Civic Responsibility 2 – Public Vigils

One of the reasons I love the Quaker use of queries is how they stimulate me/us to reflect on our lives, beliefs, and encourage us to do more.  Yesterday’s post was about the queries related to civic responsibility.  One of the parts of that I wrote about was:

How do we share our convictions with others? Do we express our opinions with courage,  yet with love, mindful of the Divine Spirit within everyone?

I focused on public vigils and marches, because I have spent a lot of time organizing and participating in such events for many causes over many years.  I’ve been thinking about this since and wanted to expand on that, especially because I think many people wonder if these things change anything.

The first public peace event I was involved with was when the entire student body (around 60 students) and most of the staff of Scattergood Friends School marched about 12 miles to the University of Iowa in Iowa City on October 15, 1969, as our part in the National Moratorium Days Against the Vietnam War.


Entire Scattergood Friends School marching 12 miles to Iowa City to protest Vietnam War

This idea was presented to the School Committee on October 11, 1969, which wrote:

A group of students attended Committee meeting and explained plans for their participation in the October 15 Moratorium. The Committee wholeheartedly endorses the plans.  The following statement will be handed out in answer to any inquiries:

“These students and faculty of Scattergood School are undertaking the twelve mile walk from campus to Iowa City in observance of the October 15 Moratorium. In order not to detract from the purpose of the walk, we have decided to remain silent. You are welcome to join us in this expression of our sorrow and disapproval of the war and loss of life in Vietnam. Please follow the example of the group and accept any heckling or provocation in silence.”

I think most of us were apprehensive about how people along the route might react, but I don’t remember any responses at all.  I do remember how quiet we were as we marched, like a moving prayer, or meeting for worship.

During the summer before my Senior year at Scattergood, I worked in (Quaker) Don Laughlin’s medical electronics lab at the University of Iowa Hospitals.  I accompanied him to the weekly peace vigil in downtown Iowa City.

vigil — a stationary, peaceful demonstration in support of a particular cause, typically without speeches

Then there was a big gap in time, when I moved to Indianapolis and was engaged in my career and life.  But when I became involved with North Meadow Circle of Friends meeting about five years ago, I was glad to learn about a weekly peace vigil and made an effort to attend every week when I could.


Weekly peace vigil in front of the Federal Building, Indianapolis

As you can see in this photo, our group was usually pretty small.  Debbie made the trip by bus every week.  She happens to be blind.  Gilbert Kuhn is a member of North Meadow Friends.  The three of us are usually all that show up.  The day of this photo Christian joined us.  He was homeless, but very enthusiastic in talking (and dancing) about peace.  We became a part of the downtown community, and the homeless people who spent a lot of time in the parks around us would often engage us.  That helped me consider who our audience was, which was everyone, not just the cars and pedestrians passing in front of us.

Signs are an important part of vigils, explaining why you are there.  The War Is Not The Answer signs are part of a many years long campaign from the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL).  I think hand made signs like Debbie’s Peace Is Patriotic are also effective.  Debbie also has one that says Honk For Peace, which always results in cars honking their horns, which surprised me somewhat.  We also often have people walking by or on bicycles saying “honk, honk”.  Interaction is a good thing.

Especially at first, I think it is normal to feel some apprehension about doing this, especially knowing you might provoke negative reactions.  But especially for peace vigils it is essential to model your message.  How can you promote peace when you engage in conflict?  The core principle of nonviolence is the goal is not to win by defeating your opponent, but rather to genuinely listen to others, knowing there is at least some truth in what they are saying, and moving everyone further along the path to peace and justice.  It is just not acceptable to fight those who act negatively toward you.  You want to do whatever you can to deescalate the situation, so you can arrive at a place where a true dialog can occur.  That is why you are out there, isn’t it?

When I got deeply involve in the Keystone Pledge of Resistance, one thing our Keystone group did was hold public vigils.

At first I questioned the idea I had of taking my STOP Keystone Pipeline sign to the weekly peace vigil.  But I began to. Gilbert and Debbie also wondered about it at first but we all came to feel it made sense.  Those were the early days of the Keystone debate, and many people would stop and ask me what the Keystone pipeline was, which was a great opportunity to educate people about the dangers of tar sands and greenhouse gas emissions.

You can’t help but wonder what effects these vigils might have.  Especially in a society as militaristic as ours, I think it is important that people are made aware that there are those of us who believe in peace.  I think the one on one dialogs we have with people can be helpful.  As for those who are driving past, you never know.  Some people honk or wave the peace sign or yell encouragement as they drive past.

It is encouraging when, for example, as I walk through the public library with my War is Not the Answer sign, a librarian asks me if I am going to the peace vigil (which is not far from the library), and tells me she is glad we do that.

Another of the queries on civic responsibility is:

Are we careful to reach our decisions through prayer and strengthen our actions with worship? Are we open to divine leadings?

I feel I have been led by the spirit to make this witness, myself.

I’ve written more about this in response to an article Rev William Barber wrote in Friends Journal, September 1, 2016, The Third Reconstruction, where he says Quakers, it’s time to get back into the public square:

“It’s always been one of my great dreams to come and be at a Quaker Friends meeting, even if it meant just sittin’ and bein’ quiet. And that’s because I know enough about history to know about the Religious Society of Friends and the abolition campaigns that began long before the end of slavery in Britain. I know that George Fox, in 1657, challenged those who had Blacks and Indians as slaves, and said, Wait a minute. What about the equality of all people? I know about how Friends and Quakers saw it as their spiritual duty to be abolitionists. They didn’t separate it: I’m spiritual when I’m sitting in the meetinghouse. And then over here, I’m political. They knew your spirituality should inform your politics.”

“So my prayer is that we will refuse to live below the snake line. We’ve got to make this Reconstruction grow to full term, to full life. We can’t allow a snake to bite this reconstruction and cause it to die, so we’re gonna get it above the snake line. Quakers, it’s time to get back into the public square. If you believe that there’s life above the snake line, it’s time to get back in the public square.

“While I’m walking to get above the snake line, it might get hard. I might have to go through some spiked teeth that are trying to poison me. But I’m going above the snake line. I’m going above the snake line, and while I’m making my way, I’m gonna say, “Walk with me, Lord. Walk with me, Lord. Walk with me, Lord. While I’m on this tedious journey, going to be above the snake line, Lord, walk with me.” And if God walks with us, we can do just as they did in the First Reconstruction, and just as they did in the Second Reconstruction, we can be the generation that takes this generation above the snake line. It’s our time. It’s our time.”

Following is a video of photos I took during a march in 2014, when Rev Barber was in Indianapolis to help us launch Indiana Moral Mondays, including a speech Rev Barber gave then.


This entry was posted in civil disobedience, Keystone Pledge of Resistance, peace, Quaker Meetings, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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