Reminding students to be mindful in a time of war
It was 2007 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to have no end date. Out of a growing concern for both the United States and Iraqi and Afghan civilians, the Brandeis chaplains felt something had to be done to focus Brandeis’ attention to the issue of peace. They decided to begin a weekly nonsectarian peace vigil. That January, Protestant chaplain Alexander Levering Kern, Catholic chaplain the Rev. Walter Cuenin, Muslim chaplain Imam Talal Eid and then-Jewish chaplain Rabbi Allan Lehmann gathered on a Friday to rededicate their time to peace.
Now into its fifth year, the weekly peace vigil has taken on a special role within the interfaith community. Beginning at 12:10 p.m. every Friday, the peace vigil starts with a moment of silence and is followed by a brief discussion between students and staff. It then closes with a song for peace, the lyrics of which are simple: “peace, salaam, shalom.”
“It really became a vehicle—beyond just being mindful of the war in Iraq—to be mindful of all the issues in our society that keep us from being at peace,” Cuenin explained.
Indeed, although the peace vigil began in response to war, it deals with a number of interconnected issues. The topics discussed at each vigil range from racism to homophobia to environmental concerns. As Liz Stoker ’13, a regular attendee of the vigil, points out, the vigil takes into account sources of violence other than war. Throughout her attendance of the vigil, discussion topics have also included prejudice, poverty and institutionalized oppression.
This semester the Brandeis chaplains implemented a new element to the peace vigil in which they invite different clubs, academic departments and classes to co-facilitate themed vigils. Throughout the past months, the peace vigil has given representatives from Occupy Boston, Hunger and Homelessness, the Queer Resource Center (QRC) and the Muslim Student Association a chance to present their work to like-minded students.
Each group represents the notion that peace is not solely an antonym for war. The term “peace” can also answer the challenges facing American society, such as poverty, homophobia and racism. As Kern pointed out, both Hunger and Homelessness and the QRC help contribute to social change in a non-violent manner. This type of endeavor for social justice is in itself a step toward peace.
Upcoming cosponsors of the weekly peace vigil this semester will include the Sociology of Empowerment class, Kindness Week representatives and the QRC again in honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance. Next semester, Kern hopes to have a Haiti Earthquake remembrance vigil, an Earth Day vigil and a Black History Month vigil.
“What may seem like a potpourri of peaceful offerings is in fact a very mindful, coherent set of opportunities to remember, to reflect and to rededicate ourselves to taking action,” Kern said.
While the number of participants varies greatly from week to week, the chaplains have found that having these clubs cosponsor the vigils greatly improves levels of attendance. Even so, whether there are three students present or 30, the chaplains still feel their mission is being upheld. Students walking by the bright sign, which reads “Peace Vigil; Mindful in a Time of War,” will still be reminded of issues of peace and justice.
“If it’s negative-20 degrees and there are only three of us out there, it’s still important to be there, to be present, to bear witness to the suffering and injustice in the world,” Kern explained.
The peace vigil has also proven useful during times of crises. For example, the peace vigil was utilized as a community gathering following a student’s suicide last semester. It was also used as a space of reflection following the terrorist attacks in Mumbai a few years ago and after the vandalism of the Muslim prayer room. A special peace vigil at Chapels Pond was held on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The Brandeis chaplains and participants of the weekly vigil experience a strong sense of spirituality and inspiration on a weekly basis. There are also certain moments, however, that stand out as especially powerful and inspiring.
“One vigil dealt with the treatment of Muslims who openly practice their faith,” Stoker said. “It really brought my attention to the struggles that some people face for exercising their right to practice their faith. I feel much closer to our campus Muslim community after hearing about the challenges that they deal with.”
Meanwhile, Cuenin was particularly impressed by the capabilities of the peace vigil preceding Michael Oren’s visit to Brandeis two years ago. The decision to have Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, speak at the 2010 commencement had sparked a great deal of debate among the Brandeis community. This debate gave Cuenin and the other attendees at the peace vigil a context in which to discuss the issue of Israel and Palestine from a peaceful perspective. Cuenin could not help but admire the respectful and comfortable way students discussed this usually heated topic.
Brandeis has long remained committed to social justice. The peace vigil offers students opportunities to stand back and explore the connection between peace and social justice. In just 20 minutes, Brandeis students are given the chance to discuss a variety of challenges facing American society. The fact that the United States is now approaching its 11th year at war is just one of the many topics that students can absorb.
In Kern’s words, “The peace vigil provides a wonderful and all too necessary opportunity to pause in the midst of our harried and hurried lives to center, reflect and rediscover the source of peace within ourselves.”
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