A Model of Peace: An Interview with Rev. Rita Marie Johnson

On behalf of Unity Magazine®, Message of Hope's Kimberly Morrow sat down with Rita Marie Johnson, founding director of the Rasur Foundation, whose main project is the Academy for Peace of Costa Rica (previously known as the “Peace Army”). The mission of this academy is to ensure that the skills of “feeling peace” and “speaking peace” will be passed from generation to generation. These skills are transmitted through the school system using the practice of “BePeace,” an approach based on Johnson's discovery of the synergy between the social and learning methodologies HeartMath® and Nonviolent Communication.

In 2005 the Academy for Peace received the prestigious Changemakers' Innovation Award: Building a More Ethical Society. The Academy for Peace supports the goals of the National Plan for Peace Promotion, an initiative of Oscar Arias, Nobel Peace Prize winner and currently Costa Rica's President.

Unity Magazine: Please tell us about yourself.

Rita Marie Johnson: I grew up on a farm in Belton, Missouri, just 20 miles south of Unity Village. I had a vivid experience at the age of ten that has guided my efforts toward world peace. It was the Fourth of July, and my brother, sister and I were waiting for it to get dark so that we could begin the fireworks. Suddenly I got the idea to walk down our country road. I strode off by myself and soon was captivated with the beauty of the sunset as it filled me with peace. I started talking aloud to Spirit, saying, “I wish all people around the world could have this feeling of peace.” Then I found myself listening as Spirit whispered to me, “You will work for world peace.”  My ten-year-old mind couldn't fathom how I could do that and still have a husband. Then Spirit reassured me, “You will have a man by your side who will be your equal and will support this work.”

As it's turned out, I am working for peace, and I do have my beloved husband, Juan Enrique Toro, by my side. Juan Enrique has served as president of the Association of Unity Churches International and is the minister of Unity-Costa Rica.

I received my B.A. in psychology from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Eventually I served as the chief of volunteer services for the Texas Department of Health, and from this service-oriented job moved on to attend ministerial school at Unity Village, Missouri.

I met my future husband in our ministerial class. When we were about to graduate, Juan Enrique told me about a country that had no army and identified with peace—Costa Rica. At Juan Enrique's words, the prayer for world peace that had been asleep in my heart awakened. I knew that somehow I would be involved in supporting this national model of peace. That evening Juan Enrique and I celebrated our newfound dream of life in Costa Rica. And 16 years later, here we are. We were ordained as Unity ministers in 1991 and moved to Costa Rica in 1993. Now Unity is located just 20 minutes west of San Jose, Costa Rica's capital, and the Academy for Peace is located next door.

Unity Magazine: How did the practice of BePeace become established?

Rita Marie Johnson: It grew out of my own desire to be an authentic peacemaker.  I found it was easy to talk about peace, but I lacked clarity about the how-to of peaceful living. I was also motivated by the lack of peace with which I had handled some issues in my own life.  So I researched social and emotional learning methodology for over ten years looking for the best methods for “feeling peace” and “speaking peace.”

I founded a small school and tried the HeartMath method with the children. I was profoundly impacted at the way it worked with one boy who had been hitting his classmates, and I began using it in my own life. Ultimately, I chose it as the most effective method for consistently “feeling peace.”

Later, at a time when I was in despair over the increasing violence in the world, I took Nonviolent Communication training with Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. I found hope again and chose this method for its reliable approach to “speaking peace.” Once I was clear on the two methods, I tried combining them into a practice for “being peace” and was surprised at the way this enhanced them both. Therefore, this discovery evolved into the method that we now call ”BePeace.”

Unity Magazine: Define “HeartMath.”

Rita Marie Johnson: HeartMath is a way to tap our heart's intelligence.  This scientific approach is supported by in-depth research studies, but I will explain it here in the most basic way. Institute of HeartMath research has revealed that when we generate a positive feeling from our heart, the heart pulls the brain into a state of coherence with it so that we can more readily access our heart's intelligence.

HeartMath is taught verbally or with software that allows you to view your heart rate variability on the screen. By practicing the program's method of heart focus, heart breathing and heart feeling, you can shift your heart rate variability from an erratic pattern to an even pattern, indicating that you have achieved coherence between the brain and the heart.

Through HeartMath tools, we are able to increase our impulse control, improve our anger management, and make wiser choices. Once you become aware of the power of your heart, you realize that it is more efficient to “change your feelings, change your life” than to “change your thinking, change your life.”

HeartMath is not difficult to learn, but it takes commitment to practice it all day long so that you stay in a peaceful mode. To help us along, HeartMath produced the emWave®, a new product the size of a cell phone that gives us a reading of our coherence through an ear sensor so we can practice throughout the day.

Unity Magazine: What is Nonviolent Communication?

Rita Marie Johnson: Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a way to discover our feelings and needs and to understand how they drive our actions. With this new awareness, we can speak to each other with respect and compassion and build strategies for getting everyone's needs met. In NVC, we express our empathy and honesty using four steps: observation, feeling, need and request. Our main intention in using NVC is to stay connected to ourselves and to the other person. When we are connected at that level, conflicts are much easier to resolve and positive strategies for enriching our lives emerge naturally. NVC was developed by Marshall Rosenberg more than 25 years ago and is now taught in over 50 countries. It has transformed my life.

Unity Magazine: How does the practice of BePeace work in the lives of children who learn it?

Rita Marie Johnson: One example is a sixth-grader I will call “Jose” who came to one of our Saturday trainings. He was very restless and having a difficult time paying attention. As the day wore on and Jose began to grasp what we were teaching, he calmed down.

During the last exercise of the day, I asked Jose to describe a conflict he had experienced earlier in the week. He said that he had failed an exam and after that he dragged a child across the playground by her hair. I began to process this event with him, utilizing BePeace.

We first achieved the state of peace in his heart through HeartMath. Then I began using NVC by guessing what Jose's feelings were around this event. In this process, we discovered that he was feeling angry because of failing the exam. As we dug deeper, he realized that he was really feeling despair around having failed many exams. He was also very lonely as he didn't have many friends.

We then looked at the needs underneath those feelings: needs for learning, achievement, belonging, and a greater sense of connection with his classmates. As we touched upon those needs, a big tear slid down his cheek. Then I knew that his heart had opened through my empathy, and Jose was now in touch with himself.

After the session was over, I asked him, “The next time you fail an exam, do you think you'll still want to pull a girl's hair?” Jose said “No, because now I understand my own feelings and needs.” Instead of projecting uncomfortable feelings as violence in the future, this student will have a tool to own them and grow from them. He will be able to connect with his feelings and name his needs so that he can come up with better strategies than violence for getting those needs met.

Unity Magazine: Is the use of HeartMath coupled with Nonviolent Communication a guarantee for resolving every conflict?

Rita Marie Johnson: There is no guarantee. A lot depends on the person's skill in applying the two methods. It also depends in large degree on our authenticity: Do we really want to be connected to this other person, heart to heart? However, more than any other tools I have learned, using the skills of HeartMath and Nonviolent Communication together as BePeace has prepared me to be a peacemaker in every moment.

Unity Magazine: After you discovered the practice of BePeace, how did you establish the Academy for Peace of Costa Rica?

Rita Marie Johnson: I wanted to find a way to give BePeace to teachers so that they would be supported to have peaceful, creative classrooms. I gathered people together who had passion for this vision. At the time, I wasn't well enough established to start a peace academy so I called the individuals that were learning these skills the “Peace Army.” Now with the credibility we have established by working in schools for almost four years, the facilities that we have to offer and the endorsement of the government, we have become the Academy for Peace of Costa Rica.

The Academy for Peace is the main project of the Rasur Foundation, which I founded in 1997. The foundation's mission is to inspire, educate, and facilitate a culture of peace in Costa Rica.

Unity Magazine: What does Rasur mean?

Rita Marie Johnson: The name Rasur came from a Costa Rican poem written in 1946 by Roberto Brenes Mesén.  This poem is the story of Rasur, the god of children, and it has inspired all my work in Costa Rica. Rasur comes to the mountains of Costa Rica and he silently calls the children from the village of Quizur into a mountain. He begins to teach the children about the divinity within their hearts and their connection with all creation. He explains that they are caretakers of the universe, from the stars in the sky to the fruits of the earth. When the children come out of the mountain, they greet their worried parents and begin to tell them what they learned. Soon the entire village of Quizur is alive with creativity and is transformed into a culture of peace.

This epic poem is brilliantly written. My favorite quote from it has become the Academy for Peace motto: “Before directing the lightning in the sky, we must first harness the storms in our own hearts.” The poem implies that Costa Rican children have a special role to play as peacemakers to the world. In 1948, two years after this prophetic poem was written, the Costa Rican army was unexpectedly abolished. Costa Rica's peace story has continued to unfold.  We added a new chapter by creating the Academy for Peace.

Unity Magazine: What has been your biggest challenge?

Rita Marie Johnson: Since Costa Rica is still a developing country that has its own challenges, we are always faced with the question of how to fund this work. Historically we have moved forward through the dedicated work of a handful of people and what seem to be miracles. I never know where the next funds will come from to keep us going, but they always come. One way that Unity churches are helping to create these “miracles” is by bringing groups on our BePeace Tour, where you get to see the best of Costa Rica while learning our methods.

Unity Magazine: Precisely what does the Academy for Peace do?

Rita Marie Johnson: We teach trainers the practice of BePeace. The trainers then go into schools where they train teachers, parents and students to use BePeace, especially whenever mediation is needed for a conflict. We also have training at our headquarters. By December 2007, we will have trained all of the teachers in our county. We are working diligently to upgrade to the national level by May 2010 when President Arias leaves office. In this way, we will have the first national peace academy in the world firmly established so that it can be duplicated in other countries.

Unity Magazine: I understand that Costa Rica began identifying with peace when its army was abolished in 1948. How does Costa Rica get along without an army?

Rita Marie Johnson: Costa Rica has an extraordinary sense of purpose. Just as I had a prayer in my heart for world peace when I was ten years old, I truly believe that Costa Rica has a collective prayer in its heart to model peace to the world. Somehow our prayers have intersected in time and space.

For example, in 2006, I wrote an initiative for a Ministry for Peace in Costa Rica that was based on the collective wisdom of those involved in the Rasur Foundation. It was embraced by President Arias and is now a bill in the Legislative Assembly that will pass very soon, as it has no opposition.

A country like this that lives from an identity with peace does not attract enemies. Costa Rica is the only country in the world with no army and no defense arrangement.  In its defenselessness is its strength. That is not to say that Costa Rica has no problems with violence, as there has been an increase in domestic violence. But over time the Academy for Peace will impact every citizen so that peace can prevail in every corner of this precious country.

Unity Magazine: What is the position of the Academy for Peace on the current war in the Middle East?

Rita Marie Johnson: The Academy for Peace does not take sides. We do not take a political stance because we are simply for every individual being empowered to become a peacemaker. We understand that, at the heart of any situation, all human beings are just trying to get their needs met. Sometimes we utilize tragic strategies for getting those needs met but, through BePeace, we can learn to make new choices.

Unity Magazine: What does Unity mean to you in terms of what you practice every day?

Rita Marie Johnson: In Unity, we sing, “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.” Unity motivated me to become an authentic peacemaker—to take the calling that I received when I was ten years old and deepen it. Now I finally know how to walk the talk of peace.