In October 1983, two dozen peace activists gathered in Philadelphia as war raged in Nicaragua. U.S.-backed forces known as contras were carrying out a campaign of terror and mayhem against the civilian population. A woman from North Carolina, who had led a church delegation to the embattled country three months before, reported that while she and her colleagues were there the mortar attacks, kidnappings, and massacres had temporarily ceased. What to do?
The answer was obvious. If the presence of U.S. citizens was enough to offer protection to Nicaraguans, we needed to figure out how to make that presence permanent. Someone voiced what I assumed all of us in the room were thinking: “You mean we’re going to ask people to risk their lives in a war zone for strangers—and make them pay to do it?” Exactly.
Thus was born Witness for Peace. It seemed clear to some of us that if we were going to issue such an invitation, we needed to be the first to go. Two months later, I headed to Nicaragua with the first team. In the meantime, U.S. military forces had invaded Grenada, and fear was running high among Nicaraguans that they would be next. Hearing their endless stories of anguish and loss, documenting contra atrocities, and standing in prayer with Nicaraguans at sites of attacks and massacres was life-changing for me.
One memory from that trip remains especially vivid. We were on a bus from the tiny border town of Jalapa, bumping over a rutted, isolated road back toward Managua, with bursts of mortar fire echoing around us. We had picked up a mother and her infant son, who needed medical care for an infection. When a mortar exploded close to us, the mother, with tears streaming down her face, thrust Ricardo toward us. “Take him,” she pleaded in Spanish. “Take him to a place where there is no war.” I think from time to time of the fierce love of this mother, who was willing to give up her son to guarantee that he would have a future, and I wonder if Ricardo survived the violence.
The war in Nicaragua eventually ended. Others erupted: in Haiti, Panama, Paraguay, Palestine, Bosnia, Kosovo, Romania, the Philippines, Cambodia, Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Angola, Algeria, Somalia, Sudan…On New Year’s Eve of 1999, I joined hundreds of other peace-loving people at the Nevada Test Site to pray for a “new millennium of peace” as the 21st century dawned. Many of us crossed the perimeter line at midnight onto that massive patch of desert where our nation tests its nuclear bombs, in an act of protest. I was carrying a bright red candle in a jar, bearing an image of Jesus with a burning heart and the inscription Sagrado Corazón de Jesús. All other candles, as well as flashlights and batteries, were impossible to find at that moment when much of the world thought that all computers would crash and electricity disappear.
While in Nevada, I was sharing a Las Vegas hotel room with dear friends, and I learned from them with delight that they would be welcoming a new child into the world in about 8 months. Their son Ascher was baptized on October 7, 2001, World Communion Sunday. The gift I gave him was the candle with the sacred heart of Jesus burning with warm and enduring love, a sign of my yearning that Ascher would grow up in a safe and peaceful world. “We pray and sing and hold candles in dark places,” I wrote to him in a note that I hoped someday he would appreciate. “It seems like so little. But it’s the best we know to do.” As I was driving home from Ascher’s baptism, an NPR report announced that U.S. forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks, had launched an invasion of Afghanistan with a massive bombing strike.
I thought of Ricardo’s mother again and wondered, where is that place where there is no war?
I’ve been part of a lot of failures in the past three and a half decades. Despite all our efforts for justice and peace, the world is a colossal mess. But this summer, 16-year-old Ascher headed to Nicaragua with a Witness for Peace Teen Delegation, to learn about fair trade. Who could have seen that coming in Philadelphia 34 years ago? The unfolding reality has been far beyond the wildest hopes of those of us who midwifed Witness for Peace into existence. Thousands of people have journeyed to Nicaragua, and many others have participated in the organization’s expanded efforts in Colombia, Haiti, Cuba, and other Latin American countries.
Back in the 1980s, when I went to Nicaragua, I was an editor for Sojourners. One morning a call came into the magazine’s office from a friend in Congress. He reported that he had just come from a military briefing in which the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had announced: “We could have invaded Nicaragua if we could have gotten the damn Christians out of the way.”
Never prouder to be a “damn Christian”—then or now.