A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Cellist of Sarajevo. It was an inspiring story about one man’s attempt to protest the violence in our world. Here is another such story.
Charlie deGravelles lives and works in Baton Rouge, La. A deacon in the Episcopal Church, he also serves as a chaplain at Episcopal High School.
He writes, “I live in an area saturated with violence. Two cities in Louisiana, New Orleans and my own hometown of Baton Rouge, are among the most crime–ridden in the nation. Murders and other violent crimes are commonplace; there is a steady flow through the court systems into the state’s overcrowded prisons, already the most populated, per capita, in the country.”
Like many of us, he grew up in a more peaceful time. But violence, along with its pain and grief, has shattered the lives of so many people. Formerly a prison chaplain, he has witnessed his share of the pain and grief that comes from violence. “For every one of the more than 5,000 men who are incarcerated [in the prison in which he worked], a tsunami–like wave of trauma, heartbreak and loss has radiated outward, engulfing the lives of loved ones of victims and perpetrators alike.”
He tells a heartbreaking story about a man on death row. “I was with him … when he himself was put to death, execution style, by lethal injection in the death chamber. One of his victims, the only one to survive the shooting, forgave him and reconciled with him. The words of forgiveness and reconciliation were the last words he ever heard as he died on the execution gurney.”
deGravelles knows what is involved in the quest for peace in a world of violence. He knows how difficult it can be. “His hope,” he says, “comes from my strong religious faith and the experiences I’ve had over many years. Despite much evidence to the contrary, peace is both an imperative and is achievable.”
He was inspired when the Interfaith Federation of Baton Rouge commissioned renowned composer, Dr. Robert Kyr from Oregon, to write a chorale on the theme of “Waging Peace.”
The first thing Kyr did was to come to Baton Rouge several times to learn about the city and its residents. He sent out a questionnaire asking people to describe their own experiences of violence and peace, and he promised the people who returned their questionnaires that their words — not just his — would be included in his composition. To put it another way, the city of Baton Rouge was quite literally his co–composer.
Many of deGravelles’ students responded by filling out the questionnaire with their own words and phrases and experiences of violence and peace, along with lots of moving artwork.
deGravelles writes that “The final thing that caught me off guard is that I had never thought to use art as a weapon for ‘waging peace.’ … to write a piece of music about peace for — and with! — a community at war with itself — was amazing to me.”
When the composition was premiered in Baton Rouge, “It blew me away. When someone asked me how I liked it, I responded ‘I am one big goose bump.'”
It inspired him to create a class for high school students called “The Quest for Peace in a World of Violence.” The class would study violence and peace from the bottom up. They started with suicide and moved up to international conflict. “We would work as a class to make some contribution — however small — towards peace — here in this place and now.”
He hoped he would get enough students to make a class. To his great surprise, 85 students signed up for the class as their first choice. They read classic works of literature, went on field trips to art museums to look at famous works of art dealing with the horror of violence. They visited the Crisis Intervention Centre to learn about suicide, and went to the downtown core to learn about the relationships between mental health, addictions, homelessness, poverty, and violence. They worked with the local sherriff to learn about the community initiative against violence in Baton Rouge. They visited the local prison and interview the inmates.
The students “come to class each day excited. We are doing something real. We are heading into the impossible.”
When I hear stories like this, I too am inspired. Every little thing each one of us does counts. Each small act of kindness is important. Each one of us can remake the world.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook