I am a peace walker. I walk in peace and I walk for peace. When I heeded the call to “Join us in transforming fears into compassion and apathy into action during Nevada Desert Experience’s annual Sacred Peace walk”, I found a movement that gave feet to my contemplative heart.
In Economy and Society, Max Weber elucidated a fourfold typology of religious orientations. He defined the ascetics, those concerned with social behavior and who are willing to deny themselves for the sake of religious salvation, and the mystics, those who are contemplative and focused on a spiritual relationship with the Divine. According to Weber, both ascetics and mystics can be categorized as either inner-worldly or other-worldly. Inner-worldly ascetics or mystics focus on this world and the now moment, while other-worldly ascetics or mystics emphasize preparation for another realm. When I sat in a Sociology of Religion course in college studying these types, I wondered where I felt most resonance. Was I more this-worldly or other-worldly? An ascetic or a mystic? The radical holy activist, peace and social justice change agent in me cried out “Yes!” to the land of this-worldly ascetism. Still, there was the contemplative inside me- the lectio divina practicing, zikr loving, shamanic journeying mystic. Here I find myself burying my soul in the bosom of other-worldly mysticism.
But the spiritual journey knows no categories or typologies, no bounds or limitations, no walls or divides. It simply happens as we walk with it, be in it, and live into it. In my own journey, the need to define and analyze who and what I am, as well as the whys–why I am and why I do what I do—has propelled me into new states of wonder and awe, as well as into confusion and seeming isolation. These divergent spaces and places of being have yielded unitary states with the Divine, as well as quintessential existential crisis moments. When I began peace walking I felt deep questions pinch and pull at me harder in the still small hours of the night, beckoning me to come closer to the flame to investigate. Those times, early morning, when everyone is sleeping and you are awake on your meditation cushion. Those times, when you desperately want someone to come with you into that garden of both beauty and pain, joy and affliction, peace and chaos, hope and suffering. Those times, when you realize no one can join you there. This is where you, and you alone, come to see the Holy face to face. It is by meeting here, in the heart of God, where I have been reassured that peace is always possible, change is always imminent, love is supreme, and the potentiality of transformation lingers in the air like the scent of jasmine in the night. This is how I have gotten through my spiritual journey, while a candle of hope flickers in my window.
Journey to Peace Walking
My journey into peace walking began when I was interning for the nonprofit nonviolent service Pace e Bene (PeB). Through my years of peace work with them I learned of the Nevada Desert Experience (NDE). One of the main areas of focus of NDE has been a call for an end to the damage and tragedy created by nuclear weapons as well as an emphasis on necessary reparations. I first risked arrest through nonviolent action in September 2009 at the Nevada Test Site (NTS), now known as the Nevada National Security Site NNSS (NNSS). The site, which is 1,360 square miles of desert just north of Las Vegas in Mercury, Nevada, sits on Western Shoshone land. Since 1951, the United States Government has detonated over 1,000 nuclear weapons at there. This beautiful desert is now referred to as the most bombed place on the planet.
Though I had been involved in peace work for years, when I crossed the line at the NTS that September day and broke the law, I felt my humanity in a way I never had. I heard the earth cry out from all the years of trauma experienced. I woke up to the immense suffering and devastation caused by nuclear bombs.
The experience rattled my cage and I fell into grief afterwards. I had never even thought about nuclear weapons. Being a child of the 1970s, there was never a time when they did not exist in my worldview. The feelings of shame and shock at the reality of imminent violence and danger we are all living with and under on a daily basis struck me down. The early morning moments of solitude, quietude, and feelings of aloneness and all-one-ness ensued. I wrestled with the important questions of who and what I am, as well as why I would be called to practice what Gandhi named satyagraha, “truth or soul force.”
The reality was, I did not ask for this way of life. I did not grow up believing in nonviolence nor did I spend much time thinking about it. Feelings of anger percolated to the surface and I felt like a car in park with someone stepping on the gas pedal. Some people believe that those on the peace path experience a nonviolent moment. This is what professor emeritus and peace activist Michael Nagler describes as “a flash of spiritual light momentarily rending the darkness of the prevailing image of ourselves as a separate, competitive, neo-Darwinian animal.”
It as though you are within the eye of the storm and all is still. This is a moment which defines you; where you see, taste, hear, and feel what you are made of and if you really believe in this thing called nonviolence. I had been graced with enough of these nonviolent moments before, but this one really sunk its teeth into me. I had no idea how I would be changed, nor did I have any conception about how my friends and family would also be changed. My stance of so-called defiance through the act of nonviolent direct action and arrest became scary for some people and very confusing for others. I received many questions from people like, “Do you think going out there and getting arrested matters?” as well as “Why would you do something like this, do you think it changes anything?” Slowly, I emerged from this place of deep inquiry feeling healed and renewed. I heard a deep resounding “Yes and yes and yes again, of course it matters!” and felt resolute. It was on, something was coming. It came as no surprise to me then, that when I learned of NDE’s annual Sacred Peace Walk, my heart quickened and I knew I would one day say yes to this pilgrimage in the desert.
Every year, during what is Holy Week for Christians, Nevada Desert Experience’s Sacred Peace Walk begins on the Las Vegas Strip. Amongst the casinos and cacophony of overwhelming sights and sounds, the tourist-lined streets and the dinging bells of faraway slot machines, the peace walkers begin the journey that eventually winds onto the highway for a 65 mile pilgrimage to the Nevada Test Site in Mercury.
People from all over the world come to experience this peace walk, and for one week we live together in community. We walk, share, sing, pray, eat, and hope together. We come for a truly interfaith and interspiritual experience, sharing with each other over a Passover Seder, an earth-based ritual led by Priestess Candace Ross at the Temple of Goddess Spirituality, a Sunrise Ceremony with spiritual person and elder of the Western Shoshone Nation Johnnie Bobb, and a reenactment of the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. At night we camp on the side of the highway, and after building a fire, we tell stories, sing songs, drum, and laugh. It is as though we can feel the ancestors smile in approval as we go back to the old ways of how things used to be. Looking up at the stars out there in the desert, it is as though grandfather sky twinkles diamonds back down at you. This is when you begin to return to the womb of mother earth. It is also when you begin to feel her suffering, and it is in the morning when you hear her heartbeat, not sure if it is the drum or in your imagination.
April 2014 marked my fourth Sacred Peace Walk and I had the honor of being chaplain. I did not know what would happen, how far inward I would go. Some years are easier than others. Some walks I have been so tired physically, emotionally, and spiritually that I have chosen to walk alone rather than have to talk to my fellow peace walkers on the highway. Interesting things happen on the road as you walk with it. I have always believed the desert to act as a drawing salve; it brings to the surface all that needs to come out, be it “good” or “bad.” I have seen people, including myself, go through significant transformations on the Sacred Peace Walk. Sometimes there have been intense conflicts between walkers (ironic for a peace walk). Still other times the feeling of family and closeness is palpable from the very first day as we welcome each other. Mostly, as with life, there is a combination of dynamics that flow through.
When I walk on the highway, I begin to hear the ancestors sing. I see the curves and lines of women’s faces in the mountains, and I pray. I pray to stay close to the Holy, to look for it everywhere and in everyone. I pray to have radical compassion. I pray my weary legs, which feel like a stilted puppetistas, keep moving forward. I pray for people’s hearts to defrost, warming to the possibility of unlimited hope in the world. I pray for the beautiful souls I see walking in front of me and behind me. Their spirits light up the road.
Community of Peace
It was not until the second day in which I felt the shift. On every peace walk I have done, there is a moment of shift. The novelty of walking through the streets of Las Vegas, with all the chaotic, over stimulating energy surrounding is gone. The distractions are gone. The frequent interactions with passersby are gone. Translation: reality sets in. It was also on this second day when I saw him. I had walked into camp with Washington Post reporter Dan Zak after completing 14 miles of walking for the day. As we broke down for the night on the side of the highway, setting up our tents and preparing for dinner, I noticed him crouched down on the ground nervously smoking a cigarette. I introduced myself and as we shook hands he told me his name was David. Two fellow peace walkers had found him walking along Highway 157, pushing his bicycle which had a flat back tire. With all of his possessions on his person, he said he was going all the way up to Portland.
He felt like a wanderer, a drifter, a loner. Anyone in the middle of the desert walking must be. He was observing how we interacted with one another. I wondered what he thought of this traveling peace circus. We must look like a motley crew. After dinner that night, we built a fire and began to tell stories. I watched him, noticing that he never spoke, only looked at the fire. There was a kindness about him I deeply sensed and still I wondered for a moment, is this safe? I mean who is this person we just took in? I felt ashamed for thinking this and yet the thought came back to be aware.
The next day at breakfast I said hello to David, asking him how he slept. He seemed a bit less shy and nervous. We chatted over the morning oatmeal, making small talk. This is how it went for the next few days. Saying brief hellos and offering smiles, wanting him to feel included in the experience. I could sense when we got close to Creech Air Force Base that he was anxious about participating in any kind of vigiling we were doing. I had learned David had been in the military, stationed in Bosnia. He had experienced violence, had seen dead bodies piled upon each other. I wondered how he was being affected by what he was witnessing. When one is around a community of people walking for peace, it is hard to not feel an impact. There is something to being around a group of people who ardently believe in peace. This is not to say it is a perfect setting, because it is not. There are the conflicts and the differing personalities. Many of us have vastly different views on religion or spirituality and even nonviolence. However, there is a deep residing belief within each peace walker which includes hope, transformation, and the willingness to go out into the desert and walk miles in the sun flashing a peace sign at cars zooming by.
It does not really matter if we don’t agree on everything, because there is enough glue that binds us together. I believe this is agape love in action. This is love which is bred out of compassion, out of forgiveness, out of healing, out of searching, out of being hungry for change in this world. David probably had no idea of what he landed into, no clue as to what was going to happen, and neither did I. Just as I have been changed every walk, going in as one person and 65 miles later leaving as another, I saw it happen for David.
I saw calm where there had been nervousness the first night I met him crouched down chain smoking. I saw connection as we joked together in line waiting for food. I saw a shift as he held a Martin Luther King, Jr. sign at the Creech Air Force Base, though vigiling a little bit farther away than the group, but still there. I saw hope in him. I saw and felt hope because of him. He is the reason I do this walk. He is the reason peace work still matters. He is the reason I will keep going. It doesn’t matter what I am, if I am an ascetic or a mystic, this-worldly or other-worldly, all that matters is that I continue to love, to hope, to believe in the potentiality of transformation everywhere, no matter how big or small, be it for an individual or a group or the world.
We have no idea who we affect in this life. No idea how our actions can help someone. As Catholic Worker friend Mark and I pulled out onto the highway from Cactus Springs Goddess Temple heading back to Las Vegas, the walk now complete, I looked and saw our friend that we picked up on the second day, a man walking with his bike, a flat back tire. I almost said something to Mark, but then decided against it. Instead I just stopped, said a prayer for David, and smiled.
Nesbitt, Paula. “Religious Orientation: Max Weber.” Class Lecture, Sociology of Religion from University of California, Berkeley, February 4, 2008.
Andreas Knudsen, “Native Americans Bear the Nuclear Burden,” Repulic of Lakotah, April 20, 2010, http://www.republicoflakotah.com/tag/newe-sogobia/.
Michael Nagler, The Search for a Nonviolent Future: A Promise of Peace for Ourselves, Our Families, and Our World. (Makawao: Inner Ocean, 2004), 73.