Sunday, January 19, 2014

Day 252 - Attending a Peace Vigil

I have never attended a peace vigil. As someone that supports non-violence and fairness among people, the visuals I have seen of people coming together in candlelight to honor peace or remember those that have fallen victim to its antithesis have always pulled at my heart. In my mind, the collectivism and reflection of such events have always centered on the greatest qualities in people, particularly when they occur in the face of tragedies and senseless acts of violence. As a result, I have always intended to attend a peace vigil if the opportunity ever presented itself, but I have never been able to make it to any of the rare opportunities I have had to do so up to this point in my life. As a result, I decided I would try to seek out such an opportunity during the course of my “I have never...” year, hoping that such an event wouldn’t spring from an unexpected, harrowing event.

Winter night at the Capitol
Given my intent to attend a peace vigil as one of my 365 new experiences, I kept my eyes open for any events directed at promoting peace. Eventually, this effort led me to discover a small peace vigil that has occurred in Madison since the Sikh temple shooting that occurred outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in August of 2012. A little research on the gathering revealed that event occurred monthly outside of the Wisconsin state capitol building in an effort to carry on the memory of those lost in the attack and to promote non-violence in our communities. Realizing the event fit the profile of event I was hoping to attend, I decided I would set aside time to attend the peace vigil on the next date of relevance to peace and non-violence, which happened to fall on today, one day before the observance of the Martin Luther King Junior holiday.

As a result, I made my way down to the capitol building at dusk this evening with a candle in hand. There I met a man by the name of Callen, who was busy placing out small, battery operated candles when I arrived. He was quick to welcome me to the event and provide some background on its occurrence, which mirrored the description I had read some months earlier. As we chatted about my reasons for attending, another man wearing a long, white beard approached us and gave a warm greeting. Introducing himself as David, he explained he was one of the organizers for the Madison Veterans for Peace association and thanked me for taking time to be a part of the event. Uplifted by the warm welcome from the two men, I asked a little bit about the peace vigil, which prompted Callen to explain the basic flow of the event and explain that the winter gatherings tend to draw a smaller crowd than the warmer months. Understanding, I nodded my head and gave the only response that came to mind, “Well, we’re here.” Callen smiled at my remark and offered an immediate reply, “That’s right, and that’s enough to send out our message. That’s all we really need.”

A few candles
 After waiting a short time longer, a woman named Jane came to greet us, which prompted Callen to move forward with the vigil. As we lit all of our candles and placed them on a concrete structure in the middle of the capitol walkway, Callen brought the group together and spoke a few words about the gathering before leading the group into a moment of silence. With nothing but the sounds of the wind and the city accompanying us, the four of us stood silent, staring at the candles in our hands as we remembered victims of violence and recognized the concept of peace. Those moments were nothing out of the ordinary, but they were impactful. Although there were only four of us, there was a moving capacity to the purpose that brought us together, which is exactly what I was hoping to gain from the experience.

A few minutes later Callen broke the silence with a few quiet words about the meaning of our vigil and its proximity to the Martin Luther King holiday. With that, he opened the vigil up to the remaining members of the group, asking us to provide our thoughts or points of discussion as we saw fit. In response, the four of us openly discussed our experiences with non-violent and peaceful pursuits. From that, I heard stories of David’s efforts through Veterans for Peace, of Callen’s efforts in the LGBT civil rights movements, and of Jane’s actions toward political peace and fairness. The comments made it obvious I was surrounded by people with a real commitment and devotion to their causes and an understanding of how their individual efforts helped the group collectively. Where I could, I offered experiences from my life and my “I have never...” year which I thought carried some relevance to the conversation, which were welcomed and used as fodder to keep the discussion going. The conversation was far-reaching, but bound by the same core. It was powerful and it was enlightening.

After nearly 45 minutes of conversation, Callen ultimately brought the peace vigil to a close. With the cold seeping in through our clothes, the four of us spurred our bodies into motion as we extinguished our candles and tucked them away into their respective bags. Then, with a few final words and well wishes we walked our separate ways and found our way to wherever we were going. When I arrived back home I sat down on my couch to think about the experience I had this evening. It suddenly dawned on me that I had come together with three complete strangers under a common, human bond in an effort to support one of the most admirable pursuits of peace. Our action may have gone largely unnoticed, even to those passing by, but the fact that we took time to promote such an endeavor was inspiring and heartfelt. While the idea driving the gathering may be lofty, I realized our time together was better than the alternative of doing nothing. That alone made the experience worth it, particularly on the day before our nation remembers a man that fought and died for peace and equality among all people. Doing anything to support that legacy, even the smallest act, makes me feel like a more complete person, and when it comes down to it,  that’s what this whole “I have never...” year is really about.

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