Three years ago, when we interviewed Leander High School graduate Jeremy Courtney about his nonprofit, Preemptive Love Coalition, things were beginning to change for the organization that began as a way to help kids in Iraq get needed heart surgeries.
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At the time, the Islamic State was changing things drastically on the ground in Iraq, causing Courtney to expand the mission of the organization beyond heart surgeries. Things also had changed in Syria.
It is now the goal of Preemptive Love to build community among a diverse group of people and "change the ideas that lead to war," Courtney says.
"We say we are trying to build the largest, most diverse peacemaking community on the planet," he says.
Courtney and his wife, Jessica, and their two kids have been living in Iraq since 2007.
Courtney began with his own story of moving his family to Iraq and sitting around tables with people very different from himself and having conversations.
"Somewhere along the way, it stopped being an adventure, it stopped being expeditionary, and this became home," Courtney says. "This became our neighbors, our people. ... This is our place. We feel deeply tied up in their well-being. It feels like that's home, and no one wants to leave home."
It’s those conversations and seeing "the other" as human beings that became Preemptive Love’s purpose.
"We work to build community, to know each other," he says.
Now Courtney is on a 35-city tour, including two stops in the Austin area, to create living room conversations about what it means to "Love Anyway," the title of his new book and documentary, which is narrated by actress Kristen Bell, who began following Preemptive Love’s work a few years ago on Instagram and posting about it,
"We are going back to the start of sitting in living rooms with people who are different than us and modeling for others how it looks and how good it is to come together and diversify the conversation," he says of the U.S. events, which will include a reading from the book and a screening of the documentary.
Everywhere he goes in the world, he sees the polarization. "Everyone feels like we are getting pulled to the edges," he says.
That has meant that the work of Preemptive Love has gotten pulled from heart surgeries for Iraqi children to now creating conversations among diverse groups of people in places where war is erupting. Currently, Preemptive Love is in northern Syria to work with the 300,000 Kurds who are being displaced as U.S. troops pulled out earlier this month.
"It became a war zone overnight," Courtney says, and that means that many aid organizations have pulled out for fear of their safety.
Preemptive Love has been in places like Aleppo, Syria, during the civil war, and remains in Iraq, where he says the loss of the common enemy of IS created a void in which factions turn on one another.
"It’s hanging by a thread, it feels like," he says.
"Every major battle, we are the first organization in ... because we were embedded and working closely with tribal leadership," he says.
In Syria, he says, "we were well-positioned to respond to the crisis that emerged in the last two weeks."
Preemptive Love doesn’t just provide emergency aid, though it does do that and will continue to as people are on the run.
"We exist to end war," Courtney says. "What we mean by that is trying to stop the spread of violence." Preemptive Love provides economic opportunities, creates housing and encourages conversations among diverse people. Courtney now attends summits with global leaders, including Nobel Peace Prize winners.
The mission isn’t just tied to the Middle East. Preemptive Love is also in Juarez, along the U.S.-Mexico border, to try to help refugees, especially those in the LGBTQ community who have been especially threatened, and it is working in Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela and Cuba to try to create job opportunities and reduce the number of refugees risking their lives to get to the United States.
Preemptive Love has found champions of all kinds, though one of the things that Courtney is aware of is that the donors and supporters are not as diverse as he would like. They tend to be female and white and Christian.
"We are the ones who need this change. We are the ones who have been isolated and impoverished from a lack of diversity in our lives," he says. "We are willing to raise our hands and say, 'We are willing to change.’"
That has meant that he has had to find partners in marginalized and overlooked populations. "These are people who are raising their hands and saying, ’I’ll try one more time, I’ll believe you one more time that you want to do better. I’ll put my well-being and my identity on the line with you to see if speaking up moves the needle.’ I am deeply grateful for every one of those friends who choose to love us anyways. Many of us represent the face of the oppressor."
For the tour, Preemptive Love reached out to its donors to ask them to host a living room conversation. While Courtney says the organization didn’t challenge them to fill the room with a diverse group of people, that is one of the goals. And if during the discussions it becomes apparent that the group is predominately white and predominately Christian, "The room ends up indicting itself in a way," he says. "We all realize that though our aspirations might be good, we're going to have to change strategy and tactics."
Courtney’s goal for the next five years is to get further down the road of creating a global community of peacemakers.
"Our experience so far: We all end up changing a little bit together."