by Jamie Mahoney
photography by Chrissy Zehrbach
Where there is war, there is a cry for peace. This is the message of the Peace with Justice Center of Pomona Valley. The lives of the members of the organization run deep with stories of courage and sacrifice to achieve their goal of attaining peace. Those who dedicated their time have a history of peaceful activism.
Created in 1973 by a church group called Church Women United to promote the message of peace and give the community a place to go to find alternatives to violence, the Center draws its strength in its members, both past and present. Mary Blocher-Smeltzer served in the Peace Corps and worked at Manzanar, a war relocation camp for the Japanese. Dan Merritt played a large role in the California campaign to freeze production of nuclear weapons, and Dorena Wright was part of the war protests in Australia against that country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. These peace-loving people have a passion for what they do and say they will do what they have—within reason—to do to get the point across.
Justice and peace are inseparable; without peace, there is no justice, and without justice there is no peace. To ULV Professor of Biology Dan Merritt, peace is more than an absence of war. “To a great extent, it’s something you feel,” says Merritt. “It’s not an intellectual or philosophical conclusion; to me it’s part of honoring life and honoring the earth and finding compassionate ways to resolve conflict.”
Today, Merritt has a passion as an environmental activist. He works with students at the University and talks to students about what is happening to resources, the effects of urbanization and deforestation. The increasing pollution in our drinking water and oceans and the depletion of the ozone layer are on his agenda as well. Before he became a professor, however, he was involved in the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, serving as the district coordinator for the California campaign to freeze the production of nuclear weapons. The women of Church Women United sought him out because of his history of activism against the development and production of nuclear weapons. He headed the selection of a board of directors for the newly formed Peace Center, today known as the Peace with Justice Center.
Board member Mary Blocher-Smeltzer, from La Verne, Peace with Justice member since 1984., has worked for peace her entire life. As a member of the Church of the Brethren, she says she was raised to believe in peace. She was in the Peace Corps in Botswana, a small country just north of South Africa. The paved road stopped short of the village and turned to dirt; the small houses with thatched roofs stood alone at the edge of the town. For two years, she taught at a vocational school in Ramotswa, a small town 30 kilometers from the capital.
Smeltzer also worked as a teacher at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in the Owens Valley where Japanese and Japanese Americans were imprisoned during the war. The camp housed 10,000 people in one square mile. At the edges of camp were tall barbed wire fences and watch towers. She and her husband Ralph taught at the Center for six months. They did not want to live with the other whites who worked in the camps so they became house parents to a group of Kibel boys; these boys were born in the United States but were educated in Japan. One of the boys created 13 watercolor pictures for her and her husband. Deciding to leave the camp in the Owens Valley after six months, Smeltzer set out for Chicago. There, the couple started a hostel to help people get out of camps like Manzanar. Upon release, some of the Japanese came to the hostel to start new lives. Smeltzer and her husband helped them find homes and apartments and sent them to a government office that assisted them in finding jobs. After helping more than 1,000 people, the couple moved to Brooklyn and started another hostel.
Smeltzer says that she has come to realize she is among the minority who believes people can live in peace. “You can’t have peace without justice. Justice is helping each other take care of each other,” she says. She is not alone in her quest; other members share the same goal–a vision of the world at peace where men and women do not turn to violence to solve their problems.
The goal of the Peace with Justice Center is to work against war by promoting peace and justice. The organization transmits its message by hosting events, speakers, and film screenings. The Center provides a setting for those seeking information on national and international issues relating to peace building. As part of its peace education program, the Center created a contest for students to create a book cover that would be printed and distributed to area schools. The contest took place for 10 years and distributed more than 10,000 covers to 10 different schools. The contest was to act as an alternate to the covers provided by the military.
In October 2002, the Center placed an anti-war ad in the Inland Valley Bulletin that denounced the reasons the government was engaging in war. It urged people to take their own action against the war and call Congress. “Peace is more than just the absence of war. Without justice, people will continue to suffer and engage in violent means to address grievances,” explains Merritt.
Peace activist and ULV English professor Dr. William Cook ensures his thoughts regarding the war and other political issues are heard through his many published articles in the political journal Counterpunch. “It should be evident that peace cannot come through the road map or through the control of the process by the Bush administration or through the cooperative efforts of Sharon,” he says in his article, “The U.S. is not a Neutral Party: The Road to Nowhere.” “If the primary causes of this prolonged and agonizing crisis are to be addressed, the nations of the world through the UN must step in and assert control . . . The United States must be removed from the process as a principal because it lacks credibility as a disinterested party. Additionally, the United States is currently under the control of a few men who have hijacked its democracy.” Cook has published many articles and books concerning political issues. With his wife D’Arcy, he also wrote a politically themed play, performed at ULV in 2004.
Ali Siddiqui, current board member in charge of the Center’s programs, represents his peaceful Muslim religion after the Sept. 11 attacks put a violent stereotype on Muslims. In the ‘90s, he worked with the Coalition for Peace in the Middle East and marched in protest of the war. While Siddiqui took part in the organization of demonstrations, he has never been involved in violent protests. “Muslims are peaceful people,” he says. “That is our teaching. War is a deception; it only destroys and kills.”
The Center strives to give the public a better understanding of why terrorism may exist, and what can be done to stop it. Siddiqui says many people in the community do not understand the dynamics of terrorism or the depth of the problems created by sweatshops in foreign countries. The aim of the organization is to inform people. Fear is a driving factor in violence, but the Peace with Justice Center encourages people not to fear terrorism because the problems associated with it can be solved peacefully. “Sometimes, it is hard to explain the alternatives to war because we get so frightened that we would do anything to be protected,” Merritt reads from his Campus Times newspaper letter to the editor, taped to the wall.
Gerald Haynes is a Quaker and strongly believes youth should be educated about options. “Military teaches people to solve problems differently,” says Haynes. Taking a stand against Congressional decisions, he created an agency called Alternate Ideas to Military Service. AIMS is a program that focuses on educating students on alternate sources of financial aid for college. AIMS has created a flyer entitled, “Ten Points to Consider Before Signing up for the Military.”
Dorena Wright, treasurer, grew up in post World War II England. Expanses of bombed-out war sites were predominant in the English countryside. These memories from her childhood home in Armidale shaped her thinking and belief that war is not the answer. “Many people in Europe wished never to see another war. That really shapes your thinking,” says Wright. The ULV English professor also lived in Australia where she was active in large Sydney protests against Australian participation in the Vietnam War that led to the removal of the draft in Australia. “The involvement was unjustified; we were fighting an unnecessary war,” she explains.
She stresses the importance of the Center’s message. “The satisfaction of working with Peace with Justice comes from being directly involved with what is going on,”she explains. The message is very important, and the impact on an individual can be great. “The education of Peace with Justice is vital and must be supported at all costs.”
The Peace with Justice Center seems to have an uphill battle to win the attention of the public. “It is difficult to get people’s attention because there are many groups of people, and there is always something going on,” says Wright. Indeed, the organization has a loyal group of followers, but they have some difficulty getting people to hear speakers or participate in discussions. Film screenings seem to draw the most newcomers. “People are more likely to walk into films than a panel discussion,” Merritt says.
Nevertheless, Merritt, Cook, Siddiqui and Smeltzer uphold their confidence in today’s youth to carry on the message of peace and justice that they worked so hard and for so many hours to promote. They have confidence that today’s youth can carry on the beliefs of the Peace with Justice Center. Wright believes that as long as one person is passionate about it, the message will be carried on.
The organization will continue to promote its message of peace. Peace is something that cannot be defined and is not easily reached. “There are different kinds of peace, not always calm peace. It comes with rancor and struggle and challenge but also with honor and respect and openness to alternative ways,” says Merritt.