Democratic Underground  
To 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 contacts.

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 officers.

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 with ourselves."

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 think."

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 other obstacles.

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 September 11.

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 York City.

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 at http://www.geocities.com/peacewalkerkim/.

"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 Walk [http://www.telascience.org/planetwalk/], 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 actual walks.

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 policies.

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 kevinjshay@justice.com.

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