What is peace? Is it merely the absence of war? Or, like Switzerland and Costa Rica, the refusal to use aggression as national policy? Is it micro or macro; harmony in the family or tranquility in our nation’s inner streets? Is it a noun or a verb? Something one has, like a bank account or a house, or is it something one does, a way of life?
I asked several young students at City College recently what the word “peace” meant to them. Lisa Simmons thought that peace was an unattainable goal which can never be attained, like job security, “its something you want, but know, deep down, you will never have,” she said. While Gregg Ketchum felt that there can only be peace through weapons and force, “you can only have peace when the strong are on top, whether it’s the cop on the street or a Marine division in Iraq, might makes right – and, as long as our way of life is on top, who cares.” Many students actually imagined that the concept of peace was a viewpoint or system of philosophy stemming from the cultural wars of the 1960’s and that it had little relevance for today’s “age of terrorism.”
For many hundreds of San Diegans who attended a week-end of events surrounding the dedication of San Diego’s new peace campus, called the “Friends Center,” peace is not an intellectual concept or an unobtainable goal, in spite of our militarized society and its war economy. Over the week-end of activities there were over a hundred young families, their children in tow, yearning for a nonviolent culture where acculturation is not about military quotas or money for missiles but providing food, shelter and opportunity for everyone – a society which imparts moral authority and ethical integrity to its young. Also there were many aging hippies there, with their withered beards and long white hair, secular humanists, aficionados of John Lennon, humming, after all these years, “all we are saying, is give peace a chance.”
But the bulk of attendees at the opening of the campus were members of the historic peace faiths, Quakers and members of the Brethren Church, who’s rich tradition of non-violence and peace testimony stretching back hundreds of years has been a model for historic figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the tens of thousands of gentle souls who were hanged, burned alive, shot and died in prison rather than harm their fellow human beings. Unpretentious Christians who simply believe that when Jesus said, “thou shall not kill,” he was probably talking about foreigners as well as one’s neighbor, in spite of nationalist propaganda and xenophobic intolerance from pandering politicians and corporate media, who make a “killing” in the war economy.
Peace: In Our Neighborhoods, on the Border and In Our Hearts
The San Diego Friends Center is the culmination of a decade long vision between the San Diego Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the First Brethren Church of San Diego and two local social justice organizations, the San Diego Peace Resource Center and the American Friends Service Committee’s Border Project.
Located in the Azuela Park area of City Heights, perched on a hill overlooking the 15 Freeway, the campus dedicated to peace and social justice, as well as environmental sustainability, was envisioned by Vernon Mitchell, then pastor of the Brethren Church. As the new millennium approached, the San Diego Quakers were looking to build a new “Meeting House,” while the San Diego Peace Resource Center was being temporarily housed in trailer after being moved from its San Diego State University campus location due to a new trolley station and the American Friends Service Committee’s offices were in the line of downtown’s gentrification, Mitchell proposed using the grounds of the Brethren Church where the groups could come together and build an environmentally friendly structure to house not only the anti-war movement in San Diego but a center, both secular and spiritual, where economic justice is encouraged.
The agreement of the four groups was signed in 2001 and the ground breaking was held May 4, 2003, according to Brethren Pastor Sara Haldeman-Scarr who spoke to the several hundred gathered Saturday, March 12 for the opening ceremony. She spoke of the pioneers who, in addition to Pastor Mitchell, helped bring this vision to reality.
There was Carol Jahnkow, my good friend, who for over 30 years spent her entire adult working career as Director of the Peace Resource Center; year in, and year out, everyday, making an every effort for peace and non-violence. Her sacred mission matched her boundless energy. She was an inspiration for both young and old through the bitter wars and many military actions of our military-industrial complex owned government. From Vietnam 1 to Vietnam 2 (Iraq), she has held the banner of peace high – so that we all might not ever lose hope, that we can continue to envision the possibility of non-violence.
My former partner who once sat on the Board of Directors of the Peace Resource Center and was Carol’s boss, now enfeebled with Alzheimer’s and who lives at my house, recently got out of the car in the middle of a busy intersection in Mission Valley. Leon, who has developed “Sundowner’s Syndrome” as well, tried to bite a policeman who was trying to help me get him back into the car. All I had to say was “Leon, what would Carol Jahnkow say about this,” and he stopped immediately. Her influence and moral integrity through her work with the young will live on locally long after all of us who love her have passed on.
Another pioneer in the evolution of the peace campus and also a personal friend was the late Roberto Martinez, former director of the American Friends Committee’s (AFSC) San Diego border project and a proposed Nobel Peace Prize nominee, who played a momentous role in the immigrant rights movement and was the de-facto ambassador for border communities throughout the south-western United States from the late 1970’s until his death in May, 2009. Featured at the March 12 ceremony was an address by his surviving wife Yolanda Martinez.
She spoke of the campus as a legacy to her husband’s social justice work. The AFSC’s mission is to “support the growth and development of immigrant-led organizations, through the development of a network of ‘human rights committees,’ with the goal of bringing the voices and concerns of immigrant communities into policy debates at the local, state and national level.”
Joining the other three crafters of the peace campus was the late David Neptune (no relation) from the San Diego Quaker Meeting. A former university professor, Neptune, who was also a founding member of the San Diego Peace Resource Center and the Coalition for Peace and Justice in San Diego, donated many years and a lot of money to the campus yet didn’t live to see its completion. He died in 2003. However, his son, John Kaizan Neptune, a world renowned musician, gave a concert in honor of his father in the Friends Center courtyard Friday evening before Saturday’s opening. He was joined by the group “East West” with Reiko Obata, Bill Andrews, Russell Bizzett and Kamau Kenyatta.
Quakerism began among rural people in an isolated region of the northwest of England in the 1650’s. Its founder George Fox preached that people in search of spirituality or deeper meaning didn’t need dogma, scriptures, clergy or intermediaries to discover the living “Inner Light” of God; that it is alive and vibrant, “we simply need to listen.” Four over three hundred years Quakers have cherished (and have died for) their powerful testimonies of peace, simplicity, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship – calling themselves the “religious society of friends.” The four groups of the peace campus chose the name “Friends Center” to broaden the concept beyond just spiritual seekers, to all who search for justice and peace in their community.
A Building Which Reflects its Ideals
At the March 12 opening ceremony, there were building tours. In addition the west wing, devoted to the AFSC offices and the east wing rooms of the Peace Resource Center, the center was the round “meeting house” of the Quakers. With no preacher, with each person given the opportunity and space to give their personal testimony, the roundness of the large meeting hall reflects the circular aspect of a “society” without hierarchy.
The building itself is a reflection of environmental consciousness. It was designed by the Earth-friendly architectural firm Hubbell and Hubbell and was built using sustainable materials, including energy-efficient straw bales; the first straw bale building in the city of San Diego. Straw is a waste product which is usually burned, adding chemicals to the atmosphere. The Friends Center’s peace concept extends to Mother Earth, where electricity will come from solar power and water will be recycled. As part of the group’s commitment to environmental sustainability and green construction, regular open houses and seminars “will give individuals and professional builders the opportunity to learn about new earth-friendly systems and techniques,” it was reported at the opening ceremony.
In addition, the grounds surrounding the main building will feature a community garden, with excess produce going to feed San Diego’s homeless, as well as permaculture landscaping – the planting of food-bearing trees and bushes. Composting bins have been installed in the lower garden area by Gardeners4Peace. These green-thumbed volunteers have started loading these bins with trimmings and other green waste for compost production. Compost will be used in the compost garden to be established in this area. A good harvest of fruit, mostly apples and peaches, was produced by the fruit orchards this year. Members of the cooperating groups, as well as local neighbors, enjoyed the fruit during the summer months. Citrus fruit is still developing and will ripen soon.
Children’s agricultural tours and interactive programs will be a regular feature of the peace center, while community groups will be able to use the meeting hall as well as the kitchen.
There is still a need to pave the driveway at a cost of $90,000 before the city will approve a full operating permit, the four peace and social justice groups are beating the bushes for donations from those who seek a fully operational peace campus in San Diego. Donations may be sent to Pam Barrett, Treasurer, San Diego Friends Meeting, 3850 Westgate Place, San Diego 92105.
If you are interested in more details go to www.prcsd.org/friendsCenter/PowerPoint.htm where there is a 24 minute online video of a presentation on the Friends Center building project by Juergen Zierler, the project architect. His talk and slide show lays out the various aspects of the Friends Center and how they manifest sustainable building philosophy and technique.
Better yet, if you feel a need to feel the peaceful quietness of a space dedicated to tranquility and harmony, a Gandhian retreat where activism and spirituality merge, a campus dedicated to peace and social justice, economic equality and environmental sustainability, visit the Friends Center at 3850 Westgate Place.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, so many years ago, that he “was not going to study war any more,” so why are we still doing it? Isn’t it time to begin studying peace….don’t you think?
Rocky Neptun is Director of the San Diego Renters Union and a 15-year member of the San Diego Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).