Just about everyone knows that Sept. 11, 2006, is the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States. But few people seem to realize that Sept. 11 marks another major milestone. It’s the 100th anniversary of the beginning of Mahatma Gandhi’s first non-violent campaign that began on Sept. 11, 1906.
To mark this dual anniversary, 50 extraordinary individuals from Louisville and throughout the nation will come together on Sept. 7 for a five-day “Gandhi/Merton Pilgrimage for Peace and Non-violence.” It begins at the Abbey of Gethsemani, south of Bardstown, and ends five days later at Fourth and Muhammad Ali in Louisville.
The starting and ending points were chosen because both have a strong connection to Thomas Merton, another prophet of non-violence who had strong ties to the Louisville area. His writings on non-violence were shaped to a large degree by the writings and actions of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi. In fact, one of Merton’s more popular publications is the book “Gandhi on Non-violence.”
Gandhi, of course, dedicated his life to fostering the philosophy of non-violent action and spreading this concept throughout the world. Using marches, letters, articles, community meetings and boycotts, he protested racial discrimination. His very first public protest occurred on Sept. 11, 1906, in Johannesburg. These protests often led to his arrest. After 21 years in South Africa, Gandhi returned to India to fight for its independence from Great Britain, adding fasting and prayer to his system of non-violence. He spent numerous days in jail, with the goal of showing people that violence is not the answer. During his long life, he inspired and encouraged many to follow his path.
Merton was arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the 20th century. Daniel Berrigan called him “the conscience of the peace movement of the 1960s.” His autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” has sold more than 1 million copies and has been translated into 15 languages. He wrote more than 60 other books and hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, non-violence and the nuclear arms race. Deeply motivated by the writings and actions of Gandhi, his ongoing conversion impelled him into the political arena. Merton was a strong supporter of the non-violent civil rights movement, which he called “certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States.”
A retreat followed by
four days of walking
After a one-day retreat about Gandhi, Merton and the concept of pilgrimage, participants will travel to Gethsemani where they will pray together and begin the walking portion of their pilgrimage from the porch of Merton’s famous hermitage. The pilgrims will journey across the farmlands and knobs of Central Kentucky, stopping at historic spiritual sites in Bardstown and Louisville. Their path will largely follow Highway 31, and anyone is welcome to join for any portion of the walk.
The first night on the road, Friday, Sept. 8, will be spent at the Catherine Spalding Center at the home campus of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth on the north side of Bardstown. On Saturday night the pilgrims will be guests at Cedar Ridge Camp near Taylorsville. On Sunday night, their last night on the road, they’ll stay at Beulah Presbyterian Church, just inside the Gene Snyder Expressway on Bardstown Road.
The congregation of Beulah Presbyterian will join the pilgrims and persons of all religions throughout the city for a 7:30 p.m. interfaith service celebrating “The Pilgrimage of Non-violence.” The service will include music, prayers from a number of the world’s religions, a presentation on the concept of pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau, and a talk by the Rev. John Dear about Gandhi, Merton and non-violence.
On the final day, the group will wend its way through the streets of Louisville, stopping at a variety of houses of worship and arriving at 5 p.m. at Central Park, where the pilgrims invite people of all ages and religions to join them in the final mile of their walk as they move down Fourth Street.
Leaders with different but complementary gifts
This 60-mile, five-day pilgrimage is designed, in the manner of Gandhi and Merton, to draw attention to the importance of finding non-violent solutions to the world’s most difficult problems, and the leaders of the pilgrimage bring to this peace walk different, but complementary gifts for the pilgrimage of non-violence.
The Pilgrimage will be led by Dear, a longtime peace activist, and Cousineau, author of “The Art of Pilgrimage” and other spiritual books.
John is a Jesuit priest, pastor, peace activist, organizer, lecturer, retreat leader and the author-editor of 20 books on peace and justice, including “Mohandas Gandhi: Essential Writings” (Orbis Books, 2002). His peace work has taken him to El Salvador, where he lived and worked in a refugee camp in 1985; to Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Middle East and the Philippines; to Northern Ireland, where he lived and worked at a human rights center for a year; and to Iraq, where he led a delegation of Nobel Peace Prize winners to witness the effects of the deadly sanctions on Iraqi children. He has run a shelter for the homeless in Washington, D.C., and served as executive director of the Sacred Heart Center, a community center for disenfranchised women and children in Richmond, Va.
Cousineau is a writer, teacher, editor, independent scholar, documentary filmmaker, travel leader and storyteller. He has published 18 non-fiction books and has 15 scriptwriting credits to his name. Among his books are: “Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Modern Times” (2001) and “The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred” (1998), which appeared on several bestseller lists. “The Soul Aflame: A Modern Book of Hours” (2000) and “The Book of Roads” (2000), a volume of Cousineau’s travel stories and reflections, are other recent titles.
Many sponsors, many gifts
Although the overall sponsor for the Pilgrimage is the Louisville-based organization Interfaith Paths to Peace, the sponsors and partners for the trek number more than 60. These include Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i and a variety of Christian churches and groups, as well as Unity Church of Louisville.
Virtually everything necessary for this logistically complicated journey is being donated, including housing, meals, vehicles, airline tickets, books about Gandhi and Merton, and even coffee and tea.
How the Pilgrimage came to be
The Gandhi/Merton Pilgrimage grew out of two events in my life. One was a conversation I had in 2002 with renowned Catholic peacemaker James W. Douglass. As most of us were weeping on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Jim reminded us of the Gandhi event on Sept. 11, 1906. Fans of the film “Gandhi” may recall that the events of Sept. 11 are depicted in a scene in which Gandhi stands before a group of Indian Muslims and Hindus in a multi-tiered theater in South Africa. Those seated before him began to call for the death of their white South African oppressors. Gandhi calms the crowd and proclaims that he is willing to die for what he believes, but will never be willing to kill for it. That was one motivating factor.
The second was a conversation I had with my spiritual director, Joe Grant, youth publications director for the Louisville-based JustFaith program. Joe and I were talking one morning late last winter about Merton when Joe suddenly suggested that he and I walk from Fourth and Muhammad Ali to Gethsemani as a personal pilgrimage. After deciding, in deference to Merton, to walk from Gethsemani to Louisville, I suggested that we invite others to join us, and that we plan the pilgrimage so that it would end on the Gandhi anniversary. And so we did.