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Change Agent

A warrior turns peacemaker in Liberia

Former soldier Christian Bethelson’s only job skill was killing – until a meeting on a muddy road in Liberia changed his life, and many others.

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“My wife and kids would insult me, cuss at me, ask why I could not find food for them. I would leave early in the morning, go to the beach and get high, and return late at night, when they were asleep.

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“At that point I hated myself for having no education, for having gone into the military, for having participated in the ways that I had, for having been a rebel general. I saw myself as a criminal.”

After two frustrating years, Bethelson weighed his options. He had not worked the earth since childhood. His high school diploma was worth little, and his dream of going to college as distant as ever. He had only one marketable skill to which he could turn. Like so many other Liberian veterans, he set out to offer his soldiering services to the highest bidder in the newest regional conflict, in the neighboring Ivory Coast.

He’d not quite reached the border when the car in which he was traveling got stuck on a road turned to mud by the rains. Several other cars had gotten stuck along the same stretch, and drivers and passengers stood about in small groups, working at the tires with makeshift tools, or chatting as they waited. 

Bethelson was drawn toward the conversation of a nearby group, which included some white Westerners. He overheard them talking about peace, and was struck not only by the words, but by the tone of their voices. He realized he was hearing something he had not heard in a very long time – a sense of hope.

He knew his eyes were bloodshot, and he looked haggard, even threatening, but he stepped up to the group and introduced himself as a former rebel general.

“I was afraid they’d reject me,” he recalls, “but instead they gathered around me, told me they loved me, even hugged me. I didn’t expect that. That someone could love me after all that I had done, could come up and hug me … I could not have dreamed it being possible.”

The group was called the everyday gandhis, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping war-torn communities rebuild. They quickly recognized that Bethelson could be a key ally in their work, someone who was ready to embrace peace and could help other veterans do the same.

They asked if he would consider joining them. At first Bethelson declined, believing he would be unable to meet the challenge. But after a longer conversation with a charismatic group member who went by “Uncle Jake,” Bethelson agreed to give it a try. The group gave him $100 as a token payment. He accepted it gratefully, found a car heading back, and arrived home proudly bearing bags of food for his family. He’s never looked back.

“It’s significant that this happened from me being stuck in the mud,” he says. “Being physically stuck like that created an awareness in me. I can see now it was a sign that something was about to shift in my life.”

For the next few years, Bethelson worked with Uncle Jake and the everyday gandhis, and in 2008 traveled with them to a conference inn orthern California, where he was moved by a meditation ceremony led by Buddhist practitioner and teacher Cynthia Jurs:

“I saw her sitting on the ground, very focused, and I thought, if I can be focused and quiet like her, I can recover.”

When Jurs traveled to Liberia the following year to conduct a healing ceremony through the Earth Treasure Vase Global Healing Project, Bethelson began to formally study a type of meditation called “engaged Buddhism” with her. The practice, he says, has completely “remolded” who he is: “Meditation brings me back to my true self, to my real conscience and sense of humanity. With a deep breath, my heart feels a sense of relief, like you are thirsty, and you drink a very cold glass of water.”

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