There’s a street in Baltimore where incandescent lights, flags, Christmas trees made out of recycled bicycle tires, and lit up crabs brighten cold December nights as people gather together year after year. Some hold hands, others push strollers, but each meander down the sidewalks with a sense of lifted spirit and joy, a little twinkle of hope somehow rising within them like the sun, undismayed and resolute, shining even if it’s going to be a cloudy day. Now in its 65th year, residents of W. 34th Street in Hampden, Baltimore put on a dazzling Christmas light display, multi-colored lights strung from one side of the street to the other unite neighbors in cheer as a “labor of love.” People from all over the world gather to check out this earnest display. Residents of each house on the block participate to emanate joy and unity, even though for them, this means a hike in their BGE bill, crowded streets with even more limited parking, and people roaming your street until all hours of the evening.
Each resident allows visitors to come up on to their porches and many leave out guestbooks for people to sign, noting that they delight over seeing where people have traveled from. I made my way down this street for an annual pilgrimage yesterday, just a short walk away from my house. I confess I began the evening with a slightly heavy heart exacerbated by too many conversations and images in the past week centered around gun violence or gloomy media portrayals of the fiscal cliff. I had just come from work, where I sat down with a man who had withered down to no more than 100 pounds, hospitalized from an opportunistic infection stemming from an HIV diagnosis. The holidays fast approaching, he whispered softly that his family doesn’t speak to each other. My heart broke. But this man had such a heavenly spirit in him, and warmed my heart with his resiliency, perseverance, and strength to keep hope alive for one more day. Needless to say, the presence of lights, people holding hands, arms draped around each other’s, smiling for pictures, made my heart grow warm on a chilling, windy evening. Of all the houses I visited that night, one stands out the most:
The Peace House. If you go to this neighborhood, it will be halfway down on your right. You can’t miss it. It’s the lawn with this emblazoned on the grass, welcoming you in:
I climbed up the steps and approached a table on the porch with a note from the house owners, Elaine and Ed. They describe the joy of living on this block, being able to mark a holiday season characterized by hope, goodwill, merriment, and joy. “Family and friends come together and peace seems possible. Whether it be a bright smile or the shiny eyes of a child or the kindness people show to one another, peace is all around.” They then invite each guest to write in a notebook what their vision of peace looks like, encouraging people to sign their name and mention where they’re from. Some of the comments in the book were funny, like “peace signs and pizza” and others were more serious, talking about being at peace within one’s soul to intentionally commit to bringing peace in interactions with each person one comes in contact with. Choked up, I continued to look around the porch. Pieces of fabric with “peace” written in over a dozen languages garnered the top of the porch like paper chain decorations. Dozens of rectangular flags criss-crossed above our heads: colored fabric with yin-yangs, the Star of David, the Celtic Cross, and other peace symbols. “Pray for peace” banners and rainbow “peace” pennants blew gently in the wind. “We can be the change we wish to see” emblem stitchery and a “Coexist” sticker (with the Islamic Star and Crescent, peace sign, the Jewish Star of David, and Christian cross) displayed to usher in the observance of peace as not only possible, but already occurring in this world. Also adorning the porch was a “world peace” display with newspaper footage of individual leaders who have stood for peace, containing images of faces such as Martin Luther King, Jane Addams, and Mohandas Gandhi, reminding each of us to take a stand for peace with whatever that looks like in our own creativity and passion.
It was beautiful, and just the reminder the world needs to hear more and more each day.
But perhaps what grabs me most about The Peace House is that when this couple moved here, the Peace House, as we know it, did not exist, but rather, what transpired came from the creativity, beauty, and imagination of their souls. Sometimes, we are met by doubters, by naysayers, by collective media and acts of violence that try to usurp beauty and harmony with discordance and chaos. But every day, we have a choice to make: to go along with the cynics or intentionally create acts of peace, beauty, and love for as many to experience as possible. The Peace House gave me hope that no matter what the news stories might say, or whatever the political or religious divides exist in the world, there are still places in which hope and peace and optimism dwell. That there are still compassionate people who want nothing more than to see the world engaged in love; people who don’t just pray prayers (though prayer may certainly be a part of the process), but actively, deliberately create safe places for peace to blossom. The type of place that offers a downhearted or weary wanderer just a little bit of hope, as if to say, “Don’t let your candle burn out just yet.”
Standing there on that porch, surrounded by words and phrases of such beauty, including a Christmas tree adorned with Tibetan prayer flags, and a banner crosshatched with “peace” in several languages, I knew, irrevocably, that peace can still be found and that even those who say peace on Earth is mere fallacy are welcomed in too, here at The Peace House, here in this world, where we can be active facilitators of peace, reconcilers of wrongs, through our homes, our relationships, our souls, and whenever we feel we cannot find it, that is where we must create it. Yes. We have to make peacehouses. We have to sing songs not just for our own ears, but together, whether on street corners in December or through rolled down windows in the spring time, laughing over off-key renditions of whatever catchy song plays from your radio at that moment. We have to speak and say a hearty, “hello!” to strangers, not waiting to speak only if spoken to.
Because there is more peace to be experienced on this Earth. We need only to get outside of our own microcosms of regularity and normalcy to create something more compelling, more inviting. And together, we will collectively taste shalom, pax, la paz, whirled peas, on Earth as in Heaven, this holiday season and always.