Remarks for Sullivan Ballou Award. March 13, 2016 by Steve Clemens
Last evening my friend Dan asked me if I was supposed to give a speech today at this award event. I told him, “I hope not.” But in thinking about it this morning, I figured, why not?
I must say first of all that Judges usually send me off to jail – they have never offered me money for my activities! Sullivan Ballou calls us to “act from the heart” and the award is meant to recognize acts of compassion.
The word compassion has been defined by others as “to suffer with”. 38 years ago, as Christine and I were planning our wedding, we decided to chose “Clemens” as our common last name primarily because one of it’s Latin roots means “compassionate” and we thought it as a goal to strive for. She’s been my partner and co-conspirator in this work ever since.
The best route to a life of compassion, I’ve found, is exposure to the lives and stories of “the other”.
In my years at a high school boarding school for boys it was rooming with Sun Bin Lee, my Asian-American roommate and playing sports with Bob Seebacher, one of the few Jewish students at this Christian Prep school. In college it was rooming with Ron Potter, the de facto leader of the black students on campus and our Latino friend Aric Carillio. Learning from their stories and experiences.
It led me to volunteer work with street gangs in Philadelphia and later to work in a poor black community in the Mississippi Delta region. In Washington, DC I heard stories told by Don Luce of the Tiger Cages for political prisoners in Vietnam and by Mennonite Central Committee worker Max Ediger about the plight of the Montenyaard peoples in the highlands of Vietnam who were bearing the brunt of napalm attacks from the US as well as attacks from all sides in that Vietnamese civil war.
I heard stories from Central American refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala as I helped transport them (against US law) from the Texas/Mexican border to Georgia and then to Canada where they were granted asylum.
I visited Bob Redd on Georgia’s Death Row for 10 years; Christine and my young sons joining me for the visits for the last several years before he died in 1989. I’ve met other prisoners as their equals in many jails and prisons as a fellow prisoner over the years. Each had a story to tell to help crack open the hardness of my heart.
Following the invitation from Kathy Kelly to be part of the Iraq Peace Team in Baghdad in December 2002, I joined the group to remain in solidarity with the Iraqi people to face the bombs from my own nation with them. I met some of those victimized by our previous war in 1991 who were now suffering from cancers purportedly caused by exposure to depleted uranium used by US troops.
I was fortunate to travel to Afghanistan to plant trees for peace on the Afghan New Year in March five years ago. There I met courageous young peacemakers – many who had lost a parent, sibling, cousin or friend to the violence of the Taliban or US drone strikes. We continue to have conversations with each other over Skype and FaceBook connections.
Lately my Native American brothers and sisters have helped me expand my horizon for compassion to the land, the rivers and lakes, and all its creatures. They call me to listen to the rocks, listen to the waters, listen to the animals and embrace the Spirit within.
My work with IARP seeking reconciliation will continue – though not as a Board Member. I’m grateful for the work of this organization as well as my friends in the Muslim Peacemaker Team in Iraq for finding ways to hear one another’s stories and continue to work for healing, peace, and reparations.
Through all of this, compassion does not come naturally to me – often it is the prodding and pushing of Christine , my sons, other friends, and fellow activists that has proceeded my acting. So, on behalf of all of them, I accept this award in hopes that all of us, together, can help heal our world.
[The Sullivan Ballou Fund info can be found at: http://www.sullivanballoufund.org/]