Our 2021 Calling to Remember to Work for Peace

November 17th

“What are you doing?” asked a young man on a bicycle as 20 of us were quietly beginning our Annual Peace Walk through Edmonton’s Churchill Square on the dark, crisp evening of November 11, 2021. “We are praying for peace on Remembrance Day” was our answer. The young man continued breaking into our silence, “My Great-grandmother put up a Tipi in Churchill Square in 1969 as a protest. Check it out on Google!” He remained far away, so dialogue was not possible, and we were not able to put together the story at the time. We resumed our walk to McDougall United Church where we would be reflecting together on State-Sanctioned violence in our communities in our world through the lenses of 5 different faith traditions: Jewish, Muslim, Quaker, Buddhist and Mennonite-Christian.

We had just heard a land and treaty acknowledgement connecting us to the peacemaking inherent in Indigenous teachings that guide treaty -- love, courage, wisdom, humility, respect, honesty and truth -- and an interfaith prayer collaboratively written by Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith leaders for the 1991 Gulf War. The 30-year time warp was hardly noticeable as our world leaders continue to create and condone violence as necessary in the name of “security” and “protection.”

This young man left an impression on us. What story was he referencing? And what did it have to do with our Peace Walk? Several of us went home to google the date and details of the story. Sure enough, in 1969, a woman by the name of Lillian Pinche Shirt and her four children were evicted from their dwelling when the rental management changed hands. In 1969, as too often today, no other landlord would rent to this Indigenous family. Lillian decided to set up a Tipi in Churchill Square until such day as the Mayor of Edmonton would sit down with her to hear her story of discrimination and commit to change. She and her family and four other supporting tenters lived on Churchill Square for 12 days. During this time, her story garnered national attention. Beatles singer John Lennon, who was engaging in protest for world peace in Montreal at the time, heard of this story and called Lillian for a conversation. Some believe this experience contributed to Lennon’s song “Imagine.” Part of “Imagine” reads:

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

What Lennon is imagining sounds strangely biblical, building on the story in Acts of sharing all possessions. And the refrain “imagine all the people sharing all the world” sounds like the goal of Treaty.

I wonder what kind of song John Lennon would write for our 2021 world, given his commitment to peacebuilding. Our time of reflection in the warmth of McDougal United Church wove faith traditions that all preach peace, and current issues of violence – domestic violence against people of colour, women, Indigenous, Muslims -- and military violence in our world thanks to the tragic legacy of the war machine. Our Jewish presenter reminded us that the consensus in post-Second-temple destruction Judaism is that state-sanctioned violence for national purposes is outside of the Biblical understanding of God’s plan for both the Jews and humanity. Our Buddhist presenter reminded us that peace begins in our innermost being and needs to be nurtured. Our Quaker, Muslim and Christian presenters referenced many of the current issues we are facing, with encouragement to create spaces for true reconciliation that includes change in structures that oppress.

But tying this all together is the story shared by the young man on a bicycle, nudging us to name Lillian and tell her story of long ago – a story that should have shaped our community, if only the story were part of our collective narrative. Imagine if this story could have propelled a Truth and Reconciliation already in 1969 – a reckoning to push back against structures and laws and programs (the Residential Schools were still in full swing) that keep some people – too many people -- out of equitable opportunity to share.

Is paying attention to stories of real people not ultimately the foundation of our work for peace? If we can pay attention to stories in our local midsts, and integrate these into our land acknowledgements, our church prayers, our city council discourse, our national discourse, our World Conferences and sing about these archetypal stories in our songs, we will be remembering AND imagining peace – together! And doesn’t this, then, lead to realizing (making real) peace in our communities? I pray that it be so!