This month, for Alumni Pin Day, we are featuring Walter Brynjolfson (’14) who turned tear gas canisters he picked up on the streets of Bethlehem into Christmas ornaments in order to turn symbols of conflict into symbols of peace.
TWUAA: What brought you to TWU in the first place?
Walter Brynjolfson: I wish I could give a glorious answer to this question, but in all honesty, it was simply the most logical choice. My mother is a professor of Spanish at TWU so I was generously offered free tuition. I wasn’t entirely convinced until I went to Preview Weekend and the rest is history. No regrets.
TWUAA: What did you study at TWU?
WB: I was enrolled in the Bachelor’s in Business Administration with a focus on International Business and Human Resources; but as the years progressed I also did a minor in Philosophy.
TWUAA: Which course or prof did you find most transformed the way you see the world today?
WB: In my second semester I enrolled in POLS 101 with Professor Townsend. His passionate exposition of Plato launched me into a lifelong pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. These three values, which I will always seek, gave me the foundation on which I built my desire to restore broken communities abroad.
TWUAA: If you could take one more TWU course, which would it be?
WB: Probably “Early Christian Thinkers” with Professor Townsend. As I reflect on my post-secondary education I realize the most valuable classes were the ones that expanded my worldview, gave fascinating new insights about existence, improved my critical thinking skills, and developed abstract thinking. Townsend is a fantastic orator and the church fathers were brilliant men. It’s a wonderful combination.
TWUAA: What are you studying now?
WB: I’m currently in the process of getting an M.A. in Peace Studies at Bethlehem Bible College.
TWUAA: Why did you decide to go to a Bible college in Bethlehem?
WB: Well, for a few years now I had been developing a deep-seeded love and appreciation for Palestinian Christians. It culminated when I visited the region in 2014 with a group of TWU students. The people and the stories I encountered made me feel a powerful calling to return and support their dwindling community, especially in Bethlehem. The social, political, and economic circumstances over the last century, particularly after Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, made a lot of them leave. Now Christians only make up a minority in this ancient Christian town and I felt a desire to help.
Bethlehem Bible College was the obvious next step in my life. It’s very small but it has a solid reputation as an outspoken advocate for justice, forgiveness, and peace in the local community and around the world. I saw there was a new M.A. Program in Peace Studies and decided it was my personal mission to come, learn, and be a peacemaker in whatever capacity I could. Which, as it turns out, is mostly by sharing the stories of Palestinian Christians with the rest of the world. Hence why I started Peace Parcels.
TWUAA: Can you tell me the story of how you got the idea to turn tear gas canisters into Christmas ornaments?
WB: Before I even arrived in Bethlehem I knew I wanted to use entrepreneurship to share the stories of Christians in Bethlehem. Then the tear gas ornament idea fell on my lap. In October and November, protests were happening right in front of the college on a daily basis. The campus is a couple blocks from the 28-foot concrete wall separating Bethlehem from Israel, so it’s a very tense spot. Groups of young guys were throwing rocks at the Israeli soldiers who then responded with endless showers of tear gas. Hundreds of canisters fell all around us and decorated our campus and the streets. I decided to collect them and transform these symbols of conflict into symbols of peace. I felt like it was an age-old Christian tradition of “beating swords into plowshares” or what Jesus did by turning the cross, a symbol of injustice and oppression, into a symbol of hope and redemption. It wasn’t’ an entirely new idea, Palestinians had been doing similar things with spent tear gas canisters in the past. I just innovated a bit and used my online marketing skills to share the story online.
TWUAA: How do you see yourself living out the TWU Alumni Way values of Seek to Restore and Bring the Spark?
WB: Those two values definitely undergird everything I do. I genuinely seek to restore the community in Bethlehem and the world by humanizing people; even those who are often perceived as the “enemy.” If my efforts in Bethlehem and Palestine contribute to bringing international pressure to the region, and if that leads to some semblance of peace, then I will feel I accomplished something very meaningful. If there can be Peace in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, there can be peace in the entire world.
TWUAA: Do you have any plans for what’s next?
WB: I think I’ll stay in Bethlehem for a little while longer. Maybe settle down here. But visa issues are constantly making my life difficult so if I get kicked out, which is definitely possible, I’ll probably try to do Peace Parcels or similar entrepreneurial projects in other countries. I’ve found that creative social entrepreneurship is a powerful way to restore economic justice and share the stories of the oppressed. Nothing develops empathy in the hearts of the comfortably wealthy more than good stories and shiny consumer products.