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A Bridge to Peace (peace article)

October 15, 2016 by admin  
Filed under From Our Members

This article was excerpted from the wonderful book, The Compassionate Rebel Revolution.

A bridge is about oneness, the establishment of oneness—peace. —Sri Chimnoy

Atop the Sri Chimnoy Bridge that joins the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, a lineup of rush hourtraffic is crawling its way homeward. Along the narrow pedestrian paths that border the peace bridge, hand-held signs with antiwar messages pop up and down begging for attention from oncoming motorists.

John and Marie Braun stand at either end of the bridge overlooking the Mississippi River greeting new arrivals, talking about the message, waving their own placards in the gusty, chilly breeze. Marie tightly clutches a gloved hand around a handmade sign with bold black letters on a white poster board that reads:

U.S. Out of Iraq NOW!”

For a moment, Marie’s thoughts rush like the river to another time and place. She remembers herself standing in a crowd, protest sign in hand, in front of the U.S. Interest Section in the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad with eighty-three other Americans, calling for an end to the devastating sanctions on Iraq and the more recent war, which has resulted in nearly total destruction of that country. She holds her sign high, as if trying to send its message around the world.

A confluence of three distinct tributaries—union activism, rural politics and religious values—formed the path for Marie’s life journey. She was a child of the Great Depression, born into a Catholic union family in South St. Paul, Minnesota. Her father worked in the sweet pickle division of Swift and Armour and was an active member of the meat packers union during those “tough times for working people.” Marie’s birth certificate reads “Father’s occupation: Sweet Pickle.”

Marie’s father wanted to be a farmer and when she was a little girl the family moved to a small farm in the Minneapolis suburb of Inver Grove. “I remember gardening and going out on the highway with my dad selling apples,” she says. The family moved several times during Marie’s school years before her father finally bought his own little farm in Randall, Minnesota.

Marie’s dad showed her more than just how to farm. “He was a feisty man, kind and good, and he taught us to respect and care about the underdog and to question and stand up to authority when necessary. He was active in the Farm Bureau during the 1950s and later the Farmers Union. His work in the union movement taught him the need to organize, not an easy task when dealing with farmers accustomed to independent thinking.

“We were pretty traditional Catholics. We prayed the family rosary every day, went to confession every Saturday night, didn’t eat meat on Friday and gave up all kinds of things for Lent. It wasn’t easy for Mom and Dad to raise seven children on a shoestring budget. But we felt secure in the fact that we were good Catholics and belonged to what we were told was the ‘one true church.’ “

My understanding of what it meant to be Catholic began to change when a friend of mine invited me to join a parish-centered Catholic youth group called the Young Christian Workers (YCW). During the 1950s, the Catholic lay movements were gaining prominence in the United States, encouraging members to turn religious values and the social teachings of the Catholic faith into work for peace and justice. One night a week my friend and I drove from New Ulm to Springfield (Minnesota) to participate in a YCW meeting. Our meetings were based on the Observe, Judge and Act technique. You see a problem, you judge it in light of the gospels and social doctrine of the church and you take an action, however small, to try to change the situation.

“Our job was to influence people on issues and the values we espoused. We never left a meeting without an action. As young Christian workers, we were focused primarily on ‘transforming the world of work.’ We talked about the right to a job, to form unions, to earn a living wage and to be treated with respect at work. We were also involved in issues such as race relations, international policy, the importance of family and how to best spend our leisure time to create a better world.”

For Marie, the Christian Workers movement offered a special opportunity to be involved in the issues of her day. After participating in a one-month training program in Chicago, she and a friend organized several YCW groups in the New Ulm Diocese and she later became an organizer in the St. Cloud Diocese. It was there that she met John Braun, who was later to become her husband.

In 1961, two years after moving to St. Cloud, Marie was invited to join the national staff of the YCW in Chicago. She participated in her first nonviolent training program while preparing to join a group going to Selma, Alabama during the civil rights struggle. Her work took on an international dimension when she visited YCW groups in Mexico, England, Brussels and Holland, participated in a three-week youth conference in France, and was in Rome when the international president of YCW became the first layperson to speak to a Vatican Council.

Upon leaving the national staff of the YCW, Marie spent two years with the International Catholic Auxiliaries, a women’s international lay group. “We lived in a large house in Evanston, Illinois, and women from all over the world passed through that house. We prayed and worked together and we shared our stories. That was where I first heard Bishop Dom Helder Camera’s famous statement: ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.’ “

It was there that I began to see the world through the eyes of women from other countries whose people had suffered enormously at the hands of U.S. foreign policy. I came in contact with returning Peace Corps volunteers and papal volunteers, young Americans whose eyes had been opened by their experience, and who came to understand that the work for global peace and justice must begin in our own country, where many of the problems originate.

“I remember one woman in particular, in her early thirties, about my age then, who had been a child in Germany during the rise of the Hitler regime. Hildy was intelligent, artistic, capable, and had a wonderful sense of humor. But one of the main things I remember about her was the shame and guilt that she carried about the passivity of the German people during the Holocaust. ‘How could the German people, her people, have let this happen?’ she asked.

“Some time later, I heard a German theologian speak about the same issue. She said the children of Germany asked their parents, ‘Didn’t you see anything, didn’t you hear anything, didn’t you smell anything?’ And the parents said, ‘No, we did not know.’ But the children knew they knew.

“It was during those years that I first began to look seriously at the issue of war from a moral perspective. I was a child during the Second World War and lived with the fear that my father would be drafted. I was taught that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a good thing because it ended the war. Today, it is hard for me to believe that for years I never questioned that belief and was never encouraged to do so by my church.”

From the beginning of their lives, John and Marie shared much in common. Like Marie, John was born on a farm in rural Minnesota. He also was influenced by his father. He remembers him as “an exceptionally gifted person who always stood up for the underdog. Although he had only an eighth grade education, he seemed capable of doing so many different things. He was active in community affairs and served on the boards of our local bank, school and creamery. He also played several musical instruments, a skill that fostered my interest in music.”

After spending his first seventeen years on the farm, John entered the seminary at St. John’s University and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1958. He served in several parishes and went on to become the religious education director for the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota.

John’s path continued to run parallel to Marie’s. He was a member of the Young Christian Students (YCS), a sister movement to the YCW, during high school and college. “In 1952, I spent two weeks at an interracial facility called Friendship Hours in South Chicago,” he says. “It was a cultural shock for me having previously lived in a totally white Catholic community.”

In 1967, while attending summer school in Detroit, John experienced firsthand the race riots that engulfed the inner city. “I saw fires burning for blocks on end and felt the heat on the windows of the seminary residence where I was living. I saw tanks rolling through the streets and soldiers on army trucks aiming their guns at high-rise apartment buildings. On one occasion, I saw black children defiantly pointing their sticks at the passing trucks. At times, we had to crawl across the recreation hall floor, under the windows, to avoid gunfire. Because the local police and Michigan National Guard were unable to quell the riots, President Lyndon Johnson called in 5,000 federal troops and they closed the city down. It was a traumatic experience for me and helped me realize the seriousness of the racism in our country.”

John’s experience in YCS made him a good fit to become the chaplain of the YCW in the St. Cloud diocese, and he played a large part in its growth. John found his years in the priesthood very fulfilling; however, in the late 1960s he became conflicted about celibacy. After much soul searching he left the priesthood at 43 years of age.

John and Marie’s paths crossed many times over the eleven years between the time they met in 1959 and John’s choice to leave the priesthood. Marie fondly recalls the moment when her relationship with John took on a new dimension. He had come to visit her in Chicago. “He wasn’t wearing his clerical garb; I had never seen him in ‘street clothes’ before. He said he was leaving the priesthood because he wanted to marry. When I asked him if he had someone special in mind, he said, ‘Yes, you.’”

As he began his transition to the secular life, John went on to earn a master’s degree in social work. His first internship was at a tough mental health facility in south Chicago working among very poor people with serious psychiatric problems. “I also remember that the air pollution in the city was so bad on some mornings that when I turned on the windshield wipers black soot ran down the window,” he says. “At that time, the steel mills were still in full operation in the city of Gary, Indiana, adjoining Chicago.”

In the early 1970s the Brauns moved to Minneapolis to be closer to their families. Marie began work on a Masters of Social Work degree at the University of Minnesota, and gave birth to a daughter they named Rebecca. Two years later, John and Marie adopted their son Matthew, who was born in Korea. The Brauns will never forget the arrival date, August 6, because it was on the same day and month in 1945 that the U.S. bombed Hiroshima, and that several decades later the U.N. levied the devastating sanctions on Iraq.

Because their professional lives dovetailed, the Brauns were able, in 1979, to start an outpatient mental health and chemical dependency clinic—The Counseling Clinic in Brooklyn Center. They continued to own and operate this clinic until John retired in 1995. Marie left the clinic two years later.

Upon returning to Minnesota, the Brauns sought ways to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. In the early 1970s, they became involved in Clergy and Laity Concerned About the War in Vietnam, and later Women Against Military Madness (WAMM) and the Honeywell Project, where they protested the Minnesota company’s manufacture of military weapons. They were both arrested several times during the 1980s and served time in separate men’s and women’s jails on two occasions. John remembers being in solitary confinement for two days and, another time, being locked up with six men serving time for DWIs in the former jail library, which afforded him little opportunity to sleep.

“Iraq first came to my attention in 1990 when they invaded Kuwait and our government began talking about war,” says Marie. “Many of us who had lived through the Vietnam War and had experienced the futility and terrible human costs of war were appalled that it might be happening again. Large demonstrations were organized around the United States. In Minneapolis, more than 10,000 people gathered at Northrop Auditorium to urge the administration and congress to find a nonmilitary solution. But our government was determined to go to war, and for forty-three days the allied forces rained down bombs on Iraq, more than were dropped in all of World War Two.

“Within those forty-three days, Iraq went from a highly developed, technically sophisticated and self-reliant country to a damaged nation whose people had to cope with totally new circumstances of life: no electricity, no clean or running water, food and fuel shortages, transportation problems, and for many residents no work, no income and thus, no food. People had to go to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers for their water, their refrigerators and stoves stopped working, sewage piled up in the streets, their toilets would not flush—and before long, their children, the most vulnerable among them, became casualties of the war.

“For most Americans, the Persian Gulf War ended in February of 1991. What many of us didn’t learn until much later is that more than 285,000 of the 593,000 Americans who fought in the Gulf War came home with a variety of ailments that later would become known as Gulf War Syndrome. And for the Iraqi people, the war had only just begun. The new war of sanctions, which did not allow Iraq to import sufficient medicine and food or to repair the infrastructure, continued for thirteen long years. The sanctions killed an Iraqi child every ten minutes—3,000 to 5,000 every month—and resulted in disabilities for many others. According to an article in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1999, the sanctions resulted in more casualties than all of the weapons of mass destruction in the history of the world. Yet there was little outcry from the public because so few people really knew about the sanctions and their impact on the people of Iraq.

“Shortly after my retirement from work in late March of 1998, during a demonstration against the sanctions on Iraq, I ran into a friend of mine, Mike Miles. He told me that Ramsey Clark, former U.S. Attorney General, had put out a call for 100 Americans who were willing to carry medicine and medical supplies into Iraq. I remember turning to my husband and saying, ‘John, I want to go.’ Five weeks later I was in Iraq.”

Marie knew the risk involved in that decision. The U.S. government had forbidden any of its citizens from bringing needed supplies into Iraq. The penalty for breaking the sanctions was a million-dollar fine and up to twelve years in jail. Yet it was a risk she felt compelled to take. Marie traveled with former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Lucius Walker of Pastors for Peace, and seventy-nine others, on an eight-day venture to carry medical supplies into Iraq. “By taking in four million dollars in medicine we were saying, ‘We do not honor these sanctions. They are illegal and a scar on the reputation of the U.S. and the UN’”

Much of Marie’s time in Iraq was spent visiting hospitals and schools, including the University of Baghdad where she was happy to see that as many as half of the students were women. Members of the group also visited the city water department, the food distribution center and hospitals in Basra in southern Iraq, where depleted uranium munitions had been used extensively. Teachers in the elementary schools had none of the basic supplies, and many of the children were thin and malnourished; some had difficulty concentrating because of the lack of a proper diet. But the most profound examples of the sanctions were to be found inside Iraq’s medical facilities.

As Marie walked through the rooms and corridors of Iraq hospitals she was shocked by what she saw. “The hospitals were wards of misery staffed by doctors with no medicine or medical supplies and few medical tools. I saw mothers in hospital wards who held out their children to be photographed in the desperate hope that if Americans knew what was happening they would insist the sanctions be lifted. I looked into the eyes of these mothers and their children. It is something I will never forget.

“That experience was life-changing for me. When I returned, I felt compelled to do everything I could to work to lift the economic sanctions on Iraq. I joined with others and together we lobbied our representatives, raised money to send more people to Iraq, and organized peace vigils, demonstrations, fasts, candlelight services and sit-ins. We printed and distributed thousands of handouts relative to sanctions and brought in speakers like Kathy Kelly and Dennis Halliday, the first director of the Food for Oil Program in Iraq. We helped write a statement against the sanctions that was signed by each of the six Catholic dioceses in Minnesota. On December 28, 1998, we held the first candlelight service for the children of Iraq, the day when many Christian churches remember the slaughter of the innocents as recorded in the Bible in the Book of Matthew. Before the 2003 war, we sold 12,000 lawn signs that read ‘Say No to the War on Iraq. Call Your Congressperson.’

“Then came 9/11 and the talk about permanent war. It was clear to those of us who had been involved in the peace movement that Iraq would become a target. Women Against Military Madness , the Twin Cities Peace Campaign, the Anti-War Committee, Iraq Peace Action Coalition, Veterans for Peace, church and neighborhood groups and others joined together to demonstrate against the war. We had several large demonstrations—two numbering 10,000 people. An international protest on May 15, 2003 was so large that New York Times writer Patrick Tyler wrote on February 17th that the demonstrations ‘are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”

In 1999, during the Yugoslav war, John and Marie helped organize a weekly peace vigil on the Sri Chimnoy Bridge in Minneapolis every Wednesday evening. On the 10th anniversary of the sanctions they held a three-day fast on the bridge that included local church leaders and politicians. Shortly before the start of the 2003 Iraq war, there were fifty such vigils throughout the state.

The message behind the bridge protests has continually changed to coincide with current events, but its antiwar mission remains the same. And so does the loyalty and persistence of the dissenters. They are faithfully on the bridge every Wednesday afternoon whatever the weather, whatever the news of the day. Over time, they have noted progress in the responses from passing motorists. “There used to be more nasty comments and gestures,” says John. “Now, we’re getting many, many honks, raised thumbs and peace signs. It’s part of the gradual process of convincing people that we need a different approach to U.S. foreign policy, that war is not the answer.”

That credo extends far beyond the Wednesday protests. It is an integral part of the Brauns’ daily life. Now into their 70s, they continue to stand up and speak out for peace anywhere they can. They are among the regulars who picket weapons maker and Honeywell successor Alliant Tech one morning each week in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Marie was a featured speaker at a major antiwar rally at the State Capitol just after the Iraq war began. In 2003, she was awarded the Activist of the Year award from the Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action, and in 2006 she and John received an honorary award from the Vincent L. Hawkinson Foundation. Marie was a chief organizer of a large protest during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, and John and Marie served on a committee that organized an alternative event during the RNC titled “Peace Island: Hope in a Time of Crisis, A Solutions Driven Conference.”

For the ex-priest and former church youth worker, peacemaking is a spiritual as well as a political quest. “While most of our peace work is related to the political realm and trying to change unjust systems of oppression,” John says, “we also work with groups such as Every Church a Peace Church, whose motto is, ‘The church could turn the world toward peace if every church lived and taught as Jesus lived and taught.’

”We know that it is the people who have always brought about major social changes, whether on a local, national, or international level,” says Marie, “and we are hopefully doing our small part to make the world a better place for our children and all future generations.”

Evening brings relative calm to the Sri Chimnoy Bridge. The bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic has given way to a normal flow. The Brauns and their fellow protesters have disbanded, leaving the pedestrian walkway to hover unoccupied over the softly running river. From a distance, the lights that line the edges of the bridge give off an eerie glow that penetrates the black sky. The lights dip up and down like an amusement park roller coaster and seem to stretch endlessly onward, as if on a journey to a distant land.

© Burt Berlowe. All rights reserved.
Burt Berlowe is a journalist, peace activist and the author of The Compassionate Rebel Revolution. Click here to read about his life and book: http://www.compassionaterebel.com

Julian Kalmar and Rick Beneteau want to know if you've got what it takes to step up and be a leader in the new world transformation. CLICK HERE to find out.

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