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Zak Rosen's Report on Peace Pilgrim

In 1953, Mildred Norman set off from the Rose Bowl parade on New Year's Day with a goal of walking the entire country for peace. She left her given name behind and took up a new identity: Peace Pilgrim.

When Peace Pilgrim started out, the Korean War was still under way, and an ominous threat of a nuclear attack was on the minds of many Americans. And so, with "Peace Pilgrim" written across her chest, she began walking "coast to coast for peace."

For 28 years — the time she spent on her journey — she never used money. She gave new meaning to the word minimalist, wearing the same clothes every day: blue pants and a blue tunic that held everything she owned: a pen, a comb, a toothbrush and a map. That's it.
"I own only what I wear and carry. I just walk until given shelter, fast until given food," she said at the time. "I don't even ask; it's given without asking. I tell you, people are good. There's a spark of good in everybody."

Mildred Norman at 16, when, as her sister says, "she had to have the latest clothing." When she devoted herself to walking for peace, she took on a completely different kind of life.

In July 1981, the day before she died, Peace Pilgrim was interviewed by Ted Hayes, the manager of a small radio station in Knox, Ind.

"Peace Pilgrim, you know, there are a certain number of people who would probably think of somebody like yourself as a kook or a nut," Hayes said. "Do you have a problem overcoming this barrier with some people?"

"Well, I'm quite sure that some of those who have just heard of me must think I'm completely off the beam," Peace Pilgrim responded. "After all, I am doing something different. And pioneers have always been looked upon as being a bit strange.

"But, you see, I love people and I see the good in them," she continued. "And you're apt to reach what you see. The world is like a mirror: If you smile at it, it smiles at you. I love to smile, and so in general, I definitely receive smiles in return."

One night, while driving on an Ohio road, book publisher and editor Richard Polese saw Peace Pilgrim "kind of dashing a bit out of the way of the traffic on the road. And I had no idea who it was," he recalls. Years later, Polese met Peace Pilgrim and the two became friends.

Peace Pilgrim once described her childhood on a small farm on the outskirts of Egg Harbor, a small town two miles from Cologne, N.J., as a "very quiet life. ... I had a woods to play in, and a creek to swim in and room to grow."

Peace Pilgrim's sister, Helene Young, 97, says Mildred Norman "was very much what they called a flapper in those days. She had to have the latest clothing. So, she made so many changes in her life to a very simple, basic life," Young says.

"We were brought up without a formal religion or politics," Young adds. "We were taught to think for ourselves, not follow the sheep."
"During the early years of my life, I discovered that money-making was easy but not satisfying," Peace Pilgrim once explained. And one night in the late 1930s, "out of a feeling of deep seeking for a meaningful way of life," she began walking through the woods.

"And after I had walked almost all night, I came out into a clearing where the moonlight was shining down. And something just motivated me to speak and I found myself saying, 'If you can use me for anything, please use me. Here I am, take all of me, use me as you will, I withhold nothing,' " Peace Pilgrim recalled. "That night, I experienced the complete willingness, without any reservations whatsoever, to give my life to something beyond myself."

Peace Pilgrim acknowledged that some may have considered her "kooky." But, she once said, "pioneers have always been looked upon as being a bit strange."

Fifteen years passed between this striking moment of clarity and the official beginning of her pilgrimage. To prepare, one of the things Peace Pilgrim did was walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in one year — the first woman to do so.

"She was not interested in being a mother, and that was why she knew that she could handle the pilgrimage, because she did not leave family behind," her sister Helene Young explains. "She and her husband were divorced, because she thought he should be a conscientious objector, and his sergeant told him that was grounds for divorce."

The first year of her walk, Peace Pilgrim was thrown into jail for vagrancy, Young explains. "And they found out she wasn't a commie, so they let her go."

But Polese says his friend had no fear of jail. "She felt that jails were wonderful places to carry on the mission," he says. "She would gather the women prisoners together and teach them a little song, a little chant called 'The Fountain of Love.' "

The motto Peace Pilgrim had sewn on the back of her tunic when she started out, "Walking Coast to Coast for Peace," quickly became outdated. By 1964 she had already walked 25,000 miles. Eventually, she stopped counting.

As she became more well-known, Peace Pilgrim began getting invitations to speak at schools and churches — which is what brought her to Knox, Ind., in the summer of 1981. That's where a woman who had spent her life walking through every state and most of Canada lost her life riding in a car.

Tony and Terry Bau, who run Bau Collision Repair, were outside in the yard when the accident occurred.

"I got on the side of her, she was still alive when I got up there," Terry recalls. "I was talking to her, just telling her everything would be OK."
"Even though we didn't know her — we didn't know any of her writings or anything like that — we still lived her life," Tony says, " 'cause I believe in exactly what she believes in: being free and try to have a more peaceful world amongst people."

Peace Pilgrim's journey ended on the side of that road in Indiana 30 years ago, but her followers say they continue to find meaning in her message and to be inspired by her example.

On the radio program the day before her death, Hayes, the host, read Peace Pilgrim's vow aloud: " 'I shall remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until I am given shelter and fasting until I am given food.' "

And, he added, "She appears to be a most happy woman."

"I certainly am a happy person," Peace Pilgrim responded. "Who could know God and not be joyous? I want to wish you all peace."

Independent Producer Zak Rosen prepared this report. A shorter version of it aired
on NPR’s All Things Considered, January 1, 2013.

About the time of Peace Pilgrim’s death in 1981, one of the least peaceful places in the news was El Salvador. A chaotic 12 year civil war in the Central American country was just into its second year then. Assassinations, death squads, massacres of unarmed civilians including women and children became a sad part of the landscape during those years. Priests and nuns weren’t even safe. In 1980, the Salvadorian National Guard raped and murdered four American nuns and a lay woman. During 1982 and 1983, corrupt government forces killed approximately 8,000 civilians a year according to University of New Mexico science scholar William Stanley. And into the middle of all this came a Catholic sister named Peggy O’Neill.

On a visit to New Mexico in 2012, reporter Megan Kamerick talked with Peggy O’Neill about her time in Suchitoto trying to find the love and nurture peace, more recently by creating a peace center for the community there.

Kamerick: Tell us briefly what was going on at the time when you went to El Salvador. What was the civil war? What was happening there?

O’Neill: I visited El Salvador in ’82-’83. I found El Salvador and fell in love immediately. Jon Sobrino told me I had no choice; I had to stay there.

Kamerick: He was one of the Jesuits at the University of Central America?

O’Neill: Correct. He was not murdered because he was out of country.

Kamerick: In 1989.

O’Neill: So the war was in full swing at the time of our visit. I knew what was going to happen I thought to us. When we arrived, I saw it for what it was.

Kamerick: What did you see when you got there? Because this was a civil war, the government was very oppressive, there was an uprising by leftist insurgents, the FMLN and a lot of people caught in the middle of that.

O’Neill: When I first went, we went to a refugee space, a refugee camp if you will, a safety area sponsored by the diocese and it had a staff of sisters, three of us and Jesuit refugee service volunteers. They were seasoned Jesuit volunteers and that is where I began to hear the stories. That is where I began to realize that this country was quite sick.

In the town where I am now, I stayed in the refugee camp one year. In the town where I am now, Suchitoto, there were six massacres, each of which more than 155 people and they were all civilians.

Kamerick: And this was by the government troops?

O’Neill: And this was by the government forces harassing them for over five years thinking that – well, this was their strategy; we will catch the fish if we drain the sea, so we will get those rebels out if we make everybody go.

Kamerick: Now you knew that priests and nuns had been murdered just for working with the poor in these areas including American church women, three of them and a layperson in 1980. Weren’t you afraid?

O’Neill: Yes, yes we were afraid, but that’s not a prolonged feeling when you’re in love with people that are easy to love. I was not afraid in the refugee camp except one time we were being shot at in a declared safety space. International law was being broken and they were soldiers making believe one side were rebel forces and the other side were governed forces, but they were both government forces shooting at each other, but we didn’t know that, wanting to frighten us in the refugee camp and I was in a sewing area with a group of women.

Well, we all fell to the floor and I realized how big and fat I was. I was trying to get my tummy down so close into that floor as these noises were happening. Finally, one woman began to pray. She said the “Hail Mary,” and the second part of that prayer goes; “Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.” I have never prayed that the same since. I prayed it in the moment led by this woman who had been in those moments often with that same – yeah, it’s a moment, but then we laughed after it that we survived. Fear is funny in moments like this. It’s not sustained all the time.

Kamerick: I read a story one time. You stepped between soldiers at a roadblock and a man they were planning to arrest. Can you talk about that?

O’Neill: I’m surprised you read that, but that is true. It’s very strange in a way.

We were all in church. Father Alberto was preaching and we were going to go on an excursion and Pat Farrell, my dear friend, said to me; “Go out and check to make sure the bus knows it’s leaving at this hour. Come back and tell us.” You know how they make announcements after church.

So I went out and at the bus stop, I saw a man running, being chased by another man and he was running towards me and then I realized he was really coming to me and the man chasing him was an undercover agent in town of the army. So his stopping and my interfering blew his cover, which was probably the most drastic thing that happened.

But anyway, everybody gathered, and this man was frightened and then after the one man chasing him, by then two soldiers with AK47s came. And again, you don’t think, you just kind of respond. I had my arms around this man and it meant I was pushing away these AK47s and realized, no matter what I was saying, there was not going to be a mediation.

Finally I said, “Look, you’re going to take him, but we both go together and I’ll get into your truck first,” because by then a truck had come and the driver got out and I could tell that he too saw that it was at a standstill and he was relieved that I had broken this moment open. So I got in first and this little man from Kuopio came in after me.

I had seen that man the day before. His wife was a catechist and that day he was cleaning fish and he looked strong to me and his work – I just imaged him that day going home. Oh wow, he looked so in control and the next day he was like a little wounded bird.

But anyway, I didn’t know where they were going to take us and I thought maybe Kahuta Pecki to a military cartel, but no, they just went around the corner to where the local military were and made us sit for a couple of hours.

Anyway, it was because he had erased something in his ID card that a soldier had put there and he knew you shouldn’t have written it.

Well we went home together down the hill and this man bought me a charamuscas which is a little like a Kool-Aid frozen. And he ate one and I ate the other and it was truly Holy Communion.

Kamerick: Let’s talk about if you hadn’t been there and they take this man at that time in El Salvador –

O’Neill: He would have disappeared or he would have been tortured.

Kamerick: Let me ask you; you mentioned Jon Sobrino, the Jesuit priest who was away when his community was massacred at the University of Central America. I read something he wrote and said, “The Sisters came and took away the fear.”

O’Neill: The women said that to us.

Kamerick: How did you do that? How did you take away the fear?

O’Neill: This is the irony. You know, we would pray together. We were four sisters during the war and we would pray together mostly in quiet. Some of us liked to do poetry, some of us liked to read scripture, so we decided we’d do our own thing, but then share at the end and no matter what we were entering into holy space personally, when we did the sharing, every now and then we would say; “Oh God! I really didn’t know if that’s what I should have done or I could do it, but the women took away our fear.” We would say that and then one day we heard the women say to each other; “And when the sisters came, the sisters took away our fear,” so it was mutual. We just took our cues from the women and we tried to absorb their strength, their courage, their being so valiant. They held the world together.

Kamerick: There was a time when you had to evacuate with people ahead of some government troops. You ended up in a field at night with several women including a mother and her baby and she had a basket with her. I heard you talk about those. Can you talk about that story?

O’Neill: She had a cesta, she was alert to leaving quickly, but needing to bring things for the child. In fire drills in the U.S., you leave everything and run, so I was obedient as a little fire school child. I didn’t bring even my backpack.

Kamerick: What had precipitated this?

O’Neill: Military troops were coming into the area so they needed to get out and so we wound up in a field and the woman with the baby, she, at about three in the morning, began to change the diapers, but in her cesta…she had also tortillas. I was dying for something to eat and the lady next to me said, “Oh no, no, no,” to the mother. “You have to feed your baby. We don’t know where we’ll be tomorrow and we can’t take your food and you need to nurse.” I was so glad I didn’t grab. The woman with the tortillas looked at each of us and said, “Oh,” she said, “no, tonight we share our food, tomorrow we share our hunger.” So those are the kinds of images that glued me to want to listen more and stay there.

Kamerick: That’s such a wonderful example of what you talk about; the mutual support. You went to be with the people of El Salvador, but it sounds like they gave you so much more perhaps than you had anticipated.

O’Neill: You know “solidaridad” I think it’s the new word for love – “sororidad” or “fraternidad”. We have so over-sexualized the word “love.” “Solidaridad” is “la tenura,” a tenderness between peoplse. I was grasped by the tenderness, the generosity, the courage, the faith-filled searching, not the suredness, the faith-filled searching every day. So it stretched my soul.

Kamerick: Is that when you decided to stay; after the civil war ended in 1992?

O’Neill: Yes.

Kamerick: So even after the war ended in ’92, peace did not come in many ways to El Salvador.

O’Neill: No, they always talk about post-war. They don’t say; “post peace accords,” but they don’t say; “the war is over.” So I’m really there to keep them on the farm, but not to just be farmers. We have youngsters who go to university. The new government has focused as much as it can on education with the little resources that they have.

Kamerick: Now this is the FMLN actually won the election several years ago, yes?

O’Neill: The FMLN has become a political party.

Kamerick: It was the leftist group in the civil war in the ‘80s, the rebel group.

O’Neill: Yes.

Kamerick: Have you seen changes since that happened?

O’Neill: Small steps, yes, yes. I’m trying to create human space. I have formed a peace center.

Kamerick: The centro para la paz. When did you start that?

O’Neill: Seven years ago.

Kamerick: What is the focus of it?

O’Neill: Its focus is to build a culture of peace in a place where there were six massacres, Suchitoto, in a place where there’s still an economic war with the neo-liberal model and the residue in our psyches to deal with that. Maybe paint it, sing it, dance it, shout it, but touch it and then touch everything outside. Touch socially with the same kind of tenderness because the violence still is oxygen there. The violence of gangs, the violence of no options, the violence of poor health care if any, some schooling, getting better and better. So the joy for me is to see the whole process of things getting a little better slowly. It’s a place of hope. It’s a sacred place.

Kamerick: Many say we need to build a culture of peace in our own American civilization. How do you think we should start?

O’Neill: I guess we always have to start with ourselves, small, our families, etc., etc. I think we’ve made giant steps during my lifetime with peace marches, with civil rights victories. We, here in the United States, we must learn how to sustain the wonderful things we invent, but I think we always have in the back of our minds - quick fix. We’ve done it. We kind of wash our hands now and get on with life as usual.

We don’t know how to stay in the dark; staying long enough with the questions like after 9/11. “Why did they do that to us?” “What don’t they like about us?” “Don’t they know we want the best for everybody?” “Don’t they know how generous we are?” Well why is it? We didn’t stay but two weeks we were attacking and I think that’s it.
We don’t know how…. No one would ever say in El Salvador; “We have to be number one.” Oh my goodness! But that’s what everybody here grows up with. We’ve got to stay there on top and there’s a violence in that. We’ve got to admit we do things well and not so well sometimes. Let’s read, let’s search, let’s pray, let’s hope.

That’s another thing; how do we learn to hope collectively? Like we hope for personal things, but how do we hope as a people. In El Salvador, it’s that communal longing, communal hope. They think of the right to education. They think collectively. The right to health care. It’s always the community’s rights.

What are the world’s rights? What are the planet’s rights? How does my having so much keep so many from having the basics? That’s what the question is. It’s not that we want to make everybody poor or we want to flatten it, we just need to be more creative about making sure everybody has what they need to be a good human being.