Five years and counting, a peace vigil stands firm

In Needham, Mass., peace activists make weekly pleas to end violence and remain hopeful that their message is heard.

By , Columnist

Most Saturday afternoons, Sue Fleming's family and friends know exactly where they can find her between 4 and 5 p.m. As leader of the Needham Interfaith Peace Initiative, she's typically on the town common in this suburb west of Boston, maintaining a peace vigil with a small group of like-minded residents.

For nearly an hour, in all kinds of weather, participants, including Mrs. Fleming's husband, Donald, hold hand-lettered signs bearing a variety of messages, hoping to catch the attention of pedestrians and passing motorists. Traffic is heavy as shoppers hurry to finish late-afternoon errands, dashing in and out of CVS and Harvey's Hardware across the street.

"Skillful diplomacy works," reads one sign. "War creates terrorism," states another. Other messages range from "End all torture" to "Do not bomb Iran," "Eliminate causes of terrorism," and "All nations are our neighbors."

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Similar peace initiatives exist in other Boston suburbs – Arlington, Newton, and Milton, among them – and in cities and towns stretching from Chatham, N.Y., to Fort Walton Beach, Fla., and from Stamford, Conn., to Seattle. Not all groups stage vigils. Some hold public events with invited speakers.

"There are lots of groups out there," says Mrs. Fleming. "They've sprung up like mushrooms."

Yet she and other activists regard their work as an underreported, sometimes even unreported, story. Some fault the media for not taking them seriously enough. Either newspapers don't cover events, Mrs. Fleming says, or if they do, they run a black-and-white photo and bury the story in the back of the paper. "They don't realize how passionate those of us who participate are and how important our message is."

She traces the beginning of these local peace vigils to the fall of 2002, before the Iraq war began. "At that time, everybody thought if they got out on the streets, they could stop the war," Mrs. Fleming says. "We had lots and lots of people."

After the war started, the group continued to protest, although its numbers dwindled. "A lot of people passing by were very dismissive of us, to put it nicely," she says. "They thought we were traitors. They yelled obscenities or would rush by in their pickup trucks and scream at us."

Over the years, pedestrians have stopped to argue with the group. Others come by to thank them for doing this. These days most comments they receive are positive, Mrs. Fleming finds.

Mr. Fleming, shifting from foot to foot against the damp cold, adds, "In the last few months, people seem friendlier."

Many in this group are middle-age and beyond, although a young father with a 3-year-old son sometimes joins them on the common.

One regular participant, Elise Boulding, describes herself as "a peace activist all my life." A Quaker, she taught peace studies at various universities, including Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H., and the University of Michigan. She was also nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

Andrew Bunie, a retired teacher, holds a sign reading "Blessed are the peacemakers."

But even committed peacemakers find themselves tested. A year ago, on a bleak day when the sky was gray and threatening, the Needham participants stood on their little plot of borrowed land in the center of town, cold and discouraged. "We wondered if what we did had any impact at all," Mrs. Fleming recalls.

Then a waiter from Masala Art, an Indian restaurant across the street, approached with a smile and an unexpected gift: He wanted to bring them tea and coffee. "He told us, 'You don't realize how much we appreciate seeing you here every week,' " Mrs. Fleming says. "It cheered us up enormously. We were witnessing to more people than we realized."

Today, as a hedge against the cold, another regular, Chip Wilder, has brought a thermos of hot chocolate for everyone. Two battery-operated candles on a card table add a touch of postholiday cheer in the wintry darkness.

Calling this a peace and justice movement, Mrs. Fleming adds, "It's almost a vigil against violence. There's so much violence in our culture. Kids see it all the time on television. It's very upsetting."

For some of us who have passed the vigil-keepers many times in the past five years, their presence serves a purpose that goes beyond their specific cause. Their constancy and steadfast devotion raise humbling questions for the rest of us, such as: What cause do I believe in fervently? And what am I doing to support and promote it?

At 4:45 p.m., members of the group put down their signs, form a circle, and join hands. After a moment of silence, Mrs. Fleming says, "Peace be with us." The vigil is over. They collect their signs, say goodbye, and head to their cars, eager for the comforting warmth of home.

Explaining that they are here for the long run, Mrs. Fleming offers a comment that could apply to every worthy cause. "A few people can make a difference," she says, "and we intend to keep doing it."

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