We were sitting on cold pavement, blocking traffic. Our small circle was in the heart of an increasingly hostile crowd, and my anxiety mounted at the sight of nearby police tapping their riot sticks. It was January 19, 1991. I was 18, and I was in way over my head.
Earlier that morning my friends and I had gathered with several thousand people across from the White House at LaFayette Park to listen to several passionate speakers—a mix of activists and politicians. For much of the day I was perched on my friend Lynn’s* shoulders with his expensive camera, taking photographs of the endless protest signs and diverse faces. The peace demonstration had started out harmless enough, but as we marched towards Martin Luther King Jr. Library, it began to turn into something ugly. About halfway to the library, the demonstrators around me suddenly locked arms, jerking me to the asphalt in the middle of an intersection, chanting, “NO BLOOD FOR OIL!”
I was arm-in-arm with a charming boy. I was smitten by his curly mop of hair and our shared music interests. I had a false sense of safety as Andrew’s* smile widened through the U.S. flag I had painted over his entire face. His pony-tailed brother Michael* was equally gorgeous in an old army jacket and torn jeans. Michael was linked to a woman whose heavy black eyeliner and blunt cut hairstyle gave her a strange likeness to a Vulcan from Star Trek. She was connected to a woman wearing mismatched vintage clothing, pointy cat glasses and a 1950s head scarf. A professional couple dressed in athletic clothes and their big, friendly golden retriever completed the defiant chain of peace activists.
My face itched from the flower painted on my cheek. I had no idea where the rest of my friends were in the sea of people. The police were tightening their lines around us. I anxiously imagined phoning my mother from jail, attempting to explain why I was in D.C. instead of at college in rural Indiana. For one fearful moment I wished that the manhole cover in front of me would suddenly open so I could escape.
From high above, some construction workers on skyscraper scaffolding began taunting us. My mouth dropped open as the woman in the vintage clothing did exactly what their signs dared. She flashed them—and all of us—her breasts “for peace”, then flipped them the middle finger and shouted obscenities at them.
I whispered to Andrew, “Well, that wasn’t very peaceful.”
Before he could reply, the Vulcan-looking woman ironically chimed in, “We’re all Earthlings,” while assuming an exaggerated meditation pose.
Andrew, Michael, and I struggled to keep our laughter hidden, unaware that tensions were mounting nearby. Under the din of the crowd, a policeman let his frustration get the best of him and began an angry confrontation with someone at the edge of the sit-in. Some people stood to confront the officer and many others shouted at him while remaining firmly seated.
The crowd tightened their arms, murmuring, “Stay together…stay linked.”
Police motorcycles revved around the perimeter and I tried not to breathe in the thick exhaust fumes.
“I’ve had enough of these people! They’ve been out here all week stopping traffic!” another officer scoffed, thumping his riot stick in his hand.
Several of the policemen began grabbing at their handcuffs as if they were going to start hauling us in.
Then, out of nowhere, a man with long shaggy hair and round granny glasses quietly stood in the midst of the surreal chaos. I felt the blood drain from my face. There were dozens of audible gasps. We couldn’t believe our eyes. He looked like John Lennon circa 1970. In his hands, an acoustic guitar with a harmonica mounted to the top, and on his face, that infamous mischievous smile. Without saying a word, he sat down and began strumming Lennon’s song, Give Peace a Chance. My heart leapt when I heard his voice, because he even sounded like John!
The melody quickly spread through the crowd, until everyone was singing along.
“All we are say-ing, is give peace a chance.”
Over and over we sang the chorus, drowning out the single guitar.
“All we are say-ing, is give peace a chance.”
Soon we were on our feet , slowly beginning to move again.
“All we are say-ing, is give peace a chance.”
We gradually moved down the street and away from the police, who let us go with no arrests! We looked for the mysterious musician to thank him, but he was gone. Nobody around us saw him leave. It was as if we had been visited by John himself.
Andrew and I shuddered when the woman with the golden retriever gave voice to what we were all thinking. “He must have been John’s angel,” she marveled to her husband.
It was a magic moment. It was a demonstration of how one person can change everything, instantly. Because of that moment, I have never forgotten the power of one voice.
However, it wasn’t until I made friends with people from other parts of the world that I began to understand how lucky I am to have grown up in a place of peace.
In 1995, I was swimming with a dozen friends at a lake when a thunderstorm developed quickly. It was one of those storms that are so electrical your hair stands up on your arms. One minute we were splashing around, the next lightning streaked across the August sky, followed by a clap of thunder that nearly split the heavens.
My friend Jayne* and I shrieked out of the water to the safety of the shore. As Michiganders, we’d been told all our lives to get out of the water if there’s lightning. The rest of our friends, who were mostly from Lebanon and Palestine, did not hurry out of the water. They strolled toward a nearby pavilion as if the sky was still clear.
Again the thunder cracked like a whip right next to us, the ultimate jump scare from Mother Nature. It was the kind of thunder that startles everyone, not just people who are fearful of storms. My friends were unfazed, chatting and laughing around a table of food.
Tears welled in my eyes as I realized Jayne and I were the only two who even noticed the incredibly loud thunder.
Mistaking my tears for fright, Nabil* smiled with arched eyebrows. “Are you scared of a little storm?” he teased me.
“No Nabil. I just realized no one else jumped besides me and Jayne. It’s because you all grew up with that kind of noise. You heard bombs and guns all the time, right?”
“Yes. You’re a good friend,” he acknowledged, hugging me. He pointed to scars on his chest and arm. “These are from shrapnel. From when my brother died.”
That was more than enough to break my heart, but then a few of the others heard our conversation and began showing me their scars too. Every one of them had lost a brother, a cousin, or a neighbor.
In 1997, a new coworker and I became fast friends. He had the whitest, brightest smile and the darkest, most beautiful skin I have ever seen. Jean-Luc* was exceptionally kind to all of our patients, and they adored his French-ish accent. We worked alongside each other for several months and I never once heard him complain, not even when we were incredibly short-staffed. We lost track of each other when he went to school and I moved on to another job. Then, in 2007, I ran into him unexpectedly. In the decade that had passed, we had both got married and had kids. We had never talked about his childhood in Rwanda, but that day I had the courage to ask him about surviving the 1994 genocide.
“Ask me anything you want to know,” Jean-Luc smiled, as usual.
I was naïve. I didn’t want to believe that Hollywood got the story right—I hoped that it had been exaggerated a bit for the dramatic movie Hotel Rwanda. Hopefully it had been exaggerated a lot.
I asked, “You know that part in the movie, when they turned onto the foggy road and they had to stop because there were too many dead bodies? That wasn’t true was it? Was there really a road like that?”
It was the only time I have ever seen Jean-Luc’s smile fade.
“No. It wasn’t like that,” he shook his head. “It wasn’t just one road. There were no roads. There were no roads left.”
My heart shattered as he recounted how he and his younger brothers, ranging in age from 12-17 years old, witnessed atrocious acts of violence against neighbors and family—and how they narrowly escaped. Even now I am haunted by his story, especially as my own children grow to the age that Jean-Luc was when he endured that horrific trauma.
The thing that strikes me the most about my friends from Lebanon, Rwanda, and another friend who survived a decade in a refugee camp in Myanmar—they are all incredibly grateful and optimistic people.
2015 has been a year of upheaval and violence. In the wake of recent events in Paris, Beirut, and many other parts of the world, many of us have been asking: Is global peace possible?
I’m not always the wisest person, but here is what my 18-year-old self once wrote about it:
Why does humanity seem to have endless conflict? I think we forget we are not just human. We are also spirit. This life we are living is merely a moment in eternal time. We forget that we have the opportunity every moment of every day to live in Love, without conditions or limits. I can feel myself rest in my heart space when I ask myself: “Am I being kind? Am I hearing and seeing the other person? Am I a peacemaker?” These questions remove the focus from being right, being superior, and struggling for power. The urgency of conflict is diffused with the simple question, “Am I being kind?”
True friends do not have to agree on anything to be kind. Maybe peace is possible—one friendship at a time. Kindness makes room for peace.
“All we are saying is give peace a chance.”
Thank you John, for your timeless, wise, simple words.
Parts of this blog post are edited excerpts from a magazine article I originally wrote and published in March 2003. *names have been changed to protect privacy of friends.