Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. . .
On Pentecost Sunday near the end of our Sunday Mass the pianist began playing “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” No matter where I am when I hear that music I feel tears rising. I blinked hard several times to discourage those tears from falling.
Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be,
This song brings back memories of the 25th Anniversary of the Peace Corps, September 26 – 28, 1986, a project that was very dear to my heart and it remains so. The goal of reaching out our hands to the poorest of the poor in other nations to let them know that the United States cared about them, was first and foremost in our two years in Cuzco, Peru. While I have fond memories of my village of Quiquijana, about two hours by train from the city of Cuzco, I must confess that I came to dislike the city of Cuzco intensely.
I was the darkest Peace Corps volunteer in the state of Cuzco, the laughing stock of most of the Quechua Indians, and scary as hell to others. There was one other black volunteer in Cuzco, but her skin was very fair and probably few knew that she was a black American. It was as if they had never seen a black person. And maybe they hadn’t. If I walked into a tienda (tiny store) to make a purchase, when I turned to go out an audience of Quechua Indians would have gathered in a matter of minutes and as I walked out some would reach out to touch me as if to see if the black rubbed off, others laughed hysterically and scooted away from me, while I tried to maintain a smile on my face. During our training we were constantly told that we were guests in Peru and we were never, but never, to do anything that might insult them. I broke out in a rash, no doubt from what I perceived as hostility from the Peruvians.
With God as our Father, Brothers all are we.
It was discouraging to go to a school with my two roommates to introduce ourselves and I would be ignored or the principal or a teacher would ask me again and again where I was from. It was as if they did not believe that I could be American. I used to force myself to be on the streets when schools were dismissed. I hoped that eventually the students would become accustomed to me, and not scream and run or laugh when they saw me. I felt that I must have looked like a horrible monster. I had never experienced people screaming in fright, running away from me, touching me to see if the color came off, and while I said nothing to my fellow volunteers, my heart was bursting with sadness. I went there to help the poor, and while I realized that perhaps most had never seen a black woman before, I somehow felt that they were being hateful to me. Two black friends serving in Arequipa were experiencing the same unpleasantness.
Let me walk with my brother in perfect harmony.
I noticed when I visited other volunteers in their villages I never got the stares, or screams or attempts to rub off the black. How odd, I thought. The villagers certainly had more common sense than the so-called “city people.” Finally, one of the black women in Arequipa had had enough. She quit the Peace Corps and returned to the United States. That was a shock to the Peace Corps. We had been prepared and over prepared about Peru, but nothing was ever said about race relations. I wanted to make a difference in the world with my tiny contribution. We had been told that many of us would die from plane accidents. Their national airline was known as “the death airline.” Yet, we persevered on, determined to represent our country. We were told about the water; we had to boil it for 20 minutes in order to make it safe to drink. We were told to avoid milk, ice cream, etc. Nothing deterred us.
Let peace begin with me . . .
Finally I could take the stares and laughter no more and I asked to be transferred to a small village. Our country director, Frank Mankiewitz, hesitated. Our Peace Corps doctor felt the harassment would be worse in a village, but I persisted. Finally Frank agreed. He sent me and a new volunteer to the village of Quiquijana to see what we thought of it. We were welcomed by the school officials and the health official we would be working with. The village people we passed as we walked down the dusty streets were nothing except polite and welcoming! I was impressed! A small house awaited us on the school grounds. We were excited. Our own little village! When we returned a week later with our belongings our house had been painted pink! It was lovely. The tiny house had two rooms and an inside/outside kitchen. The kitchen was outside of the house in a tiny area without a door and a window without glass. We almost clicked our heels! We were delighted. The teachers and mothers of the village met us and it was love at first sight.
Let this be the moment now.
However, there was one wrinkle. As we walked through the village I spied a Burma Bridge, and I froze. It used to be a permanent bridge, but it had crumbled long ago and the current bridge consisted of ropes and boards over rushing water below. During our training we had to practice walking across such a bridge from ropes strung high in the trees. I knew that no place on earth would one find such a bridge. No way! No where! I remembered the way to maintain your balance was to push the ropes out from your body when all you wanted to do was to grab and pull them as close to your body as you could. I yelled down to the instructor that I was going to fall. He yelled back, “You certainly are if you don’t push the ropes out!” Damn! I thought! If I fall, I’ll no doubt break something and that will be the end of my Peace Corps dream, so I’ll go ahead and walk this stupid thing and I’ll never have to see it or walk it again. Little did I know!
With every step I take, let this be my solemn vow . . . .
Within a week or so I had conquered that bridge and could walk across it while reading my mail. The post office and train station were on the other side of the river. Soon one of the two dogs who adopted us began following me across the bridge. If you were alone on the bridge, it was fine. But when one or two other people were on it, well, it was the bridge from hell because when you put a foot down, somebody else caused the bridge to rise, and I scurried across quickly.
How I loved Quiquijana! We were invited to dinner and to family parties. For my 26th birthday the teachers surprised me at noon by singing Happy Birthday in English; we drank Pisco Sours (a potent and delicious alcoholic drink); the students dedicated a soccer match to me and there was no school in the afternoon. Everybody, especially me, was more than ready for a siesta! I’ve never had such a birthday! Only in Quiquijana! A Quechua mother invited us to dinner several times. Each time she served a guinea pig on a platter. There it lay in the middle of the table complete with head, teeth, and all four feet pointing upward. I wondered how he had been killed. The first time we went for dinner I barely touched the meat. The second time I lied and said my doctor said I could not eat meat for some medical reason. My roommate was delighted because there was more for her to eat. I just could not eat that guinea pig. All I could think of was the tiny, furry critters running around the house that I wanted only to pet.
To take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally . . .
At 25th Anniversary of the Peace Corps in 1986, I happened to be in the US and in Washington, DC where the celebration was held. Let There be Peace on Earth became the Peace Corps anthem. It was played in the huge white tent where we met in Southwest Washington, later at Arlington Cemetary, and again at the closing ceremony at the Kennedy Center. I was with two former volunteers who were in my group. We marched from the Lincoln Monument, bearing the flags of our countries, and on to Arlington Cemetery where we paused at the John F. Kennedy site, our founder, and to the ceremony. There were tears as we remembered the 199 volunteers we lost during the 25 years of Peace Corps existence. Their families were there and I wanted to hug each one and tell them what their sacrifice meant to me. There was Nina, Frank’s secretary in Lima, who had memorized our names and faces before we arrived. She was a wonder. We saw other volunteers who we had not seen since 1964 or earlier. Thunderous applause greeted President Corazon Aquino, of the Philippines, our main speaker. We must have applauded for 15 minutes. And then she saw her volunteers in their yellow tee shirts and we went crazy again as she greeted them. It was a magical weekend. It was fitting for us to meet in a tent and sit on the ground and push the chairs aside. What a magical moment that was. We were the vanguard for those who came afterwards. We were the pioneers. There has never been another feeling like the 3 days that we met in that huge tent. We were together. It was us against the world.
Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.
This was also the song played in a small Catholic Church in California when I visited a friend. I had a terrible cold and was coughing like crazy. She had told the priest that I would speak to the congregation after Mass. I had done no such thing. In fact, I spent most of the time outside because I was coughing like crazy. At the end of Mass an usher came to the door and said they were asking for me. I was ready to kill somebody. I walked to the front of the Church and the priest took my hand and let me to the podium. My mind was blank. I had no idea of what to say. I prayed a quick prayer and then I thought of the weekend of July 4th and I told the parishioners of the countries I had served in, countries which had no independence as we did, and of people trying to survive while under the thumb of a dictator. At the end the priest hugged me and suddenly the pianist began playing, Let There Be Peace on Earth. The tears began flowing as I fumbled my way back to where my friends sat. A woman reached out and asked if she could give me a hug. I nodded assent and she hugged me. Other members of the congregation stopped to chat with me. But it was that song that almost brought me to my knees. It was “our” song, the anthem of the Peace Corps, and it will always have a special meaning to me.
Let There Be Peace on Earth and let it begin with me. . . .
(Sy Miller & Jill Jackson)