Remembering Koinonia on the Community's 70th Anniversary

Fertile Soil For Faith Formation: My Life At Koinonia Partners 1975-1990 by Steve Clemens. October 2012
When I arrived at the 1400-acre farm in south Georgia in September 1975, the first person who greeted me was the young woman who became my wife 2 ½ years later. Christine Haas told me I was late for lunch and pointed me in the direction of the community’s dining hall. I was one-month short of my 25th birthday and had agreed to serve as a “volunteer” for the next two years. It was to serve as my “unofficial voluntary service” assignment as a conscientious objector even though my military draft lottery number was too high to be drafted and the Vietnam War had just ended in a resounding defeat of South Vietnamese forces several months before.
I arrived at this “intentional Christian community” as a young man already on the pathway of “radical Christian discipleship” as I had understood it. Having been raised in an evangelical/fundamentalist family in southeastern Pennsylvania, schooled at Wheaton College – proclaimed to be an evangelical “Harvard” (but, in reality not very challenging academically) – and followed by a year of graduate school in Social Work at Temple University, I had already thrown off the “shackles” of that fundamentalism and was exploring my Anabaptist heritage and its understanding of pacifism and nonviolence. Immediately preceding my arrival at Koinonia, I had spent a year in voluntary service with the Mennonites in Washington, DC coupled simultaneously with a year of Bible Study with radical Christian Catholics from Jonah House and the Community For Creative Nonviolence.
What attracted me to Koinonia was the opportunity to work and worship with a group of people who shared a vision of discipleship which embraced nonviolence, racial reconciliation, simpler living, economic sharing, and service to others. The community was small enough to make one feel valued and included but also large enough to try to make a difference in the local community. Koinonia ran a Volunteer Program which was a work/study experience where one lived in a shared community household, was given a work assignment in farming/gardening, the pecan processing plant, fruitcake bakery and candy kitchen, home construction crew, or the mail order business operations.
Through the Volunteer work/study program – both as a participant (September –December 1975) and then later as one of its co-coordinators (for 8-10 years in the late 70s and 80s), I got to experience the deep faith of Ethel Dunning, Deacon Ludrelle Pope and his wife, Mamie, Correnza Morgan and Mazie, and Miss Gussie Jackson – residents of one of the two residential housing “villages” created by Koinonia’s housing ministry begun in 1968 or living nearby.  To hear the stories of the harassment and personal travails they endured because of their relationship to Koinonia and their desire for reconciliation with white folk was a life-altering experience. There wasn’t a lot of sophisticated seminary-induced Bible learning but rather a “trust-and-obey” simplicity to their faith and how it was to be lived out. “Peoples is my hobby” is a refrain that sticks in my mind when I took volunteer groups down to the Forest Park neighborhood to meet with Ethel and Ladon Sheats at her house. Deacon Pope would always have a Bible story or drawn-out prayer whenever Christine and I would visit, coupled with his homemade buttermilk biscuits, after Mamie had “passed”.
Mamie, who was employed as the community cook for noonday meals for many years, had to put up with the plethora of new white folks coming into her kitchen. They often suggested she make the latest culinary fad desired by these “hippies” and counter-cultural volunteers who arrived fresh every three or four months. Even the Resident Partners would discuss the noon meals and give Mamie their input for her menus. Since the farmers were growing soybeans, could we incorporate more of that vegetable protein into our meals, lessening the amount of meat we consumed, was the query that the Products Manager George Worth asked. His solution? Ask Mamie to substitute soy grits or soybeans for the hamburger she normally put into her chili. Mamie’s solution to that request? - she asked the “new boy” who was now in charge of maintenance on the farm, a college-educated young man from Pennsylvania (me), to taste the chili for the proper flavoring of the spices since she didn’t want to taste it herself: “After all”, she told me, “soybeans are what you feed to hogs, not people!”
The faith lessons we learned sitting with “Miss Doris” were especially poignant; she had suffered so much in her own life having had her husband die at a young age in a car accident, her husband’s uncle shot and killed by “white folk”, becoming a mother at age 13 and a grandmother at age 26. By age forty, she was a great-grandmother as generation after generation seemed to repeat the pattern of having babies in one’s early teen years. Her daughter, Nadine, battling what seemed to be insurmountable health obstacles; her son Leonard, dealing with the racism of the deep south; her daughter Linda with her struggles as a teenage mom, … Miss Doris, whose job and passion was running the community’s pre-school Nursery, would pour out her love and warmth on all the children she was charged with, depending on the deep spiritual well-springs she drew upon.
Meanwhile, having witnessed the lived-out faith of the local black residents, I spent much of my time reading and listening to the theology and insights of Clarence Jordan, one of the co-founders of the community back in 1942. Fortunately there were dozens and dozens of reel-to-reel tape recordings of Clarence’s sermons, speeches, and story telling preserved as well as the several books he had published over his 27 years at Koinonia. Truly a gifted orator and storyteller, I would sit for hours listening to Dr. Jordan’s southern drawl, marveling at both his Biblical insight and his infectious sense of humor. What always came through was a combination of both compassion and a passion for justice. Clarence often concentrated on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and his parables.
Equally instructive were the stories about Clarence and his family that were frequently shared by his life partner, Florence. Although Clarence died suddenly of a heart attack in 1969, Florence survived her husband by another 18 years and often told the stories of the earlier days of the Koinonia “experiment”. Clarence often referred to the community as a “demonstration plot” of what the Kingdom of God could embody. Educated as a scientific farmer at the University of Georgia before hearing “a call” to attend the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Clarence often drew on his agricultural knowledge and experience in his sermons and stories. Because of his extensive knowledge of koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, Clarence would translate directly from the Greek text when he preached, putting the stories and teachings into the local vernacular and settings for what would become his “Cotton Patch” version of the New Testament accounts.  
Although my politics were radical when I arrived, my theological positions hadn’t evolved as quickly. It was in seeing how others lived their lives that helped break down some of the walls I had constructed from my upbringing and my Wheaton College indoctrination. Clarence Jordan said very clearly on one of the many tapes I listened to over and over that we are not called to “judge others” but we are called to be “fruit inspectors” – noting how Jesus remarked, “By their fruit shall you know them.” In our volunteer group, George and Coffee Worth, lifetime Presbyterian missionaries who arrived at Koinonia the same week as I had, would often scoff at a Bible verse someone quoted, especially if it came from the writings of Paul (or those claimed to be by him). It was clear that they believed neither in the inspiration or inerrancy of “God’s Word” as I had it drilled into me by the bastion of evangelicalism at Billy Graham’s alma mater. Wheaton would have me believe that with such “heretical” views, even missionaries who did not believe in the infallibility of scripture were not “saved”. Yet, using the fruit inspection standard promoted by Clarence and Jesus, it was very clear that the Worths evidenced their “salvation” by the way their lives reflected the life and values Jesus proclaimed. (And Coffee shared the story with me about how she was bitten by Billy Graham’s dog!)
Later, in the mid-80s, another Koinonia resident I had gotten to know came out as a gay man to Christine and me, taking a risk to share the pain and self-loathing he had endured for years while in the closet. Again, I was forced to re-think my theological understandings and the walls and exclusions which remained around my head and heart. Koinonia, as an institution, wasn’t quite ready to be “open and affirming” but at least the Resident Partners began dialoging about that possibility. A few years later we welcomed our first “out” Partner who was gay. But it was bittersweet in recognizing all who may have felt excluded or marginalized before then.
Living at Koinonia for 16 years, I got to meet many of the “legendary” people from Koinonia’s history – or people who knew them. I heard not only stories of inspiration but also you heard or witnessed some of their “warts” as well. Community living has a way of exposing our shadow-side as well as the persona we’d like others to see. Despite the flaws, sins, and shortcomings I often found a way to learn and grow from the privilege of working and worshipping with the same group of people. Koinonia’s size, never more than 25-40 Partners coupled with 5-20 volunteers (plus children) meant that we could relate to one another without bureaucratic boundaries and strictures. Koinonia had morphed from having a more powerful “Director” as it re-emerged in 1968 to a model featuring a more decentralized “Coordinator of Activities”, “Fellowship Team”, Residency Committee, and Housing Committee by the time I had arrived in the mid-70s.
The on-going power of the Koinonia experience for me was its counter-cultural vision and practice. Living in the intentional community was an invitation to reject the values of the dominant society and replace them with the ideas and values expressed in the Gospel and the early church as described by Clarence Jordan’s careful Biblical analysis. The U.S. cultural value of rugged individualism, the John Wayne “tough guy”, go-it-alone mentality was replaced with a value of interdependence rather than independence. American ideals of competition were contrasted with a Gospel of cooperation and community. The main focus of our society seems to be predicated on “consumption” and the best adjective for many Americans seems to be consumers. Koinonia’s emphasis on simple living (which was later recast as “compassionate living”) stressed a downward mobility economically while finding ways to befriend Mother Earth in the process. And arriving at Koinonia only months after the end of the war on Vietnam meant that the culture’s dependence on militarism should have been more readily questioned - but in the deep South that ideology of military solutions to most international programs continues to hold sway in most circles. Koinonia’s clear commitment to nonviolence and reconciliation often provided a sharp contrast to the social and political forces that dominated our corner of southwest Georgia.
It was a multi-media presentation by Ladon Sheats of the comparing and contrasting of American values with those of the “Kingdom of God” that was my first introduction to both Koinonia and Clarence Jordan just a year before I arrived as a volunteer. That “Values Presentation” continued to be used in Koinonia’s volunteer program a decade later as the struggle between the dominant culture and the counter-culture values espoused by Jesus continued to help define the community. Even though most Resident Partners embraced those values, there certainly were differences of styles and expressions of how one talked about and lived them out.
Another strength of the Koinonia “experiment” was its ecumenical nature in embracing and welcoming a variety of Christian denominational expressions. In my 16 years there, numerous individuals led worship, were elected to the Fellowship Team (providing leadership and coordination for the spiritual life of the community), and/or conducted Bible Studies or prayer groups. My Mennonite tradition was accepted alongside Roman Catholics, Quakers, Baptists, Swedenborgians, Presbyterians, Methodists, evangelicals, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and non-denominational Christians and even those who had given up on institutional expressions of the faith. Some infants were baptized; others were “dedicated”. What was “communion” for some was “Eucharist” for others. Some Resident Partners attended other churches in town while Koinonia’s own worship on Sunday evenings was seen as their primary “church” for many others. Speakers from outside the community were invited a couple of times each year to provide inspiration and challenge. Most notable for me were visits from Walter Brueggemann, Daniel Berrigan, Murphy Davis, and Joyce Hollyday.  
I am so grateful that I had the opportunity for much spiritual formation and grounding as a result of my years at Koinonia. It led to relationships with other intentional communities (Sojourners, The Open Door, Jubilee Partners, Reba Place Fellowship, New Jerusalem Community, …) and their members and, through our mailing list, thousands of visitors. The 1970s and 80s were a time of social and theological ferment and Koinonia was a helpful place not only for me but also a place to start a family and begin to raise my sons in an atmosphere of love and acceptance. Even though we lived almost a thousand miles from my family of origin, my sons had “aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and other relatives” among the other community members who served as surrogates for relatives in Pennsylvania. Community became family for us, making it very difficult for us to leave after 16 and 20 years respectively living at Koinonia.
If there are just a few things to mention about my experience in intentional Christian community between Plains and Americus, GA it wouldn’t be having a Presidential campaign anchored from the nearby town, nor the Ku Klux Klan gathering to protest and embarrass the new President a year later. Our visits over 10 years to a man on Death Row stand out as well as helping in the starting of three new communities: Jubilee Partners, The Open Door Community, and New Hope Hospitality House. The community support for Peace Pentecost, the White Train campaign, and anti-Trident submarine protests was impressive. Joining with the Jubilee Partners community working with their Año de Jubileo program to help Central American refugees gain asylum in Canada and Open Door friends with assistance and advocacy on behalf of the homeless and imprisoned was very satisfying for me. I was very moved by community solidarity when I was jailed for six months after the Pantex witness plus weeks in jail in DC, Atlanta, and Montezuma. Participating in vigils during state executions or in witness against the U.S. Army School of the Americas drew many of us together in prayer and protest. Witnessing the birth and growth of Habitat For Humanity. The list could go on and on.
But what I remember most deeply are the words of Clarence Jordan: “Faith is not believing in spite of the evidence but rather acting in scorn of the consequences.” And “Fear is the polio of the soul which keeps us from walking by faith.” Those words, embodied by years of faithful witness while embattled by racists and other opponents, continue to instruct and inspire me more than 40 years after Clarence joined the great cloud of witnesses. My friends Ladon, Will and Margaret, George and Clara, Ray and Lois, George Worth, Art and Ruth, Miss Gussie, Ludrelle and Mamie, Correnza and Mazie, Jophie, Mary Ruth, Don, and many others have also crossed over but continue to live in my memory. The fertile soil of what was once 1400 acres of red Georgia clay may have grown peanuts, corn, soybeans, grapes, and peaches – but it also helped develop disciples, people choosing to embrace the nonviolent servanthood of Jesus of Nazareth and trying to make and be a difference in our world.

Remarks at Lifetime Peacemaking and Justice Award


Vince Hawkinson Foundation Honorary Award remarks by Steve Clemens, October 14, 2012
When Eric Hucke called me in July to inform me about this award, I went to the website to view the listing of past honorees. I noticed I had been arrested with at least 10 of the previous honorees.

My friend Marv Davidov had 11 more years of resistance after receiving his award; John and Marie Braun keep going, keep going, keep going … like Energizer bunnies for peacemaking.

I see Ralph Hildenberg on the Lake Street Bridge almost every week; I was just on trial this past May with 3 of the 4 McDonald sisters. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer has poured his energies into the Minnesota Arms Spending Alternatives Project (MN ASAP) and another book since he and Sara were recognized a couple of years ago.

So when the honorary award is for lifetime achievement it really is merely an encouragement to keep on rather than rest on one’s laurels. Have you ever known Polly Mann to give any indication that she is “retiring” from peacemaking and her passion for social justice? Ken Masters has slowed down but he and Carol continue in the work of reminding us to keep agitating for justice.
Vince Hawkinson: I never knew him personally but I heard him speak a few times after moving to MN in 1990. It is clear to me that his deep faith inspired and fed his resistance to war. I, too, find my personal faith –coupled with its public expression in a faith community – has been my primary inspiration for my work in peacemaking. The Biblical call to be reconciled to God and to one another is central to my understanding of peacemaking.
However, day-to-day ministries of reconciliation are often ignored in favor of dramatic arrests. We need to end the hierarchy of peacemaking or spirituality and instead celebrate all the diverse gifts given to the body. This Hawkinson Award has recognized many various facets of peacemaking – not just practitioners of direct action and nonviolent civil resistance. For that, I am grateful that the Foundation has an expansive view of the ministry of peacemaking.
In this journey, I’ve found that humor is essential. Unless one can laugh at oneself or the seemingly impossible forces we are up against, we can too easily succumb to despair. And without accountability and feedback we will fall victim to our own blind spots. That is why peacemakers who are in it for the long haul need community. While there are some Lone Rangers, most peacemakers are supported, nurtured, encouraged, and corrected by fellow disciples along the way:
There are Teachers who give the ideas and explain the context. Some preach sermons or give powerful, moving speeches; others are story-tellers. Many write books or essays to deepen our understanding or give us a new perspective. Some give us inspiration – especially for me is the power of song or a piece of art which gets past the defensive walls that surround my heart at times. For me, listening to the sermons of Martin Luther King and Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farm have inspired me. Books from John Howard Yoder, William Stringfellow, Walter Wink, and Ched Myers have enlightened my way. The music shared with us by my friends with Bread for the Journey have given me songs to while away the hours in jail; and the music from the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa recorded as “Freedom is Coming” reverberates in my thoughts 30 years after I first learned them from Henri Nouwen and Jim Wallis during a sit-in at the Rotunda of the US Capitol in 1983 – especially the lyrics, “It doesn’t matter if you should jail us – we are freed and kept alive by hope.” And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the insight and passion of my fellow Hawkinson Award recipient in this category: Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer.
On the journey as a peacemaker, there have been plenty of Mentors who model the practice – since moving to Minnesota in 1990 I’ve been blessed by learning from the McDonald Sisters, Char Madigan, Marv Davidov and many, many others – Minnesota has been an oasis of peace mentors after living in southwest Georgia for 16 years. In Georgia, it seemed we knew most of the peace activists from all over the state as we’d travel to support each other to the various corners of that state. But I’m so grateful for a multitude of mentors before moving to Minnesota. One of my first mentors was a dairy farmer, Walton Hackman, who lived across the road from the house where I was raised, and had returned to the farm after his younger brother died suddenly. Ladon Sheats, a former IBM executive, who radically changed his life and was mentored himself by Clarence Jordan.  Two priests: Larry Rosebaugh and Roy Bourgeois inspired me and – in fact - most of my mentors were people I’ve been arrested with – including Dan and Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister. Now, I find some of my mentors are younger than me. Kathy Kelly, Dr. Hakim in Afghanistan, and Ched Myers readily come to mind. I’m encouraged and inspired by the youth and vigor of the Occupy movement.
One of real pleasures of this journey has been Co-conspirators – con-spire – to breathe with. People who accompany one on the journey – our Alliant Action vigil group would be a great example of co-conspirators. Sometimes in the 1980s I’d vigil by candlelight outside the gates of Ft. Benning or with the model of an electric chair outside the Sumter County Courthouse in Georgia with only a handful of folk. Other times, I am astonished to be one of more than 6,000 people risking arrest by crossing the line 15 years later at the same School of Americas’ witness. I always need to remember that many times there are folks “back home” – in my neighborhood, my faith community, my many friends –scattered across the country-side (and now around the world) who are with me in thoughts, spirit, and prayer as I undertake some of the riskier acts of nonviolent witness. Many of these co-conspirators have never risked arrest themselves but write and visit you in prison and share the message of peace and justice with their co-workers.
I remember how moved I was when the entire group of Resident Partners from the Koinonia community cancelled their weekly meeting in order to drive 25 miles to sing outside the jail where I was fasting and being held for trial after blocking the White Train carrying nuclear warheads to a submarine base off the Georgia coast in 1985. When the Community of St. Martin takes the Vow of Nonviolence together each year on the second Sunday in November, I’m reminded of others on this journey with me. The powerful women of WAMM – and they let some of us men join them as well – and the Veterans For Peace, who have also welcomed as Associate Members those of us who have “served” our nation and fellow humans without weapons; my compatriots in the Pax Christi movement, Catholics who have welcomed this Anabaptist into their midst, and now the Muslim Peacemaker Team partnering with our Iraqi & American Reconciliation Project continues to broaden that circle. 
And, of course, there are the Examples and Role Models of others from afar: for example, Jim and Shelley Douglass and the White Train resistance community they founded at Ground Zero in Washington State helped inspire our own White Train witness in Georgia. All of us in the movement of non-violent resistance owe a debt of gratitude to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, to Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez and Dorothy Day.
But we cannot forget the Alternatives creators – those who help envision what we want, not just opposing what we don’t; Back in the ‘70s, Dan Berrigan penned a powerful poem, “No and Yes and the Whole Damned Thing” describing the dual call to both nonviolent resistance and the building of alternatives – something we can say “yes” to.  When Dan’s brother Phil Berrigan came to Koinonia in 1974 with his call to prophetic criticism of US Militarism, some of the Koinonia members pushed back stating that creating educational alternatives for pre-schoolers was equally important if one wished to live in a just and peaceful society. So, to name a few of these alternatives close to my heart: Common Harvest Farm, Seward/Longfellow Restorative Justice Program, From Death to Life, Loaves and Fishes, St. Stephen’s Housing and Street Outreach Ministry, Southside Family Nurturing Center, Centro Campesino, IARP, …
I confess that I have a lot of fear and trepidation before many public actions but my faith and the companionship of like-minded folk can help overcome fear and allow one to act. So I want to acknowledge some of that companionship today in receiving this award as a community effort rather than an individualistic accomplishment: For me today: Christine and my sons Micah and Zach. Thank you for sharing this journey with me. Both of you going to Death Row with Christine and me to visit Bob Redd. Micah, for standing aside me as the smoke bomb hit my feet outside Ft. Benning when you were only 4 or 5, and then traveling with me to El Salvador in 2005 to learn more about the witness of Oscar Romero.  Zach, for walking with me up to the fence before I crossed at the School of the Americas vigil and then visiting me when I was taken to the hospital from prison. Christine, as I now head off to Iraq again, and the many adventures we’ve shared together, thank you for your love and support for these past 34 years. And especially thanks to those of you who supported her when I was locked up.
But I also have an extended family of fictive kinship. Peter Thompson who accompanied me to Iraq in December 2002 just months before the war started; David Harris who was my support person at the School of the Americas protest and again at the Republican National Convention. He even joined me at the Hennepin County Workhouse/Jail this Spring – choosing imprisonment over community service to be in solidarity with me. The Community of St. Martin is part of my family. I have a Pax Christi family, and I could go on and on. For me, my 16 years living in an intentional Christian community in south Georgia was probably the most significant aspect of my spiritual formation as a peacemaker. Today I continue to be connected with the many life-long friends I shared life with at Koinonia during those years. Did not Jesus promise us that if we left our old securities to follow him, we will be blessed with homes and families, and friends, one hundred times over? I have found this to be true and I am grateful.
Peacemaking must always be combined with social justice – for example, LGBT issues, the rights of immigrants/refugees, the needs and cares for the homeless, for those in prison – especially those facing the death penalty, and care and advocacy for the natural environment is an especially pressing issue for both peace and justice.
So, when I am arrested at the White House protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline, it is connected with peacemaking. When I stand with my gay brothers and lesbian sisters demanding their rights to love and marry, it is connected to peacemaking. When I march with the custodial workers of the CTUL union in front of K-Mart or Cub Foods, it is connected to peacemaking. When I attend the march and memorial remembering the homeless who have died in our state each December, it is connected with peacemaking. On the first Sunday of each month when I am part of the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration’s prayer vigil in front of the Ramsey County Detention Center is for me an act of peacemaking.
So I accept this award on behalf of a broad community of peacemakers – those here in the Twin Cities today as well as my friends and mentors who are part of the “great cloud of witnesses” whose lives and message have help blaze the path which I have tried to follow.

Why I March Against the War in Afghanistan

Remarks for Afghan War Anniversary Rally and March Oct 7, 2012 by Steve Clemens
I stand before you today more in sadness than anger – although I have some of that as well.
My anger, however, is less directed at President Obama than at the system within which most of our political leaders are (willingly) trapped: a system of hegemony and domination supported by a military system which is more predatory than protective. Our political leaders like to think they are “protecting the American Way of Life” when, in reality, they are promoting a predatory system of corporate domination which seeks to continue the profligate pattern of American over-consumption protected at gun-point.
I had the distinct privilege of traveling to Afghanistan Spring a year ago as part of an International Peace Team led by Kathy Kelly of Voices For Creative Nonviolence. In Kabul we met with young Afghans who are committed to nonviolent solutions in their homeland. The Afghan Peace Volunteers are true nationalists who don’t want their beloved land “occupied by either US and NATO forces or the oppressive, fundamentalism of the Taliban.
We should have no illusions about the brutish misogyny and thuggish rigidity of the Taliban – but we must also understand the US/NATO complicity with equally repressive warlords who were bribed with millions of our taxpayer dollars to help overthrow the Taliban. When the US drove truckloads of crisp $100 dollar bills and handed them over to warlords 11 years ago this week to buy their loyalty, cooperation, and combat capability, we directly fed the rampant culture of corruption that now so clearly has infected all of Afghan society.
We also empowered the system of tribal warlords who continue to try to keep most of Afghanistan back in the 15th century when it comes to the rights of women and girls. Our Secretary of State as well as a couple of her predecessors, Condi Rice and Madeline Albright have used the battle-cry of “women’s rights” as a call to support the present US Occupation of Afghanistan. But, as my friend Chante Wolf of Veterans For Peace and others have so clearly observed, looking to the US Military to defend the rights of women is beyond ironic and is rather full-fledged hypocrisy. The incidence of sexual harassment, abuse and assault within the US Military of it’s own women soldiers is frighteningly horrendous and such a system based on fear, authority, and domination cannot be expected to model human rights for anyone – let alone others who speak a different language, practice a different religion, and have very different cultural mores and practices. 
[Again, the irony of today’s situation is palpable: if we really supported the rights of women in Afghan society, we would have supported the efforts of the Soviet Union in the late 1970s in their attempts to quell the rising fundamentalism in Afghan society. It was the Soviets who elevated the roles of women within that culture while those who militantly opposed such an effort were the mujahedeen funded in secret by the CIA.]
I have no illusions as I march in these streets that President Obama will listen to us. He has already weighed his political options and doesn’t want to appear to be “soft” on defense against terrorism. He has decided to double-down on the use of un-manned aerial vehicles, drones with the names of Predator and Reaper, machines which rain destruction from on high, so fewer American troops come home in body-bags. His policy has made all Afghan and Pakistani males between the ages of 15 and 45 as “militants” for whom he has granted himself the right to “kill-on-sight”. When they are killed by Apache helicopters, bombers, or drones, they are no longer classified as “collateral damage” – civilians killed by accident in a war-zone – because they have already been re-defined by the Pentagon as combatants because of their gender and age.
But I can personally assure you that although they fall within that gender/age range, my new friends Abdulai, Ali, Amer Shah, Basir, Ghulmai, Mohammed Jan, Asif, and others should not be targets of our weapons but fellow collaborators for peace and justice. Sharbanoo, Zahra, Lena, and other Afghan women I met are not looking for continued American occupation of their country in the name of their rights but also want that occupation to end NOW.
I wrote to my friends in Afghanistan and asked them what they would like to say to you today. Here is what the Afghan Peace Volunteers sent me:
Statement for October 7, 2012 in protest of the 11th year of the U.S./ NATO war in Afghanistan- from Hakim and the Afghan Peace Volunteers.
After 11 years of the U.S./NATO war in Afghanistan, and the three decades of war before that, we are very tired of the killings.

This war cannot stop the war. This human method of war doesn’t work.

Afghans have a saying that ‘blood cannot wash away blood’ and we’ve witnessed and experienced its truth, daily. The U.S. has lost 2 thousand of their soldiers. Afghans have lost at least 2 million loved ones over the past four decades of war.

Stop. Stop the killings. Stop the mutual bloodshed. Stop spending two billion US dollars a week just on killing. Stop the drones. Stop the use of depleted uranium. Stop.

Ordinary Afghans don’t need more weapons or more war. We need food, water, shelter and clothing. We need education, health care and decent livelihoods for all.

We also need friends. We wish to remember the 2 million Afghan victims of war by finding 2 million friends for peace in Afghanistan. The Afghan Peace Volunteers ask for a ceasefire from all warring groups. We want peace, the peace which is the color, soul and jewel of life, without which we live bearing fears and worries, and without which life has little meaning. In 2010, we the Afghan Peace Volunteers inscribed our beliefs and hopes on a plaque that sits at the entrance of Bamiyan Peace Park in the centre of Afghanistan, “Why not love? Why not bring peace? Even a little of our love is stronger than the wars of the world.”

Even though most of our politicians running for office [with the notable exception of Minnesota’s own Keith Ellison and candidates running under the banner of the Green Party or other small independent tickets] won’t even mention Afghanistan in their campaign events (other than to praise “our troops” as “heroes”) , it is important that we send a message by being on the streets. We can send a message to the Afghan Peace Volunteers that there are Americans standing in solidarity with them. We can send a message to the United Nations and other international bodies that there are some Americans who really want substantive “hope and change” – not just as political rhetoric but as a tangible redirection of our nation and its policy. And we can send a message to our fellow citizens who find themselves wearing a military uniform: we call on you to refuse to deploy to a nation where our Occupation is both unwise and illegal.
I’ll be marching with both sadness and anger – but also with intent to engage my fellow Minnesotans in conversation urging both truth-telling and a new direction for our foreign policy. I'd rather carry a candle to shed some light and hope rather than just curse the darkness of our present policies. Silence isn’t an option.