WHO WE ARE:
The Modesto Peace/Life Center was founded in 1970 initially as a draft counseling organization growing out of the Vietnam War. After the war, the Center’s activities moved into peace and justice activities, sustainable environmental and energy issues, opposition to war and nuclear weapons proliferation, as well as promoting peace and justice education through it various activities.
The Modesto Peace/Life Center is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to education regarding issues of peace, justice and non-violence. Most of its projects are organized by in-house subcommittees. All are welcome to join our activities.
The Modesto Peace/Life Center is located at 720 13th St., Modesto, CA 95354.
The Modesto Peace/Life Center: Its History
“A miracle took place,” Louise Weaver recorded in her diary on February 12, 1970. That night 33 people pledged $5680 to set up and fund a peace center for one year, “a center not tied to a church and with draft counseling available at regular hours,” Phyllis Harvey remembers.
“The general revulsion over the escalation of the Vietnam War provided a chief impetus for banding together,” recalls Joe Dell of the meeting to establish a Peace Center, held in Jean and Don Calkins’ home.
Mary Baucher’s minutes from February 23, 1970, report that the Calkins had rented a building on the corner of l5th and G streets for $65 per month to be staffed by local volunteers trained by the Central Committee for Conscientious Objection. Also, “Sandy Sample’s group of youth at the [College Avenue] Congregational Church would like to paint and clean-up.”
The old storefront “wasn’t the Hilton,” say Wilfred and Louise Weaver. “It was cold in winter, hot in summer. There was some question as to whether the waterbed in the upstairs apartment would stay there or come down.”
Sample remembers it as the perfect location: “Downtown, on the street, visible, accessible, inexpensive. What more could we want?”
1970 was the spring of the invasion of Cambodia, of students shot down at Kent State and Jackson State. The Riverbank ammunition plant was cranking out shell casings. The Strategic Air Command at Castle Air Force Base, Atwater, was training B-52 pilots to bomb Vietnam; draft counselors were within legal limits so long as they provided only information and did not advise men to refuse to report for induction. Hired as counselors, Jared Zeff and later Jim “Moose” Parsons talked to hundreds of high school students and anyone else who would listen, providing draft information and discussing options.
In the first year of the center, counselors handled 600 cases. On one historic day in 1972, when a new draft law was coming into effect, more than 100 young men stopped in at the center to find out how the changes might affect their lives.
Young men boarding the early morning buses bound for the Fresno induction center were leafleted concerning their rights. Peace marches, plays, candidate forums, a student strike, and other activities were sponsored by local chapters of Another Mother for Peace, Parents Plea for Peace, Brethren Action Movement, and Students for a Democratic Society.
In 1971 and 1972 the center, along with the Modesto Junior College’s United Students Against the War, chartered buses to the peace marches and rallies in San Francisco. Cost of trip: $2.50 per person.
After months of planning, the center and its Merced County friends held a three-day vigil-blockade in December, 1972. Quakers from around Northern California held a meeting for worship in the rain in Castle Park, but base security refused to arrest Sam Tyson and Fred Moore when they entered the base.
It soon became obvious why the Air Force shunned negative publicity. That same day the Christmas bombings of Hanoi had begun, raids so unpopular that even some elite B-52 pilots refused to fly them.
The Wall Street Journal reports that over 100,000 young men applied for CO status in 1972, the last year of the lottery. Draft resistance undermined Selective Service’s ability to induct large numbers. In his memoirs, President Richard Nixon admitted the peace movement had caused him to drop plans to intensify the conflict. As many peace centers around the state closed, the Modesto Peace Center broadened its program.
Louise and Mark Zwick arranged for Dan Berrigan to visit in 1973. The Jesuit priest pioneered war resistance through destroying draft files. Widespread raids on draft boards destroyed an estimated one million files between 1968 and 1971. Berrigan spoke to overflow crowds at Modesto Junior College and Merced College and St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Stockton.
Thus began the annual “Berrigan visits” with Dan, Phil, and Liz McAllister Berrigan. The peace community renamed Kewin Park on La Loma Avenue “Berrigan Park,” for the delightful fellowship there.
The Peace Center discussed the farm labor organizing during the United Farm Workers’ boycott of Gallo. Board members split on the issue. Nuclear weapons’ twin, the “peaceful” atom of energy, was beginning to emerge in the valley when Rancho Seco went online near Sacramento. “Life” was added to the center’s name for those who define “peace” more narrowly.
From the first, the center worked with other community groups. The December 1971 newsletter called for letters on behalf of California Rural Legal Assistance, whose existence then-Governor Ronald Reagan was threatening. Draft counselors depended on CRLA guidance.
The first local women’s center was set up by the National Organization for Women in the Peace Center in 1972. Next to the NOW display of Ms magazine and copies of the original Our Bodies, Ourselves, was a Friends Outside display of articles handmade by women prisoners to help support their families. For many years the only public place in Stanislaus County to fly the UN flag during UN week was the Peace Center.
In 1975, Stanislaus Safe Energy Committee, begun a year earlier by Ecology Action and the Peace/Life Center to work on energy issues, was invited to share space in the center and its newsletter. Through the late 1970s the center worked with Safe Energy to check nuclear proliferation in our community and state. The Waterford nuclear project, proposed jointly by PG&E, MID, and TID, was stopped, (or officially, “shelved”). So has been every other nuclear reactor proposed across the U.S. since 1974 by economics and citizens in voting booths, courts, and the streets. The major accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant back east helped bring home to people across the country the dangers opponents had been talking about. Since 1975 Dan Berrigan’s benediction, “May all pancakes rise, and all tyrants fall” has echoed through 25 annual Pancake Breakfasts. In 1977 the Harvest Supper was also started as a Safe Energy fundraiser. The Center has inherited both events, though in 2008 the Harvest Supper became a simpler wine, tea, and dessert gathering.
The center continued sponsoring current event programs — on the Philippines, Korea, the Middle East — always seeking non-violent change. Safe Energy’s annual display at the County Fair educated fair-goers and the hundreds of people who helped staff it over its 18-year run. In 1978 the Center organized the first Solar Faire in Modesto. MID and PG&G, along with Stanislaus Safe Energy and the Energy Research Group, were among the educational booths that promoted various forms of energy conservation and solar power. From 1979 to 1996 the center annually recognized local people with lifetime peacemaking service as Friends of Peace.
The old storefront was demolished in 1979.
Again the local peace community pooled its resources for the down payment on a Sixth Street house. The new Peace/Life Center opened just as draft registration was reimposed. (Remember President Carter wanting to scare the Soviets out of Afghanistan with our draft? The Soviets stayed for their own “Vietnam lesson.”)
The mortgage was burned at the center’s 15th anniversary party.
In 1981 the center, along with several other groups and individuals, was sued for $1 million over work delays at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant caused by anti-nuclear demonstrations; the nuisance case was eventually dismissed.
With Reagan’s 1980 presidential election, many reawakened to the sorry state of foreign policies, the nuclear arms race and the environment, though few had recognized the links among these issues.
Dan Onorato and Charles Milligan started the Stanislaus County Interfaith Committee on Latin America in 1981. Under Nancy Smith’s leadership, the group provided programs on current events on Latin America, collected funds and materials for humanitarian projects in Central America, and organized lobbying and demonstrations. With the Center and the Emergency Response Network, the Interfaith Committee sponsored sit-ins at then-Representative Tony Coehlo’s office in 1985 and 1987.
In February 1982 Louise and Wilfred Weaver arranged to show “The Last Epidemic: The Medical Consequences of Nuclear War.” The Physicians for Social Responsibility film was so popular a copy was purchased the next day.
Dr. Sandy Lawrence, Sam Tyson, and others from the center usually accompanied the powerful film as discussion leaders. Sharon Fowler Froba arranged to show it to all Modesto High students, with dozens of peace people engaging students in follow-up discussions. The film was so widely shown that the first copy literally wore out in three months. So, almost, did Lawrence and Tyson.
That spring MID customers voted down the public utility’s bid to buy into an Arizona nuclear plant. Jim Knox, on leave from Ecology Action, led the campaign.
Initiative campaigns for both the Nuclear Freeze (passed) and Bottle Bill (defeated) were coordinated at the Center during fall, 1982.
That same fall, the Center initiated Choose Life, a spiritual witness, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, to oppose the lab’s weapons research and development work. Over 50 northern California groups took part the first year, and it continues.
Since 1983, Peace Camp, an annual June weekend in the Sierra, has hosted such speakers as Sojourners editor Jim Wallis, environmentalist David Brower, and journalists Larry Bensky and Normon Solomon.
To a Modesto Church of the Brethren-sponsored Peace Retreat Committee, former Modesto Junior College President Dr. Henry Tyler proposed a sister-city relationship with a Soviet city. Modesto was linked with Khmelnitsky, Ukraine; and a wonderful example of citizen diplomacy germinated, with people active in the Center as part of the delegations.
In the late 1980s Kay Barnes, Jim Higgs, and Sam Tyson led the Center’s effort in a coalition that prevented United Technologies from building a rocket fuel plant in Merced County and the federal government from building the Superconducting Supercollider in San Joaquin County.
Launched in 1987, the Peace Essay Contest now involves hundreds of 5th-12th grade students each year. Argentinean Nobel Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel was guest speaker at the awards reception in 1988. Harvest Supper was revived in 1994 to help fund the Peace Essay Contest. A simpler Harvest Gathering now serves the same need.
As the Center’s second decade neared an end, Stanislaus Connections replaced the trusty, old monthly newsletter. The expanded format allows more space for peace, social justice, and environmental issues and reaches farther into the community. Fred Herman served as editor for almost three years; a volunteer committee now produces it.
In fall 1990 Ruth Enero organized a demonstration calling for negotiations in the Persian Gulf. The Center was swamped as the US went to war. The Center urged the US government to initiate multilateral negotiations to restrict international arms sales and transfers, outlaw chemical weapons, conclude a comprehensive test ban treaty, and resolve outstanding disputes in the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ecology Action moved into the center in 1992. Green Party volunteers helped staff the office in 1993, and Amnesty International and Feminists for Life met there monthly.
After years of increasing vandalism, safety, and maintenance problems, the Center sold the Sixth Street house in 1994 and moved to its present location at 720 13th Street, Suite D, with Ecology Action continuing to share office space until its demise in 1998. This location also housed a special Sierra Club project.
Tommie Lee Ware Muhammad, Social Services Coordinator for the city of Modesto, sought the Center’s help in highlighting Martin Luther King’s bold vision of social, political, and economic justice. Kay Barnes, Jim Costello, Dan Onorato, and Gene Palsgrove helped develop the January 1994 workshop “A Matter of Justice,” the first step in exploring and implementing King’s vision. This became the first in now 21 annual MLK Commemorations featuring such distinguished guest speakers MLK’s co-workers Rev. Al Smith and Rev. Joseph Lowry, and Civil Rights leader Robert Moses; his late daughter, Yolanda King; actor/activists GregAlan Williams, Edward James Olmos, Danny Glover, and Mike Farrell; astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison; writer and intellectual Dr. Cornel West; Titan coach Herman Boone; Native Peoples activist Russell Means; Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi; activist Van Jone; California political leader Mayor Willie Brown; comedian Dick Gregory; Congressman John Lewis; civil rights pioneer, Diane Nash; and legend Julian Bond.
In 1998 Modesto High School teacher Sharon Froba organized a “Day of Respect,” aided by Kay Barnes, Jim Higgs, John Lucas, and Renaldo Raeheim. It is now a part of Modesto City School’s new tolerance and respect policy, a model for the city’s other high schools.
By 1996 it became clear the sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were punishing the people of Iraq rather than destabilizing the dictator’s hold on power. The UN concluded that over 500,000 children had died in Iraq, as a direct result of the U.S. led sanctions. To help educate people about this evil, the Center twice sponsored visits to Modesto by Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness. Voices was sending medical and educational supplies to help the Iraqi people despite injunctions from the U.S. Justice Department against such actions. The Center also hosted the Omran Bus Tour that came to Modesto Junior College to educate students about the effects of the sanctions.
In 2000 the Center’s Board decided to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2005 the Center sponsored, with the Modesto Church of the Brethren, a presentation by two women from the region, an Israeli, Robi Damelin, and a Palestinian, Nadwa Sarandah, both members of The Parents Circle of the Bereaved. Their organization, which includes relatives of victims killed on both sides, works to promote understanding, reconciliation, and peace. In August of that year Center Board member Dan Onorato went to Israel-Palestine with the Interfaith Peace-Builders. Once home he created a multi-media presentation to educate about the effects of the Israeli occupation and the work of both Israelis and Palestinians to promote peace nonviolently. In 2008 the Center, again with the Church of the Brethren, brought a Palestinian film maker, Mohammad Alatar, to Modesto to show his latest documentary, “Jerusalem: the Eastside Story.” In April 2010 Ismail Kharoub, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and Ofra Yeshua-Lyth, a Jewish Israeli, will talked at the Brethren Church about the toll the conflict and the failure to resolve it through diplomacy have had on both peoples in Israel.
Throughout this period and up to the present (2010), the Center has often been the lone voice in our area of opposition to U.S. military actions in other countries: Grenada (1987), Panama (1990), the former Yugoslavia (the late 1990s), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003) and now Afghanistan again. For a long period till his death in 2002, Center leader and lifetime pacifist Sam Tyson held an often solitary witness each week in front of the Federal Post Office with a sign saying, “War Is Not the Answer.” In keeping with his and the Center’s long tradition of anti-war protest, we have rallied, marched, and held vigils against the Iraq War, and now the recently escalated war in Afghanistan.
It’s a painful irony that in 2000 the UN declared the first 10 years of the New Millennium the “Decade of Nonviolence.” yet since September 11, 2001, fear, insecurity, and violence have only increased. With Barack Obama’s election as President, hope for significant change soared, but the country’s funding of military budgets is at an all-time high while the U.S. wages two wars. As this history is being completed (April 2010), there’s some positive movement toward reducing nuclear arsenals in the U.S. and Russia, but the overall outlook is filled with challenges, and the expectations of a great transformation in our society have waned. A mature awareness is dawning of what Marian Wright Edelman once said: “A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back — but they’re gone. We are it. It’s up to us. It’s up to you.”
In the words of lifelong local activist Marie Seaman (1912-2000), “Work for peace and justice not because you expect to see change in your lifetime, but because it must be done. Keep making changes because, if you don’t, we’ll all be lost. You may feel alone [but] remember there are many others, kindred spirits, who are with you. The risks are worth it, and keep on dancing.”
— Indira Clark & Dan Onorato (April 2010)