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.