The novice peacemaker

Not being a habitual early riser, I don't know how atypical it really was, but it looked very normal to me as my friends and I approached the appointed place at 5:30 a.m. The bus to take us to Washington, D.C., for the Freedom March last year was due to arrive any minute, and people were huddled in small groups on the post office lawn. The eastern horizon was still midnight blue, but few stars could outshine the streetlamps above us. As we waited in our island of light, I surveyed the crowd.

Almost every small group had remained separate that morning. Some were families determined to launch their children into activist roles at an early age. Some were friends, like my group, looking forward to both the political experience and the time together. Some were groups from local organizations, and they reviewed strategies and past campaigns. And then there were those undaunted few who ventured cheerfully from group to group offering information and a heartfelt interest in everyone's particular situation; these few brought the varied groups together into larger, more selfless groups, and in time we were no longer isolated handfuls of people but a single group waiting for the proverbially late bus.

One confidently prescient family arrived at 6:15 - late by our watches but earlier than the bus. What if the bus never came? Why, we would march on our own town square instead! A route was drawn up; tape decks were volunteered so that Martin Luther King's ''Dream Speech'' could be delivered once more; tasks were delegated: Who would get a permit? Who would invite the press? (Yes, we had found a purpose.)

Ah, but eventually the bus came. We climbed aboard, found our seats, and headed south. My seatmate and I swapped introductions. He was an experienced peace activist and a founding member of local peace organizations; I was a novice peacemaker - this was my first public protest, although I had long been a sidelines supporter. The marchers across the aisle were old friends who brought each other up to date on their personal struggles for peace, jobs, and meaning in their lives. Snippets of other conversations drifted by, including one involving a veteran of the march 20 years earlier who was alternatively reviewing and anticipating his D.C. experiences. Spirits were high, and excitement flowed from seat to seat along with apples, 7-Up, and tuna fish sandwiches.

Along the way a coordinator came down the aisle with maps of D.C., timetables of the day's events, and an apron frosted with pins to grace humanitarian lapels - buttons that proudly supported conservation, feminism, alternative energy sources, human rights, and civil rights. As people bought buttons, leaving gaps that let her apron peek through, she reached into pockets to replenish the crop with fresh messages. She embodied the feeling of the day: sharing only positive messages, directing with a sense of fair play, and listening with a bottomless supply of goodwill.

By late morning our bus merged with a parking lot full of other buses, and we merged with a city full of fellow marchers. Next - how to traverse the three miles from the bus lot to the start of the march? Many opted to march below ground on the subway - saving their walking for the Capitol Mall, where it would count most. But some of us chose to march through the brownstones (and redstones and whitestones) to the Mall. Not only did we see urban landscapes that those on the underground missed, we also saw how the crowds behaved as they approached the Washington Monument, where the official march began.

As the crowds converged, I was struck by the repetition of the activities on the post office lawn. Earlier in the day a lawn full of families, local groups, and organizers had become a unified busload of marchers. Before me on the Mall the same thing happened to the larger groups from across the nation as they met: the families with picnic baskets who lined the Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial; the nontraditional political groups who hawked their ideologies from roadside stands the way farmers market fresh produce; the national coalitions made up of local organizations from diverse communities. Here, as in my hometown, there were those undaunted groups that pulled together with song, slogan, and smile whatever groups happened to be around them.

And so we marched. Filling the streets. Chanting. Spilling over into lawns. Sharing a dream. Losing sight of the borders between us.

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