‘I choose the river’

After leaving her counterinsurgency career, Euphrates Institute founder Janessa Gans Wilder has worked to support peace builders worldwide.

Anna-Zoe Herr/ Courtesy of Janessa Gans Wilder
Janessa Gans Wilder (right) with Sohini Jana of India and James Offuh of Ivory Coast at a Euphrates Institute conference in Redding, California, in March 2019.

Standing on a rooftop in Iraq in 2004, Janessa Gans Wilder had to make a choice.

Several miles downriver from where the Central Intelligence Agency officer stood, the brutality of war was unfolding with unimaginable force. The battle for Fallujah raged, and the violence seemed insatiable – every day unleashing new terrors. “It was darkness and despair,” she says.

But looking out over the Euphrates River on that day in Ramadi, she saw a different scene. “The river was life, and calm, and peace. And I realized this was the same river that was flowing through Fallujah,” she says.

Which picture would she choose? Out loud, she said, “I choose the river.” And in a moment, a career spent staring at the darkness was transformed into one searching for the light.

I talk to amazing Monitor readers every day. So every so often, I want to introduce you to some of them, like Ms. Wilder. Monitor readers are a remarkable community of people committed to not only seeing good, but using that as a basis from which to bless the world. And the stories are worth sharing.

Ms. Wilder had asked to go to Iraq, not wanting to be an armchair analyst. And that desire brought its own courage. “It comes from heart, from deep caring about the mission and about people,” she says.

After her rooftop moment in Ramadi, Ms. Wilder found her courage taking new forms. Switching from counterinsurgency officer to political officer, she became such a help to the Iraqis that the prime minister’s spokesman told her, when she left, that she had become one of them. Since 2006, she has worked through the Euphrates Institute, which she founded, to support peace builders worldwide.

The goal is to create a community where peace builders can learn from one another – where the picture of peace is present and practical, she says. “What does it look like to choose peace?”

What has she gained during the past 14 years? “I’ve been humbled.” From Sudan to Cameroon to Israel, the grace she has witnessed, she says, goes beyond all human reason – seen in forgiveness, persistence, and the sacrifice of daily working in war-torn areas. And that is the same picture she sees in the Monitor.

“People are scared of looking into the darkness,” she says. “But we don’t have to be afraid. The Monitor holds our hand. ... The Monitor goes into the darkness – right to the core of the hardest issues – but it doesn’t stay there. It finds the light.”

This summer, Ms. Wilder will be stepping down as CEO of the Euphrates Institute, though it continues on. “It’s always been about serving the values, not leading a structure,” she says. 

And while she doesn’t yet know what’s next, her time with the institute has left its own lessons about peace building. “If these people are risking their lives for peace every day, then what can I do? What does that look like for me?” she asks. “That, to me, is how you change the world.”

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

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