Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Devoted to the cause of peace


GandhiServe Foundation

Devoted to the cause of peace

Devoted to the cause of peace

Lansing State Journal

After spending much of his life promoting nonviolent principles, priest recognized for efforts

The Rev. Peter Dougherty
Photo: Rod Sanford/Lansing State Journal

The Rev. Peter Dougherty has traveled to hotspots all over the world.

Haiti. Bosnia. Israel's Palestinian territories. The strife-torn state of Chiapas, Mexico.

Dougherty even was arrested last summer while trying to defuse any potential violence at the 2008 Republican National Convention.

The 75-year-old Catholic priest from Lansing will go anywhere or do anything to make, keep or promote peace: "I believe that love is the most formidable of all cosmic energies," he said. "That energy, to me, is God."

But on a recent, chilly fall afternoon, Dougherty was sweating the details of his latest trip - a trek to India to collect an international peace prize.

Packing and planning? No problem. Traveler's checks? Dougherty had until 6 p.m. to pick some up.

But a visa to allow travel to India? That one had him holding his breath.

The last time he tried to go to India, Dougherty's many treks as an activist to the world's hotspots caused officials to turn him down.

"I was not given a visa," he said. "I found out about a month ago that was why."

A travel agent's call at mid-afternoon brought Dougherty the good news: the Indian government had OK'd the trip.

Dougherty collected his $10,000 award - given annually to someone outside of India who models Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi's peaceful ideals - on Friday.

While in India, he'll also attend a two-day gathering of Gandhi's followers, visit Calcutta and go to several villages with ongoing projects designed to lift residents out of poverty.

"He is a loving, caring, challenging prophetic spirit, and I think that is what is being recognized," said Joan Tirak, co-founder of Loaves and Fishes ministry and a friend of Dougherty's since the 1970s. "He is an embodiment of who Gandhi would be today."

Reaching out to others

Dougherty grew up in Adrian, attended the now defunct St. John Provincial Seminary in Plymouth and was ordained a priest in 1961. His first assignment was at All Saints Church, a working-class parish in southwest Detroit.

"I saw myself as a parish priest," he said.

By 1970, he'd been moved to Holy Trinity Student Parish in Ypsilanti, which served Eastern Michigan University. Both the social revolution and the Vietnam War were in full swing, and Dougherty found himself caught up in issues that concerned students. Among them: ending the war and dismantling the threat of nuclear war.

"That's where I got turned on my head, at Eastern," he said. "I said, 'Well, I'm going to advise young men and women on this war, I'd better learn what it is about.' "

As Dougherty studied, read and talked with students, his passion for peace grew. In 1975, Bishop Kenneth Povish relieved Dougherty of parish duties so he could devote himself to the cause of peace.

"Jesus was about loving, which means you heal people, you protect people," Dougherty said. "You challenge people who are wrong when they are abusing others."

He co-founded the Abrahamic Peace Community in East Lansing, which served the homeless for seven years. But that was low-profile compared to his work with the Michigan Faith and Resistance Team, purposely trespassing at places such as K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, where B-52s were kept, and at Williams Research Corp. in Walled Lake, which manufactured engines for cruise missiles. He spent a cumulative two years in jail for activities such as those.

Connecting with people

Dougherty founded the Michigan Peace Team in 1993. His base of operations now is an underheated, third-floor office piled with folders, papers and books such as Jimmy Carter's "We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land."

Dougherty lives, by choice, at the poverty level, so he doesn't have to pay taxes that fund wars. A couple of ties hang in the corner of his office, but he cannot recall the last time he wore one.

With the peace team or not, he is instantly recognizable. His daily uniform consists of T-shirts, cargo pants and brightly striped hooded cotton jackets from Mexico. His snow-white hair and goatee frame a narrow face with eyes that instantly engage.

Mayurika Poddar said she appreciates Dougherty's sense of humor, but also his ability to connect with people.

"There's joy he gives to everybody when he meets them," said Poddar of Okemos, who has known Dougherty for years. "No matter who you are, he makes you most welcome in his heart."

That ability has served Dougherty well with the Peace Team. Its members, trained in nonviolent negotiation techniques, put on bright-colored vests identifying them as peacemakers and go wherever conflicts may arise.

"It was not easy to get that off the ground," Tirak said. "But he has been faithful to what it means to go and stand with people in places of conflict, and he linked up with people who were doing that around the world."

Michigan Peace Team members attended the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, have gone to political conventions and other U.S. events. But it is in places such as Chiapas and Israel where they feel they may do the most good.

There, they say, the mere presence of international observers keeps armed troops from firing on civilians, and may help keep civilians negotiating with the government instead of resorting to violence.

Spreading the message

Joe Droste of Lansing Township went with Dougherty to the West Bank several years ago on a trip timed to help keep Israeli troops from preventing Palestinians from harvesting their olive crops.

The men lived with local families, worked beside them and mingled with Palestinians and Israelis alike.

"There isn't any question in my mind that the peacekeeping message that Peter teaches does work," said Droste, a retired GM worker whose regular activities include protesting the Iraq war at the Capitol at noon Fridays. "It keeps people from reaching out and being belligerent."

Shrikumar Poddar of Okemos lives part-time in his native India and runs his own foundation dedicated to peaceful change. He was among those who nominated Dougherty for the prize from the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation in Mumbai. The award, which carries a prize equivalent to about $10,000, goes to someone from another country who embodies Gandhi's nonviolent principles. Dougherty is looking forward to spending the award on his cause.

"The money is badly needed by the Michigan Peace Team," he said.

No plans to retire

Dougherty celebrated his 75th birthday in August with a birthday bash that served as a fundraiser for the Michigan Peace Team. Despite his age, he has no plans to retire from peace work anytime soon.

In fact, some members of the team recently left for an exploratory trip to Juarez, Mexico, where drug-related violence makes life dangerous.

He takes heart in some things: the nonviolent end of dictatorships in the former Soviet Union and former East Germany, for two, as well as the downsizing of nuclear arsenals in both the U.S. and Russia.

He understands that his dangerous work is not for everyone, but says there are plenty of other opportunities to make peace: volunteer at local shelters, chapters of groups such as Amnesty International, or take up neighborhood issues.

"There are hundreds or organizations doing all kinds of good in all kinds of communities," he said. "Seek them out."


Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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