets me in trouble, and I often think I will put the college in harm’s way, but it always works.”

Take the #MeToo movement, he said, as an example of an awareness that’s unambiguous.

“That movement is black and white. There should be no tolerance, because there’s nothing to discuss,” he said. “Maybe that’s not being empathetic, but on some things there is no tolerance. Not in our Town did that. They built that into their name.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.