Be a Pilgrim
October 8, 2002
By Kevin J. Shay
In 1953, the Korean War and McCarthyism raged. The United
States and former Soviet Union tested thermonuclear devices
within nine months of each other, causing the Bulletin of
Atomic Scientists to set its traditional "Doomsday Clock,"
which has marked the danger of nuclear war since 1947, to
two minutes before midnight. That was the closest the clock
has ever been.
In this paranoid atmosphere, Mildred Norman, a New Jersey
native, social worker, and volunteer for peace organizations,
left behind her life and took a walk. She didn't stop for
almost 30 years until her death in 1981 at the age of 72.
Calling herself Peace Pilgrim, Norman criss-crossed the country
six times, carrying petitions to stop wars and the world arms
race, wearing a tunic that said "Walking Coast to Coast for
Peace." As she said, 1953 "was the proper time for a pilgrim
to step forth....There was a great fear at that time, and
it was safest to be apathetic....A pilgrim's job is to rouse
people from apathy and make them think."
By taking that profound, seemingly simple action, Norman
touched unknown thousands, perhaps millions of people. She
didn't stop wars all by herself, but she helped get the ball
rolling. She was by no means the first pilgrim; enlightened
souls from Buddha and Laotzu to Christ and Gandhi previously
had walked the earth for causes beyond themselves. But Norman
did more than her part.
And she touched me. In 1984, I was a few years out of college,
active in the peace and anti-nuclear movement in Texas, attending
demonstrations like the 1983 March on Washington, writing
and working to avert a nuclear war that the Reagan administration
and former Soviet Union seemed bent on initiating.
I heard about a walk for peace, human rights, and environmental
causes being organized from California to New York via Texas
and the Deep South, then through Europe to Moscow, Russia.
As I learned more, I discovered Peace Pilgrim's walks and
the efforts of others. And for the next four years, I became
a peace pilgrim.
In 1984, the nuclear arms race proceeded at a furious pace,
and Reagan and others talked of waging a "winnable" nuclear
war against the Soviet Union. Reagan and then-USSR Premier
Konstantin Chernenko had not as much as met in the previous
four years. The Atomic Scientists' clock was at three minutes
before midnight in 1984, the closest to midnight since 1953.
It had been as high as 12 minutes in 1972, when the U.S. and
Soviet Union signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.
To me, the walk was a powerful statement, an affirmation
of life in the midst of such dark times, an inspiring project
that could make a difference - however small - in helping
the world out of its nuclear nightmare. It was something I
could do to stretch my limits, to increase my contribution
to the causes, and perhaps inspire others to do likewise.
While it would be years before group reality television shows
like Survivor became popular, this walking group experiment
was a type of Survivor, only with a higher cause than getting
on TV and making some bucks. As it turned out, we weren't
able to walk in Russia, but we visited Moscow to deliver thousands
of peace messages and letters, put down some 7,000 miles,
and raised a slew of awareness through the media and personal
By 1988, when I stopped participating in transcontinental
marches, the Atomic Scientists' clock was back up to six minutes.
It hit 17 minutes in 1991 after the Berlin Wall fell and the
U.S. and Russia signed new arms control agreements [see http://www.bullatomsci.org/clock.html
for a timeline since 1947]. Even so, pilgrims like Doris Haddock,
or Granny D, emerged to continue to make us think. At the
ripe age of 90, Granny D walked across the country in 1999-2000
for campaign finance reform. She said she was inspired by
Peace Pilgrim, among others.
But today, the Atomic Scientists' clock is back down to seven
minutes, as the Bush administration widens a war in Iraq and
the Middle East, abandons nuclear pacts like the Anti-Ballistic
Missile Treaty, puts seven countries - including one with
my relatives-in-law, Syria - on a targeted list for a first-strike
nuclear attack, and plans to develop and use "smaller" nuclear
weapons. As relatively new nuclear powers India and Pakistan
face off, terrorism increases, and conflicts escalate in Colombia
and other countries, the world is suddenly a much more dangerous
place, perhaps more so than when I became a pilgrim almost
two decades ago.
This time, there is no Soviet Union to help U.S. leaders
justify our bloated military binge, which many are using terrorism
to try to justify. The U.S. is now the Roman Empire, the British
Empire, the German Nazis, the World Power That Seeks to Dominate
the Planet. We have met the Power-Mad Forces That Want to
Rule the World, and he is us. As in U.S.
This fiscal year, we are spending $396 billion on "defense"
- and that number is expected to increase substantially in
the coming years [at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet
Union, we spent about $300 billion]. The closest country in
military spending is Russia at $60 billion annually, according
to the Center for Defense Information, a Washington, D.C.-based
watchdog organization founded in 1972 by retired U.S. military
As retired U.S. Navy Admiral Eugene Carroll Jr., who is vice
president emeritus of the Center for Defense Information,
says, "For 45 years of the Cold War, we were in an arms race
with the Soviet Union. Now, it appears we're in an arms race
Meanwhile, Iraq, the country Bush, Cheney, and other Chicken
Hawks - so named because they push for wars that they themselves
refused to fight when young - want us to fear so much, spent
only $1.4 billion on defense in 2001, the latest year figures
are available. Another country in that "axis of evil," North
Korea, earmarked even less at $1.3 billion. Iran, the third
"evil" country, is up there at $9.1 billion, but that still
only ranks 13th in the world in military spending [see http://www.cdi.org/issues/wme/spendersFY03.html
for a list of what other countries spend].
So, it's time for another pilgrim to step forward.
Enter Jeanette Wallis. And Kathy Kelly. And Lisa and Angela
Porter. And Kim Leverton. And John Francis. And others.
First, I'll cover the effort by Wallis. In 1999, the Texas
native, who was living in Seattle and working as a psychiatric
counselor, was chased, tear-gassed, and arrested by riot police
during a boisterous protest against increased globalization
and corporate power. But Wallis wasn't protesting - she was
merely walking home from the store. That's when she decided
that she had to do more to help our country retain our basic
freedoms and change the power-mad, serve-the-wealthy system.
She participated in every protest she could and decided to
raise the stakes after five right-wing U.S. Supreme Court
judges stopped the vote-counting process in Florida in 2000
and handed Bush the White House that he did not really earn.
So in 2001, inspired by Granny D and others, Wallis started
walking from Seattle, planning to collect grievances from
people she met about their voting rights, civil liberties,
medical care, and other issues. Called "The Walk for Democracy,"
her goal is to reach Washington, D.C., and deliver the messages
to Bush. She also wants to rally us all to stand up for our
rights, which as populist radio show host and author Jim Hightower
says, are "greatly imperiled by the political and corporate
elites who don't seem to give a damn about what regular people
After the terrorism tragedy struck the country in September
2001, Wallis took a break for a few months to let the climate
settle down. But with her black lab-collie mix, Sherpa, a
40-pound backpack, and the help of friends and organizations
like the United Steelworkers of America, Democrats.com, and
Citizens for Legitimate Government, Wallis made it to Kansas
- about 2,000 miles, halfway across the country - by the first
anniversary of Sept. 11.
The journey has not been easy. Besides the ever-present fund-raising
challenge, there have been bad weather, sickness bouts, injuries,
a lack of comforts we take for granted like showers, indifference,
name-calling [in an email to me, she detailed how she was
featured on an Internet site under "Faces of Satan"], and
But Wallis is more than determined. She has watched Bush
simply ignore thousands of street protesters, and probably
millions of letters, calls, and emails criticizing his misguided
policies. "Why not give our Commander-In-Chief NEW and BETTER
things to ignore - like a girl from Texas who's walked 4,500
miles by herself across America carrying the grievances of
the people?" Wallis, 31, wrote in a column describing why
she is walking on her Web site at http://www.thewalkfordemocracy.org.
Though her walk isn't focusing on one issue like peace or
the stolen election or the environment, numerous concerns
she hears are related to the Bush administration's hawkish
foreign policy and disregard for the environment. A Buddhist,
Wallis is committed to non-violence and working through conflicts
in peaceful ways. She deserves a lot of credit and support.
There are other pilgrims out there who deserve our support.
Lisa and Angela Porter, twin 37-year-old sisters from Berkeley,
Calif., are among those walkers. After the terrible events
of September 2001, the Porters searched for a proper response.
Amazingly, they each came up with the same plan on their own:
Walk as a prayer and witness for peace across the country,
as Peace Pilgrim did. So they joined forces, and "Peace-by-Peace"
was launched in January 2002.
Lisa, who quit her job as a counselor at Rock La Fleche Community
Day Center in Oakland to do the walk, wrote on the group's
Internet site at http://www.walkforpeace.org:
"As a species, we cannot surrender the destiny of humanity
to the legacy of those driven by greed. And we cannot be greedy.
When our government is unable or unwilling to speak for us,
we must stand and speak for ourselves. It is never too late
to make things right. The legacy of humanity could be one
of peace, respect, cooperation, and love. We could choose
it and make it so."
So along with some other women and the support of groups
that include the Ecumenical Peace Institute, Women's International
League for Peace and Freedom, and Unitarian Universalists
Berkeley Fellowship Social Justice Committee, they set out
from the Peace Wall in downtown Berkeley. Walking about 20
miles a day and staying in homes, churches, ashrams, community
centers, and other places, they traveled through California,
Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina,
and Virginia, reaching Washington, D.C., by their goal of
As Bush, Cheney, and others fueled the flames of war, five
members of Peace-by-Peace - Lisa, Angela, Jo, Emily, and Joanne
- walked the entire 3,500 miles for peace, raising an unknown
amount of awareness for the forces of good. Three dogs - Atticus,
Ebony, and Sasha - hiked across the country with them. Some
- Lisa, Jo, Atticus, and Ebony - are now on the road to New
Kim Leverton, an artist, poet, and peace activist, is another
committed person who was inspired by Peace Pilgrim. After
Sept. 11, 2001, she, too, asked herself, "How does an individual
go about making peace?" After studying the work of people
like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Peace Pilgrim, she
concluded that their "success lay in their acceptance of peace
as a personal responsibility," she wrote on her Internet site
"Each of them used their widely varied perspective, talents,
and energies in the work of making peace," Kim wrote. "The
path was then obvious. For an individual to be effective in
making peace they must bring a willingness to see and understand,
the determination to persevere, and the vision to create venues
for sharing and clarifying this undertaking and its work."
Since Kim found peace in creating art, it seemed natural
for her to create a peace collage. She also studied yoga,
learning Thich Nhat Hanh's practice of walking meditation
to let go of anger and think. [I also studied meditation before
my walks, but I am not so good at letting go of anger; I have
to walk a lot to do that.] Kim started walking in April 2002
from southern Louisiana. She had made it to Atlanta by June,
with a goal of reaching Washington, D.C. Along the way, she
is meeting with people to talk about peace, collecting items
for the collage, and obtaining petition signatures asking
Bush to end the violence of war. She is also taking personal
letters requesting a response to terrorism in a non-violent
fashion to Bush.
The Buddhist order of Nipponzan Myohoji has sponsored several
walks like the Hiroshima Interfaith Flame Walk [http://www.dharmawalk.org/],
which went from Seattle to Washington, D.C., from January
2002 to May 2002. Participants in Stonewalk [http://www.stonewalk.org/],
a global project of The Peace Abbey at Strawberry Fields in
Sherborn, Mass., have pulled a one-ton memorial stone, which
honors civilians killed in wars, across parts of the U.S.
and Europe since 1999. They plan to pull it across Vietnam
in 2005. There are numerous other efforts, such as Planet
an 18-year marathon by John Francis, Ph.D., who plans a walk
across Cuba in 2003.
Such pilgrims don't always get their just due. Even many
who support your cause don't quite understand why you're doing
it - several people close to me still call me crazy, although
they usually smile when they say it and look at me with a
certain amount of respect. That's what walking more than 5,000
miles for a cause like peace, human rights, and the preservation
of the planet will do. I can't count the number of people
I met on my walks who said they didn't really agree with some
of our goals like nuclear disarmament, but they respected
our sincerity and commitment in walking all those miles in
all kinds of weather and conditions. Our walk made them think
about the issues, and even go beyond that to take action.
Some said we helped change their perspective in a way large
demonstrations like the 1983 March on Washington could not.
That's not to say that local demonstrations and organizing
and meetings and building movements and political parties
and Web sites and other such duties are not important. It's
all important. Walks are one more tool at our disposal, one
that the right-wing can't really grasp. I mean, have you ever
heard of a cross-country walk in support of war? There have
been smaller rallies supporting war, but I'm not aware of
a long, sustained effort of someone getting out there and
walking all those miles for the cause of bombing another country.
Or maybe that's what the Pentagon does, without engaging in
Such walks are not for the faint-of-heart; obviously you
have to be in fairly good shape, although you don't have to
be a former small college basketball player like yours truly.
You have to be willing to take risks, risks to your comfort
zones, your security, your privacy, your faith, and even your
life. Several people have died or been seriously injured on
such projects, including a friend who almost died after being
hit by a bus during a walk in India we were on in 1988. I
lost a job, girlfriend, and several other friends by taking
to this road in 1984.
But to me, the risks are worthwhile. People have often left
their homes and risked their comfort and lives to make war;
we need more people willing to do the same to make peace.
A group really putting this in practice is Voices in the Wilderness,
a Chicago organization working to end the sanctions against
Iraq. Led by Kathy Kelly, who helped organize a peace walk
in 2001 from Washington, D.C., to New York, Voices in the
Wilderness' Iraq Peace Team project is sending peace activists
to Iraq to be human shields against the bombs our government
plans to drop on civilians there.
They know they may not come home alive, but as Bill Rose,
69, a retired postal worker from Tampa, Fla., and a father
of two, told the Detroit News, "I am a Christian. I am a Quaker.
I have had a good life." More information on the project can
be obtained on its Internet site at http://www.iraqpeaceteam.org/.
After the Berlin Wall fell and Cold War ended in 1989, I
wondered if these walks would still continue. I stopped participating
physically to focus on my writing career, but I kept walking
mentally and spiritually. Mostly with the aid of a great Web
site by the Friends of Peace Pilgrim at http://www.peacepilgrim.net/links1.htm,
I have been heartened to learn that pilgrims still take to
the road. It looks like more have done so in the past two
years since Bush stole the White House than in the previous
eight years under Clinton. That has helped inspire me to step
up my support of peace organizations recently and participate
in more walks and rallies like the one in downtown Dallas
on Sept. 10. That has helped calm my anger somewhat towards
the Chicken Hawks who seek to control the Mideast oil industry
and global economy, to channel that anger towards some positive
projects. That has helped me set aside thoughts of moving
my family to Canada as a further protest of U.S. nazi-like
Americans like Mildred Norman and Kathy Kelly and Bill Rose
and Jeanette Wallis and Lisa and Angela Porter and Kim Leverton
and John Francis and others who work for peace make me proud
again to be an American. They remind me that, as social reformer
and journalist Dorothy Day said, our job is not to seek the
approval of everyone around us.
Our job is to stand up for what we think is right, to speak
truth to power, to plant seeds, seeds that we may not even
know we are planting. Future generations will reap the harvest.
Kevin J. Shay is a Texas writer and co-author of And
Justice For All: The Untold History of Dallas [Fort Worth,
CGS Communications, 2000]. A memoir on his transcontinental
marches, Walking through the Wall, won an International
PeaceWriting Award in 2002, sponsored by the Omni Center for
Peace, Justice, & Ecology of Fayetteville, Ark., and the Peace
and Justice Studies Association of Evergreen State College,
Wash. The book is available electronically from Bangor, Maine-based
Booklocker.com at http://www.booklocker.com/books/959.html.
Kevin can be emailed at email@example.com.