THE JOURNEY OF A PEACE BUILDER
By Burt Berlowe
It is a tough time to be a peace builder – even for those of us who have been at it for a long while. Every time we think we have been successful in bringing about a more peaceful world, violence rears its ugly head. The year 2012 featured many positive uprisings by ordinary people promoting peace and justice. But it was also dominated by messages of violence blaring out repeatedly through the barrel of a gun in an American movie theater, shopping mall and small-town elementary school, as well as in the ongoing war and turmoil around the globe. Even with decades of peace activism pushing forward, the United States remains a violent culture. In some ways, it reminds me of the most tumultuous decade in our history – the 1960s, where I came of age as a peace builder and compassionate rebel.My peacemaker journey began as a reaction to the violence of the ‘60s -- the assassinations of revered leaders, the beatings of civil rights activists, the carnage of the VietnamWar and Kent State, to name a few, all of which were in constant conflict with the counterculture messages of peace, love and understanding that provided hope for better times ahead. That was when I embarked on the first of three stages of peace building.
This is the period of time when peace builders begin to learn about their trade, studying the work and messages of the great peacemakers in history, following the path of existing and burgeoning peace movements, expressing anger and frustration at the proliferation of violence and searching for a way to translate it into action that will help create a more peaceful world. I was in college during the early stages of the Vietnam War, forced to act like a soldier in ROTC classes, barely escaping the draft due to flat feet, even as classmates were sent to war. I watched with interest as the anti-war movement, then the civil rights and women’s movements unfolded, distraught and angry about the violence that permeated that decade, inspired by those who chose to resist it.
WORKING FOR PEACE
The epiphany moment that moved me from critical spectator to active peacemaker happened at the dawning of a new decade. In the spring of 1970, following President Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia, peace activists called for a national day of moratorium against the war with major demonstrations planned in several key locations. I decided to go to New York City to take part in that moratorium march and rally. Amidst the flashing neon, echoing chants and quiet drizzle of an historic Times Square afternoon I marched with people of all types from around the country who had come together to literally walk their antiwar talk, I was moved and inspired by what I saw and felt. I turned a corner in peace activism and never looked back.
In the days that followed that powerful moment became story. I put on paper what I had observed and experienced that day and imagined what might be the stories of others who rode on the bus, camped overnight in the church and marched through downtown New York in a dramatic display of commitment and purpose. I realized that there must have been thousands of compelling peacemaker stories unfolding that day waiting to be told, and wished that I could have somehow been able to know them all and tell them to a larger world. .
My peace journey followed two intersecting paths. I marched in more protests, joined peace and justice organizations, helped launch the Initiative for Violence Free Families in the Twin Cities, championed peaceful parenting through published books and teaching, and promoted the efforts of others who were genuinely working towards a non-violent world.
At the same time, I increasingly focused on writing about political, community and social activism, I realized more and more that stories can and do change the world, that they can inspire both the teller and the listener (or reader) to move from thought and concern to action These are the stories of ordinary people who have, against great odds, practiced peacemaking and inspired many others to do the same They are proof that living and telling the stories of peace and justice making can provide hope for future generations.
It wasn’t until the turn of this century that all of these efforts found a focused theme and identity. I had become deeply involved with Growing Communities for Peace (GCFP), a small but very active grassroots organization on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border that promoted peace education and conflict resolution through events, programs and an online and traveling bookstore. I spent a lot of time with Rebecca Janke, a peace educator and GCFP founder, tabling at conferences and discussing ways to promote non-violent social change.
Not long after the 9-11 tragedy that led The U.S. into the Iraq war, we shared our mutual desire to write a book that would tell the stories of citizen peacemakers among us who combined their compassion and rebellion to positively change the world. We interviewed people we knew and strangers who came to us in various ways. During a casual conversation Rebecca and her business partner came up with a title for these people, and eventually, for a book: The Compassionate Rebel: Energized by Anger, Motivated by Love, a creative nonfiction anthology that contains 50 stories of non-violent heroes who live among us and whose courageous efforts were not being sufficiently honored -- people who cared about an issue or cause and acted upon it in ways that bucked the status quo, who were angry at injustice but turned that anger away from violence and into peaceful, positive change. The co-authors of this anthology called ourselves Story Carriers who were carrying the stories of compassionate rebels and their messages of peace and hope into the public realm.
Because most of the people in that book were locally-based we brought several of them with us to promotional events ‘so they could tell their story in-person, an exercise that had a profound effect on audiences. Here were peacemaker heroes that they could read about and actually meet in person.
For the next several years, promoting the compassionate rebel book and concept became a primary focus, along with participation in the Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers, a coalition of over 70 peace and justice and faith-based organizations. Along the way, I met many more compassionate rebels and began to realize that this was a global revolution that encompassed other sub-movements and countless individual actions throughout history and around the world, that changed people’s lives and led to a positive transformation of society, and that more of these stories had to be told. That led to the recently-published second book in this series: The Compassionate Rebel Revolution: Ordinary People Changing the World (www.compassionaterebel.com) that features some 60 additional stories. Gradually, I began to realize that during my transformation in Times Square, I had become a compassionate rebel – although it wouldn’t be called that for three more decades.
One of the chapters in the current book is titled The Peace Messengers. It profiles several people who have become not just builders.but also messengers of non-violence.
Take, for instance, Sami Rasouli, who gave up a prosperous business in Minneapolis to create the Muslim Peacemakers Team in his war-torn home country of Iraq, and the Iraqi-American Reconciliation Project (IARP) that builds positive, peaceful relationships between the two countries. Antiwar protestor and community organizer Mel Duncan turned a serendipitous meeting into the internationally known Nonviolent Peace Force that resolves conflicts around the world. Kathy Kelly has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize for her courageous work in creative nonviolence. Camilo Mejia became the first conscientious objector of the Iraq war and, following time in prison, went on to become a spokesperson for peace-minded veterans. Gulf war survivor Chante Wolf speaks widely about the abuse she experienced and witnessed against women in the military. Long-time activists Marie and John Braun faithfully conduct peace vigils every Wednesday evening on the Sri Chimnoy bridge joining the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. These compassionate rebels and many others like them have found their own way to bring messages of peace and hope to the world around them.
PAYING IT FORWARD
Even as I remain active in peace and justice work, much of my efforts and those of my fellow senior activists is about preparing the next generation of peace builders and compassionate rebels to take over the revolution and build it to be bigger and better, to place the hope for a more peaceful future in their hands.
Shortly after the publishing of book two, the evidence of this hope burst forth in the Arab spring, Wisconsin protests, and, most recently, the Occupy movement led by the new generation of compassionate rebels. More recently, we saw this revolution come together in the largest climate change rally in history.
As someone who witnessed and sometimes took part in the youth-directed movements of the ‘60s, only to see that level of activity diminish in subsequent years, I was excited and encouraged by the Occupy movement and have been doing all I can to support it -- including helping to organize an event last year that brought together the Occupy youth with the gray-haired activists in MAP.
Just as in the counterculture days, the hope for a more peaceful world ultimately lies with the youth who will inherit and run the planet in years to come. Amidst the ongoing violence of this century has come cause for hope – common people rising up to demand an end to war and a more just, non-violent society for everyone., all part of the growing compassionate rebel revolution. Hopefully, this time those efforts will have a lasting impact on our culture.
Those of us who came of age in the ‘60s stood on the shoulders of peacemaker heroes and compassionate rebels we admired – Gandhi, King and the like. It is now time for us to offer our weary shoulders to budding peace builders and compassionate rebels – to serve as role models and mentors for those who will be carrying on the movement for a better world where the messengers of peace overcome the messengers of violence once and for all.
Information on the current compassionate rebel revolution book, including the entire peace messengers chapter, is available at the website: www.compassionaterebel.com.