A few months ago, a small group of us set out to walk from Detroit to Lansing over a period of ten days, an effort dubbed Moveable Peace 2011 Peace Walk, an idea that emerged during the U.S. Social Forum the previous summer. Other walkers left on foot at the same time from Grand Rapids and Saginaw as part of a planned statewide convergence on the State Capitol on Nagasaki Day.
Today, I look back on the peace walk and ask myself what, if anything was served, by walking along Grand River during some of the hottest days of summer. Was our walk self-indulgent? Was it anchored in a stubborn hope in search of itself or was it a desperate act to ward off a spirit of impending despair during days that are increasingly hard to decipher? To what degree was our walk a way of picking through the shards of democracy that lie broken on empire’s floor in search of something salvageable, something good, something decent, something essentially American?
As I write, 41, 000 folks in Michigan, 30, 000 of them children, are losing cash assistance benefits in a state with one of the worst unemployment rates in the nation, democracy is being usurped by the imposition of emergency managers on our state’s poorest cities, unions are under attack as workers from teachers to postal carriers are demonized, and the drums of war continue their tired and incessant beat.
There is a pall, a lethargy, a kind of dazed and confused feeling that has descended upon this nation like a heavy, wool blanket, the kind that will be in short supply this winter as the poor of Michigan wrap themselves in newspapers on the snow-swirled streets of Detroit, Flint, and Pontiac. And yet . . . underneath all the grim news, something is trying to be born. A resurrection is waiting to happen and it’s anyone’s guess how these strange times will shake out in the end. From Wall Street to Woodward, a new spirit is rising that shouts, “Enough is enough!” as people begin to shake off the paralysis resulting from the sucker punches thrown by the Snyder administration, the corporatistas, and a broken two-party system beholden to big money. The people of Michigan have taken hit after hit to the head by these bullies and, while stunned and punch drunk, they are still in the ring, fighting for their lives and the lives of their children. These are the folks we wanted to meet on our walk to Lansing.
While the peace walk was probably prompted by a thousand different motivations, not least of which was a sincere desire to wish all we encountered “pace e bene” (peace and goodwill) in the spirit of St. Francis, Peace Pilgrim, and scores of others who have taken to the road, I think, ultimately, it was about trying to listen deeply to people from around the state who are staggering under the blows inflicted by the war economy and the corporate takeover of the commons.
In short, the walk was a way of meeting people on their own terms. Beyond political parties. Beyond focus groups. Beyond media stereotypes. Beyond anonymous postings on the internet. It was a way, I suppose, of trying to discover some tenuous thread of unity in the unraveling fabric of our divided country.
Rather than recount the details of the walk, it is enough to say that people are good and people are scared and people are hungry for a sense of local community. We consciously stayed away from large stores and chain restaurants in order to support local merchants, and over and over we heard the same refrain, “Please shop local. Eat at your local cafes and coffee houses, shop at local businesses. Live simply. Turn off the television. Talk to your neighbors.”
From the drunken veteran we met on the streets of Howell who told us we would “hate him” if we knew what he had done in Iraq to the philosopher-farmer outside Fowlerville who walked away from a lucrative business in a Detroit suburb to raise organic food and beautiful babies, we were moved by the openness and goodness of the people we met.
How different the state looks when one if gets off the freeway cluttered with the same handful of big box stores and ugly billboards – symbols of our atomized, corporatized, supersized country. Walking Grand River at a leisurely pace and spending time in local laundry mats and diners holding on for dear life in an era of corporate personhood, prompted in me a spirit of nostalgia and melancholy.
At times, it felt like we were walking through the set of a Springsteen video – this land is whose land? A real sense of the magnitude of the Goliath we face and a sense that something good is being grabbed from our hands by interests that care little for the people of this land. There was much time while walking through soy bean fields and small towns to ponder the enormity of an economic system whose vociferous appetite for small towns and everyday people knows no limit.
We are in the maw of a machine that is destroying our towns, our country, our planet. And yet . . . we are people of faith. People who, against all odds, hedge our bets on David and on the promise that although the arc of the universe is long, it does indeed bend toward justice. We must occupy Wall Street but we must also occupy our local businesses, our town hall meetings, our own front porches.
If we hope to bring about the revolution of the heart so often mentioned by Dr. King and Dorothy Day and usher in the Beloved Community, we must remember that our work for peace, justice, and sustainability begins close to home. We must find creative ways to live differently and locally in order to subvert an idolatrous system that crushes people for the sake of profit. We must take the time to talk to one another and rediscover what it means to be human.
Pax Christi Michigan Peace Connection Fall 2011