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Hope and Humor Keep Us There: Reflections of a Peace Vigiler

by Don Abbott, September 28, 2003

On the evening of March 16, 2003, hundreds of vigilers assembled in the center of Andover, MA, in solidarity with citizens in communities around the globe who simultaneously witnessed for a peaceful alternative to the imminent invasion of Iraq. On the evening of the day after the onset of war, a handful of these people returned to the scene to continue the vigil, and ever since a steady band of a dozen or more individuals has maintained an hour-long vigil five days per week. Several, including this writer, have since joined Merrimack Valley People for Peace.

“Tonight is our 6th-month anniversary. We’ve been here for half a year.”

Boryana startled me with this declaration at a recent vigil. By mid-September, we had generally noted the passing of time because now we were beginning once again to light candles against the growing darkness, just as we did the day after we invaded Iraq. But could it be half a year?

A kaleidoscopic memory began to kick in, images falling in and out of time and place, as I let Boryana’s revelation carry me where it would.
• More than 225 people overflowing the square at Old Town Hall, in concert with hundreds of thousands of like-hearted souls gathering at 7 pm, following the setting sun around the globe in their home communities; everyone lighting the darkness with the unconventional hope that a mad juggernaught could somehow be stayed.
• A commitment by some of us to meet on the evening of the day after the invasion, followed by a same-time-same-place invitation which soon led to a surprisingly clear need, immediately felt, to keep it up. Why? It didn’t exactly matter; each of us had reasons, and we seemed open to an uncertain journey and whatever discovery it would offer.
• So we felt our way along, in the cold and brilliant full moon and windswept icy rain, and the gradually brightening spring evening. And what began as an everyday witness settled into a Mon-Wed-Fri-Sat-Sun. sequence.

Whatever the ensuing, steady weeks of vigiling may have communicated to the public, it has become an intensely important, shared experience for each of us. Desmond Tutu was so right to remind us in Cochran Chapel last May that we become human through other human beings. That’s what a dozen or so of us have been trying to become for all these months. The affection we have discovered and expressed for each other and the solidarity we have created (not to mention the vital, updated news and commentary we have exchanged) surpass anything I ever could have imagined.

But because we primarily are there to communicate with anyone who passes by, mostly anonymous people with unpredictable moods and responses, the vigils can be difficult at times, requiring an even-keeled, good humor and self-restraint in the face of hatred, fear, ignorance, and intolerance. From the outset at least two dialectical realities have been clear to us: 1) Xenophobia, for generations a notorious American trait, is all too alive and well today in our land and yet, 2) A clear and growing majority of responding people are in favor of our messages, close to 60% from the beginning and now approaching 80% and higher.

Although in the minority from the start, the voices of hatred and fear on the street were almost overwhelming during the first month.

“Shoot ’em. Bury ’em. Dig ’em up, and shoot ’em again. They’re savages.”
“We already got the Sand Niggers. We blew ’em all up.”
“Do the fuckin’ Iranians next!”

As our second month passed and people began to notice that we had not gone away, we sensed our emerging opportunity to engage the public in the issues, especially as the invasion gave way to occupation and casualties daily mounted for the Iraqis and our troops.

Vigiler’s sign: This War Was Not the Answer
Passerby’s question: “What is the answer? Got that one?”
Vigiler’s reply: “Justice.”
Passerby: “Don’t you know? The war is over. We won. You lost.”
Vigiler’s reply: “What did we win?”

People would stop and initiate conversation with us, sometimes to argue their justifications for the war, often to ask questions and even admit uncertainties. I had an especially poignant and somewhat lengthy discussion with a young man in his mid-20’s who approached me on crutches. Serving in an Army Reserve Unit on Cape Cod, he had suffered a knee injury that required major surgery and prevented him from shipping out with his unit. He first wanted to know if we were against all war in principle or had qualms about this one in particular. I responded in the latter instance, citing my opposition to “pre-emptive” invasions and my concern over our use of depleted uranium munitions. He was proud of his training and his men, but anxious about their safety and conflicted about the turn of events that had kept him home. His in-laws live in the area and his wife was due to deliver their first child in a few months. We parted, separated by many differences but respectful, and I called out, “I hope you’ll take awhile to heal.” He returned an ironic smile and disappeared into the darkness.

Other responses developed from the natural inclinations of individual vigilers. We wrote and distribute a handout Why We Still Vigil, with useful website resources on the flip side. By mid-summer, both the Stars and Stripes and the Earth Flag flew regularly with our multicolored Peace flags from Italy. In August, some of us stocked a table with fliers, important news articles and commentary, and items for sale—flags, bumper stickers, buttons, and the critically important book on depleted uranium, Discounted Casualties. This display is now a feature of every Saturday morning vigil, when numbers of pedestrians stop, browse, and linger for conversation.

I wish I could remember who wrote or said something I scribbled down in a notebook at least 20 years ago, because his or her words capture what has carried us along these months: to laugh one another into fruitfulness and courage for the long haul. Ah, the sudden glory of humor as it keeps us human, if not deft and on our toes! How many times we have split our sides laughing at comic visitations.

– A woman who stopped after passing us on the sidewalk, turned and said in all seriousness, “Get a job. And when you get some money, you can become a Republican.”
– The jogger who christened us “Saddam’s Glee Club.”
– The bicyclist who jeered at us as he sped by, “I eat Hippies for breakfast.”
– The motorist who stopped to say, “Jeez, if there wasn’t a war in the first place, you wouldn’t be standing there!”
– The driver with the ultimate pronouncement, “Jesus supports the President.”
– The mother of two, pre-teen daughters who parked her SUV at curbside to give us a piece of her mind, concluding with, “We could have had a woman President with PMS, and she’d have pushed the button by now. Yeah!”
– Our latest curbside banter…suggestions for a vigil sign: “I Am a Patriot Act” and for bumper stickers: “Bush/ Cheney ’04: Leave No Billionaire Behind” and “Vote Bush in 2004: I Has Incumbentory Advantitude.”

With tragedy forever wed with comedy, the grave urgency of peace work continues. And it will endure well beyond whatever the outcome of the 2004 elections, as long as pandemic poverty and injustice, the conditions that create war and terrorism, prevail across the world. Enter humor as progenitor of long-haul fruitfulness and courage. A Japanese proverb reminds us, “Time spent laughing is time spent with the gods.” Laughter is more than a stay against either burnout or senselessness. If we dare to let it, it will link us, if not to the divine, then to a spiritual wellspring of resistance and possibility: in spite of everything, yes!

That’s the source of hope that the Andover vigilers have become for me. And now into our seventh month, I need these hearty friends more than ever. Just yesterday,

– An elderly man spoke with some disdain, “Have you been in the Service?” I tried to reply, “We all are, sir.”
– A driver accosted me through his open window, “What about all those who died in New York?” I replied, “We mourn them. We knew some of them. But violence begets violence.” “Oh”, he muttered, “That’s so 3rd grade.”
– A storeowner on Main Street confronted me at the end of the morning vigil as I was stowing my flag in the back of the car, “How old are you? You know who Hitler was. Don’t you remember World War II? Surely you know all about Hitler, don’t you!”

And there was even more today, in Shawsheen Square:

– A motorist, at the red light, rolls down his window: “You think that little sign and that little flag will protect you against the Jihadists?”
I asked, “Do you feel safer now than you did on 9/11?” “Yes, I sure do!” he affirmed. “Even though our invasion and occupation are breeding more terrorists?” I asked. “You better keep you head low,” he warned, deadly serious.
– A backseat passenger yells out, “Why don’t you grow some balls and join the military?” I reply into thin air, “Why indeed!”
– Another driver: “So you want anthrax in your coffee?”

Thank heavens, Mike was at the opposite curbside, and I called over to him, “The venom is really back these days.” He was quick with an upbeat reply, “Maybe because the message is getting through.” I turned my signs back toward the oncoming traffic: Bush Lied, Thousands Died and No Justice, No Peace.

Don at Shawsheen A sedan slows to a halt in the midst of the Square, just next to the small island where I stand, and through his open window a gentle, middle-aged stranger offers, “Thank you, my brother,” and heads off again on his way

As the prophet and activist, The Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., would always say, it is faith that puts us on the road and hope that keeps us there.

There's Don at Shawsheen. Arthur has an important message too.


Merrimack Valley People for Peace meets monthly, on the fourth Tuesday,
at 7:30 pm,
at North Parish Church, North Andover.

Contact Merrimack Valley People for Peace       (978) 685-1389
            P.O. Box 573
            North Andover, MA 01845

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