Does standing on the corner holding a sign matter?

Author: Michael Batinski

For some months I have been thinking about the mundane yet shining examples of the way faith and practice join on the path to peace.

This inquiry began a couple days after last Christmas, when I encountered a friend at the coop grocery who regularly joins Carbondale’s Saturday morning peace vigil. I had not attended the last vigil, simply because Christmas fell on Saturday. That morning, while with my family, my thoughts turned to that street corner where the vigil meets. As the customary time approached, I wondered whether others were gathering with their signs calling for peace on earth. I continued to wonder. Spontaneously my friend and I asked each other who had appeared. She too had not attended and also wondered. She had heard that three regulars were there. We were not sure who they were.

I have been reflecting on this moment with the two of us recognizing a shared concern. Sometimes I ask why I still come to that street corner vigil. Does standing on the corner holding a sign calling for the end of war make a difference? The weight of evidence is not encouraging. Public demonstrations for peace seem to have negligible affect on this republic’s deeply engrained war making impulses. Indeed, with the wars’ continuation regardless of the 2008 election’s outcome, I have wondered with others whether the continuing vigil serves to remind passersby that nothing changes and that protest is futile. Is war like the weather? We might complain, but can we do anything about it?

Such questions likely occur to others who congregate on this corner in the cold as well as the blistering heat and who keep this appointment despite the taunts and jeers. Yet such questions may distract us from meanings that lie on the edges of this event, meanings that emerge on another plane than that of practical politics or straightforward cause-effect relationships.

I have been wondering about the feelings that lead me to the Saturday vigil and then to Friends Meeting the following morning. For some time I have been aware of a necessity that moves me to both places. Exploring the similarities returns me to distinctions conventionally made between the religious and the secular. The differences are manifest. In contrast to the quiet of the Quaker Meeting, the street corner is a noisy place with traffic streaming past and the freight train thundering by predictably. Instead of a voice speaking out of the silence, passers-by honk in support or screech obscenities. Such differences notwithstanding, I return to those who remind us and teach us to open ourselves to the religious in everyday life.

I write with care at this point lest I misrepresent these vigil keepers. They come from diverse traditions, some religious and some emphatically secular. Their talk is often not focused on the vigil’s purpose. Nor does the talk turn to religious topics. Some reflect on their personal lives. They joke. They exchange thoughts on other community activities. The wars do not come up, at least not directly. Yet wars are there, always. These people have been gathering despite the lessons that might teach them the futility of their actions. They have been standing on that corner for nearly a decade. Many are veteran advocates of peace. For decades they have protested the growth of the military state and have watched it grow steadily in size. And they keep true to their convictions. Perhaps they do not talk about the pragmatics of their vigil. What impresses me is that they persist and that they persist in good humor.

I recall one rainy day. Drivers were swerving deliberately away from a puddle lest they splatter the protestors. Then with the same deliberation a police car veered in the opposite direction to splash a couple women. All, even the splattered ones, laughed. At times, some one will keep a tally of passersby who honk in support and those who jeer in anger. Some will talk about the agenda of the Southern Illinois Peace Coalition. Tickets will be sold for a folk singer coming to town. I have listened to one steadfast soul ruminate: how can we reach across to those who express such white-hot anger? There seems to be no answer. Yet she is the most faithful attender.

The people who gather—most are women—have been teaching me. Their example returns me to the ageless question regarding the secular and the religious, the sacred and the profane: how can we discern a difference? A light illuminates that street corner. Perhaps that is what draws me. These veteran witnesses for peace continue despite the enervating question: does keeping this appointment stop the shooting? They persist even while attending to weighty personal matters. They tend to partners who are ill. They talk about children, some with their own problems. Some are battling their own illnesses. The distractions are numerous, and yet they gather at noon. Somehow one veteran captures the moment with her sign “I am against the next war.” Another sign reads “Been here since 2001.”

The record of persistence is impressive and teaches me something. Perhaps counting their rates of attendance does not reveal clear meaning. Between fifteen and twenty regulars gather each week, good or bad weather. Is the number small? Perhaps. I do not know. What is their affect on passers-by? On each other? Somehow their smiles and their good faith carry meaning enough in this time of endless war.

I will not be in town for the next eight weeks. Yet I will think of them each Saturday and feel my faith renewed by their shining example.

3 thoughts on “Does standing on the corner holding a sign matter?

  1. Does standing on a corner holding a sign matter? It matters to those who hold the signs. I’ve held up signs in marches, vigils, and parades, in community with a local peace organization and with my meeting’s P&J committee; they are full of passionate people. It is comforting and necessary to be in community with those who share your passion for something as important as peace. I love your writing about the inspiring people who are committed to this vigil in terms of something like religious faith. It reminds me of the faith of John Woolman accepting his leading to visit Indian tribes in difficult times, without needing to know how it would turn out.

    Does standing on a corner holding a sign matter to others? When I am driving past a street corner with one or many holding a sign, it is likely I won’t be able to read them because I’m either driving or, if a passenger, we may go past too quickly see the message. However, I see people standing up for what they believe and being eager to convey a message, and I always want to know what it is they care about so deeply. As a pedestrian, I respect the courage and dedication they demonstrate, as long as they respect my right to disagree or to move on peacefully. However, I find myself hurrying past, with only a brief greeting, the Lyndon LaRue supporters who occasionally demonstrate in front of my community’s post office. The first time saw them I stopped to discuss issues, but now I’m too biased for their message to “matter” to me. Perhaps that’s how some react to peace demonstrators; one can respect their passion without being open to discussion in the moment.

    Does standing on a corner holding a sign matter in terms of ending these wars? Sadly, in my opinion, the answer is no, it doesn’t matter. Similar to my reaction to the LaRue demonstrators, our leaders can respect the demonstrators without being open to their messages. Our leaders are still acting out a script written to celebrate the triumph of American power. Those who wield the power and their victims are too remote, both from each other and from ordinary American citizens. Tragically, ten years of death and destruction, ten years of standing on street corners with signs have not significantly changed the script.

    I don’t know how to stop the wars, but I can try to follow my Inner Guide and try (although it is hard) to let go of the outcome. In my local peace organization I felt strongly led, for various reasons, to not support the next Chicago anti-war march. Perhaps I will feel led to support future marches. I don’t know what else to say except that keeping one’s faith, in community with others, is extremely important. I think we will be quite lost without it. May I suggest a further query:

    What does it mean to faithfully be in community with others in times of trouble?

  2. Thank you Judy for sharing your thoughts. I generally agree with you. They have a custom in Columbia MO. Since the 60’s folks gather at the post office at 10 a m on Saturday morning. Someone brings the signs. There are two huge black plastic garbage bags with signs saved over the years, One bag is geeral peace pleas, the other is issue oriented signs. When one arrives they choose the sign that suits them for that day. Then folks stand in a line across the front of the post office for an hour mostly in silence for an hour. Columbia is a university town and many people come to the post office regularly on Saturday morning. There is a sort of culture of pleasant greetings and respect between the picketers and postal customers. During the two years I lived there I rarely missed being part of this rich opportunity of community.

  3. I found reading about the steadfast dedication of these regular peace vigil participants to be uplifting and reassuring. With technology changing behaviors and traditions at an alarming pace and people moving much more frequently than in generations past, it is heartening to have people and practices we can count on (both as participants and onlookers).

    The dependable act of these individuals is reassuring and reminds me of another inspiring story I read about in the book, “On the Road with Charles Kuralt”. Kuralt told of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who have been praying without interruption since 1878 for peace (with two sisters leaving the altar as two others take their place). This is simply what they do — rain or shine, whether wars are raging or subsiding — and I am somehow comforted by knowing they (the nuns and the Carbondale peace vigil participants) are there.

    I’ve been toying with the idea of staring a weekly peace vigil in my own community of Greenville, IL and in the mean time I’ve been inspired to organize an Online “International Day of Peace Rally” with the help of those involved with our organization, The Mothers Institute, and some facebook friends. Everyone is welcome to join us for the online rally. on Wed. September 21, 2011. Details are available via 1) facebook: and 2) my “Say No to War and Yes to Peace” blog post at

    So to answer your question directly, “Does standing on the corner holding a sign matter?” I would have to answer YES … such ongoing efforts have inspired me to think and act in a new way on behalf of peace.

    Jan Stover

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