There are unhoused on the green. A tent near a church with two occupants awaken; we spy each other through the screen tent window. “We’ll be leaving soon,” she calls. “Good morning.” I reply. “You are free to join us.” I wonder what impact, whether good or ill, we will have on their day. The unhoused sleep on benches some rousing as I walk by. I am uncomfortable. I don’t want to see them and yet I want to see them and I want them to be seen, and I want to welcome them as part of our family, even as I wonder how that will work out, and I know that this is their space too. I greet them, each one, with a “Good morning.” and “Please join us.” And I mean it.
Angela Arpino, our logistics coordinator, with cell phone and clip board in hand, directs the trucks from Barrett Outdoor. See, there is my son Robbie at the wheel, and TJ at the other, now stopping and unloading a sandwich board sign, then tents with sandbags, and various gear, soon moving ahead to each appointed station. See the growing volunteers popping up the tents, ferrying tables across the green, forming story circles of chairs, picking up trash, running extension cords, clearing parking areas, as yet more volunteers arrive.
Art Director Russ Rainbolt mixes paint as helpers unfold the 48-foot-long canvas ready for hopeful volunteer painters. Imam Hasan hoists a tent as more volunteers surge into fun. Soon appear the Jerusalem Peacebuilders: able youth lending their hands, while three bus drivers arrive meeting Angela, action ready, giving instruction, where to park, where to drive, exchanging phone numbers, gathering yet more volunteers, buses soon escorting them to a Jewish Cemetery, the Save The Sound beach clean, and the Habitat for Humanity build. The porta potties arrive, and as I direct the driver to their spot, David Franklin brings coffee and donuts for everyone, and the volunteers feast. Now bustling with smiles of intention Rachel Merva with Pastor Roy, a team trailer filled with blessing bag gifts collected by twenty-five faith communities, bursting with tooth paste, combs, soap, socks, water, and more as chaos aligns with love toward order with nervous expectation. Will we be ready in time and will the faithful arrive and will we have enough volunteers to get the jobs done?
Enter three hundred plus fresh volunteers arriving hour by hour filling the moments, joining the workshops, registering, laughing, crying… wonderful heartfelt interfaith service. Chaos no more. Calm descends as volunteers choose and focus on their tasks. Soft light caresses those lying on the 48 foot canvas painting the peace mural of hope.
Boisterous is the Blessing Bag tent, with shifts rotating volunteers each hour, twenty at a time, hour by hour, asking questions from the Story Wheel of Questions brought by Columbus House, learning about the unhoused they will serve, forming lines on either side of a twenty-foot table, with joyful abandon stuffing the blessing bags with power bars, water, combs, socks and other items for the unhoused. And the unhoused are here as well. Some help, others sit and wonder. This gives me pause.
Earlier that week I visited a drop-in center and handed out flyers, chatting with my brothers who lacked housing, inviting them to our event. The unhoused attending today seem both part of us and yet separate. One man, resembling, I fancy, the great American champion Frederick Douglas, shares his handsome features, dark skin, beard, and hair. He presents as a kindly gentle man who may have drunk too much, moving about, harming no one, not quite interacting as just experiencing the moment. He is lying on his back listening to the music. Sitting up, seeming for a moment confused or agitated, an imam joins him, sits by his side, puts his arm around his shoulder in brotherly affection, and calms him. I am a grateful witness to this moment.
Christians, Jews, Muslim, Baha'i and others, distinct by dress, skin color, religions, and language, unite with smiles, hope, mercy, and common purpose. They cheer themselves on, making a wave and clapping as they complete each batch of one hundred twenty-five blessing bags. By the day’s end five different teams filled 875 bags with over $12,000 of goods for the unhoused. The saying is true “We do not need to agree on everything to work together for justice and peace.” The jazz fusion of the Afro Semitic Experience plays as buses return with exuberance from the cemetery, the beach, and the Habitat for Humanity build. In the distance rings hammer against iron, bending guns into jewelry, tools of violence transformed into symbols of love and beauty.
At lunchtime, I invite one guest from each service project to share their experience. From Swords to Plowshares, a woman speaks about her grandchild murdered by gun violence. Holding a necklace she made, she says “This gun barrel is now a heart, the bullet inside is like the one that killed my grandson. And to make something beautiful out of something horrible means so much to me…”.
Another boasts about the cemetery experience led by Paul Terman of the Jewish Hebrew Free Burial and Loan Association New Haven. Another shares how powerful was the Crypt Tour, another about Save the Sound and the volumes of trash they removed from the beach, and another and another and another, each sharing their joy and concern.
Stop Solitary CT had a crowd of fifteen to twenty at each of several sessions, leaning in, hearing for the first time the deplorable conditions inside our state “correctional” institutions. I stay for an entire session, and I am convinced more than ever that our system of incarceration, and specifically the strip search, is ruining lives by sexually traumatizing people already damaged and desperately in need of services. All our faith traditions demand we treat prisoners with dignity, working to heal their already broken selves. And what we demand from our prison guards is deplorable, forcing them to abuse prisoners, to strip them, film them naked while searching their sexual organs, harms everyone involved. This is a grotesque system that must be stopped. No guard should be asked to treat people the way our guards are taught to treat our prisoners, and no prisoner should be treated the way we do in Connecticut. We must demand another way. There is more to this story, and I hope everyone takes time to educate themselves about how to recreate our prison system.
The Jerusalem Peacebuilders gather in quiet intensity: “Sacred Conversations,” unfolding stories in the gentle summer breeze, three sharing circles, ten to fifteen to a circle, some larger, some smaller, leaning forward in their chairs with, hijabs, yarmulke and crosses, listening and inquiring about the Israeli Palestinian conflict as experienced by a few youth living there and working for peace and justice. I want to join them, but seeing that Jack Karn and the JPB kids are doing just fine, I leave them to their work. Later, I receive feedback such as “The Sacred Conversation with the Israeli and Palestinian youth moved as well as taught me. I wish we'd had more than an hour,” and this wonderful article by Allan Appel in the New Haven Independent captures I think the Jerusalem Peacefulness with great aplomb. Each circle was different. One Imam said to me “I was filled with tears,” and another guest “These kids give me hope.” Visit JerusalemPeacebuilders.Org to learn more.
The hours pass lightly as volunteers move from one forum of service to another. The band plays; food is served, and the unhoused join us. System errors and failings came and go, problems are solved, but abiding by our slogan that “We will not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good,” we meet our organizational errors with good humor and will do our best to improve things for next year. My daughter Sarah fills gaps in our planning, bringing water to the cemetery workers. Sarah Bromley, bless you, fills in where volunteers were needed, leading the group making 100 roast beef, turkey, and PB&Js for the unhoused. Many enjoyed the crypt tour at Center Church, while others prepared dinner at the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen. Everyone deserves thanks for this good day. I wish Channel Twelve News or Channel Eight News, or the New Haven Register had captured our story. I wish I had called them one more time. I am grateful to WPKN's Scott Harris and Allan Appel of the New Haven Independent for responding to our calls and emails. Special thanks to IWagePeace board member Carol Perry Macholl, who worked behind the scenes organizing everything from this newsletter, our website, our filing systems, keeping endless lists and organizational systems allowing the day to flow from start to finish. Thanks to my wife, Therese, who volunteered at the registration desk with Amy Lloyd and Lady Z Hassan and my daughter Sarah too.
Thank you, each faith partner and service provider, for risking your time and good name on this audacious effort toward faith in action united against bigotry, united against antisemitism, united against islamophobia, united against white supremacy, and united against poverty and abuse of power, by Waging Peace with Justice. God made us a diverse and wonderful people. Thank you to our financial sponsors: The Episcopal Church in Connecticut, Center Church on the Green, Jerusalem Peacebuilders, and Barrett Outdoor Communications Inc. The day was gorgeous not because of the sunshine but because of the love, compassion and mercy you helped bring into that light.
We are all in this together.
We do not need to agree on everything to work together for justice and peace.
We will not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
Humor doth the heart like good medicine.
Thank you for responding to our post event survey. I read every comment and constructive input. 78% of you gave us a 5/5 rating as having an excellent experience, and 21% of you gave us a 4/5. 82% of you said you would absolutely attend next year, and another 10% said you would most likely attend next year. God willing, next year will again bring us a stunningly beautiful day.
Thank you for waging peace,
Bruce A. Barrett