I’ve been thinking over the last few days about hope, and how difficult it is to maintain. Here in Birmingham we have a twice-weekly vigil for peace. We meet early on Wednesday morning and just before supper time on Saturday evening, we hold signs against war and for nonviolence, we chat, we engage passersby in conversation. We’ve been doing these two vigils for twelve years now, taking breaks for the Easter vigil and for Christmas Eve. They have become part of our routine, a way of making a statement and of reminding ourselves of our beliefs. We do not usually have hope for immediate change – a new person at the vigil, a friendly comment, honks and waves – those are signs of hope for us. We hope to make a tiny contribution to long-term change, but we don’t expect to influence the affairs of the nation.
Having stood there for so long, through wars and rumors of wars, through hostility and then support, I realize that I no longer expect results. There have been times when it seemed no one agreed with us, and times when the entire world seemed to agree – and war came anyway. I think what I expect is just to keep standing there, raising the issue as best we can, supporting people who agree with us and talking with those who don’t. But influencing the course of national events? Seems a pipe dream!
And yet….. as I write, on Monday the 9th, we are preparing for one more vigil, one at 7 pm with candles that will be part of a national chain of vigils against military intervention in Syria. We have been phoning congress this week, asking them to refuse to authorize military action. We have some hope that congress might listen to us, and others like us, might think twice about military action. One of our senators says he will vote against intervention. Our other senator and our representative are undecided. Public opinion seems to be tending against. Is it possible that violence from the United States on Syrian people might actually be prevented? Do we dare hope?
By the time you read this the decision will probably have been made. We’ll know whether our tax dollars are paying for more violence to rain on Syria. We’ll no longer be on tenterhooks, wanting to the best, fearing the worst. The situation will not be resolved for the people of Syria, but perhaps the efforts of the international community may bear fruit.
Today, September 10, it seems that an attack may be deflected by the Assad regime’s willingness to hand over its chemical weapons. We still wait, on their decision, on decisions by our government and by others.
Our vigil last night was beautiful – vigil lights on the sidewalk, signs calling for peace, and people – around 50 people – appearing out of the dusk to stand quietly for peace. We gathered around the big public fountain at 8 pm to recite together the World Peace Prayer:
“Lead me from death to life, from falsehood to truth. Lead me from despair to hope, from fear to trust. Lead me from hate to love, from war to peace. Let peace fill our hearts, our minds, our universe.” When we left it was quiet, night coming on. Rush hour had ended; so had the honks and waves.
We don’t know what the outcome will be. Whatever the United States does or doesn’t do, the people of Syria will still be caught in the midst of a savage civil war. If the threatened attack on Syria has been prevented, possibly other intervention may help – working to broker a peace agreement, involving the UN in ways that are not military. If I were to dream wildly, I would say that a new kind of diplomacy could be birthed – one that actually aims at peace and justice.
Tomorrow is September 11th and we have another vigil. This is an early morning vigil, one we hold every week. Usually there are three of us holding our signs. (We’re all retired, no job deadlines or small children.) Sometimes others (younger) join us as their schedules allow. Tomorrow will mark the 12th anniversary of our vigils, which began to be bi-weekly just after 9/11.
As we gather tomorrow we’ll be hopeful – hopeful that the immediate crisis of US intervention in Syria may be averted; hopeful that other forms of intervention may lessen the suffering; hopeful that our little presence touches some minds and hearts, opening them to new possibilities.
Most of all I think we’re hopeful that we ourselves will remain faithful and deepen in our commitment to nonviolence.
Shelley Douglass is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. She is the hospitaller at Mary’s House Catholic Worker in Birmingham, a member of Holy Family Parish, and active especially against war and the death penalty.