‘Peace on Earth’ is a sentiment often voiced around this time of year. There are some people who find it a vital enough message to say it every Saturday afternoon of the year on the Chatham Village Green.
“Susan Davies and Marcie Gardner started the vigil in October 2001,” said Bob Elmendorf, retired Director of the Big Brother-Big Sister Program at the Clinton County (NY) Youth Bureau. He went the second week and hasn’t stopped. “After the vigils, we would retire to the pub and after a few sessions we had the first meeting of the Chatham Peace Initiative which lasted around six years. It advocated for peace and justice issues, held a score of events, brought in nationally known anti-war speakers and was most known for its support of Ansar Mahmood.”
Elmendorf adds, “I vigil because I am a Quaker and am against war or violence in any form for any reason. The current vigil is under the aegis of Chatham Neighbors for Peace, a branch of Upper Hudson Peace Action.”
Wendy Dwyer has also been involved since the beginning. “This was my response to 9/11 as I knew they would use it as a call to war; there must be wars to make money selling weapons.” Dwyer is a nurse at St. Peter’s Hospital. “Unfortunately I am not at the vigil since last February; I am working every weekend. I miss it very much, we become good friends. I do every Friday now at John Faso’s office. I am off on Fridays.”
Dwyer is an activist’s activist, from installing 33 solar panels at her home to driving an electric car to traveling to five states for Bernie, as well as running his Hudson office up to the primary, to being involved with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) Albany. “I volunteer helping refugees; we cause refugees with our wars. Peace and justice work is critical to my coping with the insanity and terror in our world as we destroy this beautiful planet and each other. I’m just trying to figure out what I can do to do my part.”
Sylvain Nagler, who teaches at SUNY Empire State College, has been participating in the Chatham Peace Vigil for over ten years. “We routinely gather at noon, vigil for an hour and then most of us go for lunch together to chat some more, and that one hour (plus the lunch) is a true gift. I look forward to joining my fellow vigillers, even when the weather is nasty.”
Nagler remembers taking his young children to Washington in the sixties for anti-war and civil rights demonstrations. It was there that he met a woman in her 70’s who struck a chord when she told him, “I need to make my presence felt.”
“I have few illusions that our presence once a week for an hour has changed many people’s minds or hearts,” said Nagler. “But what I do lets me keep my heart.”
Dan Wilcox, a retired government employee, a poet and photographer, represents Veterans for Peace on the green. According to their website, Veterans For Peace was founded in 1985 by 10 U.S. veterans in response to the global nuclear arms race and U.S. military interventions in Central America. The organization rapidly grew to more than 8,000 members in the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the their mission statement: We are dedicated to building a culture of peace, exposing the true costs of war, and healing the wounds of war.
Wilcox became a member in 1987, “I had been anti-war in college, anti-war while in the Army, and anti-war after I was discharged; VFP was the perfect organization for me. I’d known Bob Elmendorf and Wendy Dwyer through Peace Action, and once I started coming to Chatham I enjoyed the company and the expanding circle of friends.”
Wilcox participates in regular peace vigils in Delmar and Albany as well, and he’s also involved in the busy Albany poetry scene. “I claim to have the world’s largest collection of photos of unknown poets,” he remarked.
Bernadette Powis, a retired psychiatric nurse practitioner, is a relative newcomer to the group. She and husband Bill Mancini, a CPA, joined in about two years ago after meeting Wendy Dwyer during the Bernie campaign. “Advocating for peace is the most important action I can take at this moment in history. As I stand holding my peace sign, I’m a witness and my sign is a visible statement of my opposition to war. Wars are being fought all over the world in our name.”
Powis also tends to bring fun wherever she goes. “Another reason I love to stand on that roadside is the joy and encouragement from the people who drive by; they wave, honk, give us the peace sign and smile. And then there are the wonderful folks I’ve met and now call friends who have been holding the Peace Vigil for years and years. Their clarity of purpose, determination and optimism keep me inspired and hopeful.”
Added Mancini, “I have seen what a distressing impact war and violence have had on people. Not just through history books or news stories, but in my family and personal relationships. I know war veterans who returned home as very different people from when they left. They suffered both physical and emotional trauma that never healed, injuries that altered their lives. It is for them and for all victims, past, present and future, that I stand on that corner on Saturday.”
Singer/songwriter Sheri Bauer-Mayorga has recently joined in on the green. “I strongly feel that the use of violence results in more violence. I honor the commandment of the heart which states that killing is wrong.”
She goes on, “I also stand there to support the presence of Veterans for Peace; those who return from their time in the military with the experienced understanding that war is hell, killing is wrong, and training as a killer is damaging.
“I stand on the green because the fact that the USA is currently bombing people in seven countries is not known to most Americans.” She participates in demonstrations at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, protesting the drone missions operated out of Hancock.
“I stand on the green in hope that 51% of the USA’s budget which funds war will be redirected to education, healthcare, infrastructure, assisting the poor, the elderly, and the most vulnerable in our country.”
In the words of A.J. Muste (1885-1967), a Dutch-born political activist, quoted by Dwyer, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”
This article originally appeared in The Chatham Press January 2018 issue.