The Light of Humanity in the Darkness: Reflections in the Shadow of Sandy Hook

12/20/2012 04:09 pm ET | Updated Feb 19, 2013

I just had the honor of calling a very young woman from Philadelphia, Jamira Burley, to tell her that she had just been nominated for the Shift Innovation Award for Peace. This is one of four awards we will present on Saturday during our global webcast, all of them to candidates between 18- and 35-years-old. The Peace Award honors Jamira's extraordinary efforts to reduce violence in Philadelphia. In a follow-up call with Jamira, she shared with me that she was watching the news about a shooting in Newtown, Conn. This is how I learned about the mass killing.

The juxtaposition of a conversation with the young nominee for the Shift Peace Award and the news about the massacre was profound, unsettling and stirring.

Jamira is 23-years-old, the first of 16 children in her family to graduate from high school, let alone college. She grew up in a Philadelphia neighborhood where violence was rampant, taking her first steps toward becoming a peacebuilder after her brother was murdered in 2005, when she was only 16. Jamira's response was to create what she called a "Peace Core," a program in high schools to reduce violence. She then had no idea then that her innovative program would lead her on a path to become the Executive Director for the City of Philadelphia Youth Commission. In 2011, the Philadelphia Daily News ranked Jamira as one of 10 top-up-and-coming Philadelphians.

Jamira's positive response to senseless violence is one I have seen time and time again around the world. Allow me to offer you a few examples.

In 1985-89, I served with the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, West Africa; just a few years later the country was ripped apart by a bloody civil war. Tragically, thousands of children were coerced into becoming soldiers, some as young as 8 years of age. Both villages I had lived in had been sacked by rebel units, including one unit headed by a teenage boy nick-named "Colonel Rambo," who was trained in part by watching "Rambo" movies.

I later went back to Sierra Leone on peacebuilding missions with Search for Common Ground, a non-profit organization. I was horrified when I witnessed the destruction first-hand and learned about friends who had been killed, raped and beaten. It remains very hard for me to contemplate such instances of insanity -- including the events of Newtown, Conn., last week. I know how easy it is to get overwhelmed by grief, sadness and despair.

But I also know that in the greatest darkness comes incredible light. When faced with great adversity, we can respond with incredible faith and acts of humanity. One very current example are those adults at Sandy Hook who gave their lives to protect small children; another is the case of Kimmie Weeks.

Kimmie is one of my heroes. He's from Liberia, a country neighboring Sierra Leone. When Kimmie was 9 years old, his body was thrown onto a mass grave in a refugee camp, mistaken for dead. When his mother found Kimmie, he was barely alive. He looked into her eyes and made a commitment to God that he would dedicate his life so that other children would not have to suffer such horrible atrocities.

At the age of 16, the same age that Jamira got started as a peacebuilder, Kimmie approached Search for Common Ground with an idea. He wanted to create a children's radio program. Our staff listened to Kimmie, and gladly supported him as he created Golden Kids News, a radio program produced by children for children affected by war. When Search for Common started its first project in Sierra Leone, Golden Kids News was the first radio program we produced.

Golden Kids News eventually reached 90 percent of the people in Liberia and Sierra Leone, bringing a voice of hope. It has since inspired similar children's peacebuilding radio programs in nearly 20 countries around the world. Kimmie Weeks also later founded Youth Action International, which is now assisting youth globally.

What surprised me most about Golden Kids News and especially Kimmie Weeks was the tremendous joy and love they expressed through their radio programs and activities. They were modeling the best of humanity. Even when thousands of child soldiers had ripped their countries apart, they were choosing to act, to act from a place of love and commitment to building a positive future.

While they all experienced extreme pain, the breaking of their hearts a thousand times over opened them to more fully express the light of the human spirit that exists in each of us.

As we approach the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year for the Northern Hemisphere, Michael Beckwith, Neale Donald Walsh, Chaka Kahn, Deepak Chopra, Barbara Marx Hubbard and numerous other luminaries around the world who will participate in a two-day global celebration and broadcast (Dec. 21-22) to acknowledge Jamira Burley and many people around the world who are giving birth to a new humanity.