Rochester, N.Y., couple builds peace network in their Unitarian Universalist church.
Marilyn Lambert-Fisher and her husband Bill Fisher, members of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, N.Y., have been leading the UU opposition to the war in their city for more than a year. The Peace Advocates Task Force they founded at First Unitarian Church is part of a coalition that sponsored a vigil on Sunday, March 18, in which 500 people lined up along East Avenue in Rochester holding peace signs.
Since February 2006, the task force has organized three peace vigils a month, a Realities of War film series, peace concerts, and a protest in which thousands of plastic toy soldiers with the tag “bring me home,” were dispensed throughout the area.
What keeps this couple active and committed? “We’ve always been somewhat active in peace issues dating back to the late sixties and early seventies,” Bill said.
Their activism is also motivated by their oldest son Kevin’s service in Iraq for ten months as an Army Reserve soldier in a civil affairs unit. “For anyone who has a loved one in the military and in harm’s way, it’s a nightmare,” Bill said. “You don’t sleep well at night. You’re afraid to answer the phone. When you hear of a death, and it’s not your child’s, you breathe a sigh of relief and then seconds later you realize there’s a family somewhere that is getting a knock on the door. It’s elation that it’s not your child but terrible sadness at the same time.”
The couple, who have been members of the Rochester church for the past 18 years, credit their church with being an important source of support. “We consider the First Unitarian Church as one of our homes,” Marilyn said. “It felt important to do this work through the church. It gives us a real grounding; it gives us a sense of deep support by other people who share the values of Unitarian Universalism.”
So far, more than 70 people have signed up for the Peace Advocates Task Force.
The Rev. Scott Tayler, the congregation’s cominister, credits the couple with inspiring others to greater activism. “They’re great leaders,” he said. “Their high level of involvement and commitment gets you up and moving. People who normally wouldn’t have been involved in peace work,” he said, “now see ways that they can help.”
Even though not all congregants share Bill and Marilyn’s viewpoint, Tayler said, everyone still takes pride in their commitment. “The church is very proud that our faith community has inspired them to act on their conscience,” he said.
One advantage the couple had in growing the task force was the weight they carried as parents of a son who served in Iraq, said Dick Fitts, a fourth-generation UU and a longtime church member and peace activist. “When you saw their personal commitment, you just couldn’t say no.”
At the Sunday vigil marking the war’s anniversary, Bill was approached by a soldier in fatigues. “He had driven by with his friend, saw what we were doing, went home to get his fatigues on and joined us,” Bill said. “This soldier in the Reserve thanked us for what we were doing. We thanked him for coming. If you see soldiers with their fatigues on and they’re out there with us against the war, that gives validity to what we are doing.”
In addition to war protests, the task force also supports military families in the congregation by preparing meals for them on a quarterly basis.
Over the past two years, Bill has noticed a change in the tide of opinion concerning the war. At the Sunday vigil, he reported that more than half of the passing motorists gave a thumbs-up, peace sign, or honked, and only about 1 percent expressed opposition. “When we were first doing this two years ago with the organization Peace Action and Education, 80 percent gave no response at all. Ten percent were for us and ten percent were against us.”
The Peace Advocates Task Force is also trying to look at the war’s longer-term implications. “A big part of what our task force is beginning to think about is ways of healing because there’s so much healing and reconciliation that needs to take place,” Marilyn said. “One of the ways we may be able to help is by offering counseling to the troops and their families. We have a number of professional counselors who are willing to offer their services.”
When asked how she manages a fulltime job along with the more than 20 hours a week she dedicates to keeping the peace task force moving, Marilyn said, “I can’t get caught up in everyday drama. I have to stay focused. I just keep planning and working.” But her motivation has a spiritual element that is self-renewing. “My work comes from a place of compassion, it doesn’t come from a place of anger,” she said. “It’s compassion and love, and the knowledge that there has to be a better way.”
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Jane Greer is a former senior editor of UU World magazine.