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A cultivator of peace
Ghanaian-born priest found life’s work in conflict resolution
For Father Clement Aapengnuo, life is all about reconciliation — whether within tribes in his home country of Ghana, among his family or between the faithful (including himself) and God.
The oldest of six children, Father Clement was born Nov. 23, 1960, and raised in Nandom, in the upper western corner of Ghana. Because both of his parents were educated teachers, Father Clement, who has resided at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington since 2006, was raised in the middle-class — a social sphere that means something different in Ghana than it does in Northern Virginia.
“I got my first shoe when I was in high school,” Father Clement said in a recent interview. But he and his four brothers and one sister didn’t go hungry.
Father Clement was raised Catholic, serving at Mass and watching the example of his “very prayerful” mother. But he had to experience Catholicism for himself before he bought completely into it.
“I like to question things,” he said. “My spiritual life and my growth deepened slowly (as I grew).”
Father Clement jokingly tells people that he ended up at St. Victor Seminary in Tamale by accident. After refusing to attend Bible study while in high school, he applied for entrance into St. Victor after being dared by one of his friends.
As a result, “I believe that God works in very mysterious ways, and He calls people differently,” Father Clement said. Once at the seminary, “I enjoyed every moment of it.”
Father Clement was ordained for the Archdiocese of Tamale Aug. 6, 1988, at the age of 28 — the youngest priest in the group. For five years he was assigned to Our Lady of the Annunciation Cathedral in Tamale, where he worked as the bishop’s secretary and in communications. An interest in photography, which had been cultivated in the seminary, led to videography for the diocese. In 1993, Father Clement’s bishop asked him to study social communications in Rome.
Two years later he made his first trip to the United States — to Hartford, Conn. — for a social communications internship. When he returned to Ghana, the Archdiocese of Tamale had been divided, and Father Clement was now a priest in the Diocese of Damongo, encompassing the western part of the country.
In the late 1990s, at his new bishop’s request and in response to ethnic violence ravaging the country, Father Clement began developing a program centered on conflict resolution. Working with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), he designed a training program on the art of peacebuilding for everyone from government officials to tribal leaders to church workers. Once the basics were established, another priest was put in charge of the program, and Father Clement went back to his communications work.
But when the other priest resigned, the bishop turned back to Father Clement as a temporary coordinator for the project. The plan was for Father Clement to lead the program for three years while the bishop found someone else to take over.
But then the plan changed.
“After a year, I went to (the bishop) and said, ‘I think this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,’” Father Clement said.
A life’s mission
From almost the first moment working with conflict resolution and peacebuilding, Father Clement became fascinated by the “transformation that takes place when people are in conflict.”
The northern region of Ghana experienced about 26 ethnic conflicts between 1980 and 2002, Father Clement said, with one of the most violent occurring in 1994.
“A lot of people died, property (was) destroyed and people (were) displaced,” he said. “That level of violence the country had never seen before. It really shook the country.”
So Father Clement began approaching the communities, talking to people and listening to their stories.
“It was always painful to see how people were victims of circumstances,” he said. “People fight, deaths have occurred. So we have to go into the communities and talk to them, prepare them, get them to come to the negotiating table or to come together for mediation.”
That, in itself, can take years. Then, once the parties are together, the real work begins. And as Father Clement worked, he witnessed striking results.
“The first day you bring these parties in conflict to the room they don’t want to look at each other, let alone talk to each other or even eat together,” Father Clement said. “By the third day they are embracing each other and they are friends. That transformation was always magical.”
The successes were a result of a “systematic program of education, training and mediation” that began at local communities.
“If these local legislators are trained in conflict resolution and peacebuilding, then they go about their politics in such a way that they reduce their conflict,” Father Clement said.
In the span of three years, officials in Ghana went from thinking Father Clement and his colleagues had no real chance of fostering peace through conflict resolution to wondering why no one had thought of it before. Thus, the Northern Ghana Peace Project was born, funded by CRS and the U.S. Agency for International Development, with Father Clement at the helm.
Managing a group of 10 to 15 employees as well as a $100,000 budget, Father Clement and his colleagues trained mediators in communities to recognize early warning signs of conflict so they could intervene before conflict occurred. They trained chiefs of tribes, government administrations, local communities, youth groups, and women’s groups, and organized courses and worked with parliamentarians.
For “the church, our fundamental function is reconciliation,” Father Clement said. “So this is the best priestly work to do, reconciling people.”
After six years of working in peacebuilding and conflict resolution, Father Clement’s bishop asked him to pursue a doctoral degree in the subject. A friend from Hartford helped him acquire a full scholarship via a private donation, and Father Clement applied to George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, which was recommended to him as one of the best places to study conflict resolution.
For three months in the fall of 2006, Father Clement commuted from Washington, where he had gained residency, to the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at GMU’s Arlington campus — located right next to St. Charles.
“I used to look at St. Charles and be like ‘Oh God, why don’t You help me get this place?’” he said.
One day he got a call saying that the pastor of St. Charles was looking for a priest. His response: “Don’t tell me it’s the St. Charles I’ve been dreaming about.”
“At home, because of the levels of poverty, especially in the rural areas, when people come to see you as a priest, they’re looking for assistance,” he said. “Very seldom would someone come to see you for confession or to discuss a spiritual problem. They’d come to you because they need money to go to hospital (or) money for school fees. So we’re more like social workers, especially in the rural areas. But here I get to do spiritual direction, the sacraments, prepare for Mass. I’ve found a great community.”
Underscoring Father Clement’s peace-related work and schooling is his personal faith development. Though he knew he was called by God to the priesthood, Father Clement still had times when he questioned his vocation. Once was right before he was ordained, and another came at what he called the “peak of my vocation where everything was going right for me.”
“I suddenly felt alone,” he said. “I would go and do training and just be the star, and then I’d come home, enter my room, and just go down.”
He felt an emptiness, which, through discussion and by taking a personality assessment, he learned to be low self-esteem resulting from a “tumultuous relationship” with his father growing up.
Wanting to discover more about himself, Father Clement spent three months understanding different personality types and receiving counseling.
“Being conscious of what makes you tick is important; being conscious of what your weaknesses are is important,” he said. “If you have no self-esteem, no amount of Hail Marys is going to help you. Get to know what it is and deal with it. The more human you are, the more you are in tune with yourself, the better you are spiritually. I learned to love myself.”
He came to the realization that every life experience he encountered was God’s way of preparing him for who he was meant to be.
“That changed my life,” he said.
So did his realization for the importance of staying connected to God through prayer.
“In these moments where everything abandoned me, it was my life of prayer that sustained me,” he said. Reconnecting can be as simple as going into his room, locking the door and being silent.
Even with the tough times, Father Clement said he would never do anything differently.
“I would become a priest again,” he said. “It’s a phenomenal experience.”
“In the day in the life of a priest, you can see the whole spectrum of human living,” he added, whether it’s a birth, a death, a marriage or a broken relationship. “My greatest fulfillment is when people come in here to see me in tears, and by the time they are leaving, they can smile. It’s the best.”
As much as he loves pastoral work, Father Clement has not forgotten why he came to Northern Virginia in the first place. He now is working primarily on his doctoral dissertation, which focuses on the impact of power, identity and legitimacy in conflicts. His goal is to finish by the end of this year and then head back to Ghana.
“I love (St. Charles),” he said. “It’s wonderful here, and I will forever be grateful for these years. It’s a huge part of my life, and it’s formed me in many personal ways. But I came here for a purpose. The need is greater at home.”