The NOW Generation of Peacemakers

The NOW Generation of Peacemakers

I spent last evening with 15 long-time community activists and peacemakers. Men and women from right here in Lancaster County who have been involved for years in a variety of causes, from environmental issues to global peacemaking to matters of social justice. All are in the “second half of life” and have already had long careers as lawyers, teachers, healthcare workers, business people, and other professions.

They are all part of a very active book club that has been meeting for several years, reading books about and discussing a wide range of contemporary issues. They had all read Grace Goes to Prison for this month’s book selection, and they invited me to come and speak about Marie Hamilton’s work in the prisons and current issues in the criminal justice system.

After a lovely communal meal, we sat in a large circle, and our dialogue began. They started with questions ranging from “How did you meet Marie?” to “What do you think made her so successful in effecting change in the prison system?” to “What do you see as the most urgent priorities in the criminal justice system today?” to my favorite question-to-beat-all-questions: “What can we do?”

So I offered up a few ideas and they did too. We had a long, intense discussion about problems of many kinds in our prisons.

We talked about the harsh realities of what happens when people return to the community after prison.

We talked about the heartbreaking impact of incarceration on children and families of prisoners.

And we talked about many possible ways to effect change – at the local, state and national levels.

As we talked, I couldn’t help drawing parallels between this group and the group of BVSers I’d met the day before.

Though the ideals of the men and women I met last night were forged in the fires of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, they have held onto their firm belief in the power and necessity of speaking out and taking action against injustice. Life and long experience have not dimmed their hopes or made them cynical. They have resources to draw on, and the hard-earned wisdom to use those resources for maximum benefit.

Some of them are already involved in supporting a family whose loved one is in prison. But they want to do more. So, we talked about lots of other specific, tangible things they can do, and they started formulating plans – to meet with their legislators, to share the information I’d provided, and to engage others.

As our conversation wound down, one man recited a beautiful and thought-provoking poem that he said he’s used to guide him throughout his long life. The poem is titled “The Ambulance in the Valley.” It tells the story of a community in conflict over how to address a pressing issue: their town was built on the edge of a cliff, and people kept falling over the edge and plunging to the valley floor below. What can we do? the people in the poem asked.

Some said “Put a fence ‘round the edge of the cliff,”

Some, “An ambulance down in the valley.”

In the end, the people decided to place an ambulance down in the valley, instead of building a fence “round the edge of the cliff.” The ambulance becomes busier and busier as more and more people slip over the edge of the cliff. After a while, someone speaks up and suggests that they reconsider the idea of building a fence, saying,

You had much better aim at prevention,

For the mischief, of course, should be stopped at its source

But the townspeople reject his idea and feel threatened that he wants to end all their “earnest endeavor.” They say that the ambulance is working just fine, so why build a fence? And they continue racing around with their ambulance down in the valley, “picking up all, just as fast as they fall.”

Finally, the poem goes on,

A sensible few, who are practical too,
Will not bear with such nonsense much longer;
They believe that prevention is better than cure,
And their party will soon be much stronger.

Encourage them then, with your purse, voice and pen,
And while other philanthropists dally,
They will scorn all pretense and put up a stout fence
On the cliff that hangs over the valley.

At this point in the recitation of the poem, we were all nodding enthusiastically. “Yes! Yes!” But the best part was yet to come.

Better guide well the young, than reclaim them when old,
For the voice of true wisdom is calling,
“To rescue the fallen is good, but ‘tis best
To prevent other people from falling.”

Better close up the source of temptation and crime
Than deliver from dungeon or galley
Better put a strong fence ‘round the top of the cliff
Than an ambulance down in the valley.

When he finished reciting the poem, a few of us said a spontaneous “Amen!” Some of us wiped away tears. Then one of the women suggested that, before adjourning, we should sing “We Shall Overcome.”

So we did.

And as I said goodbye to these men and women and drove away, I felt once again that deep stirring.

Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe . . .

When I got home, I looked up the poem The Ambulance in the Valley. It was written in 1895 by a British temperance activist named Joseph Malins (1844-1926). Its message is just as essential and relevant today as it was over 100 years ago.

And in case you’re in need of a little healing dose of hope, here’s a 1969 video clip of an earnest, young, beautiful Joan Baez singing “We Shall Overcome” at Woodstock with the huge audience singing along.

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: city life lancaster pa grace goes to prison restorative justice peace criminal justice healing communities

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