“We lay down our walls. This is our call. We’re walking on the path of peace…”
The words of this song, recorded by some of our Peace Heroes’ students in Kenya, were running through my head the other day as I reflected on how walls have been such a dominating feature of 2020. As I write this I am on my 10th day of quarantine after traveling internationally. I have one day to go before I will be released from these walls—before I am able to go outside and breathe deeply and see the world around me and not just the walls of my house. It’s hard to believe that this time last year we were having a family reunion, gallivanting around Kenya in blissful ignorance of how, in such a short time, things like social distancing, hand sanitizer, and Zoom would become major factors in our day to day life.
It was also about this time last year that Kirsten and I were asked by one of our pilot schools in Kenya if we could write a play about Gandhi. They wanted to put on a full-scale production as part of their focus on this particular Peace Hero. I remember sitting on Kirsten’s porch, brainstorming together about what kind of play she should write. From the get-go we knew it would have to center on unity—the thing Gandhi prized above everything else. This is a part of his story that has largely been forgotten: that Gandhi’s struggle for freedom and justice was ultimately driven by the deeper desire for unity among his people. One of Peace Heroes’ primary goals is to give students practical tools for building unity and celebrating diversity, so we knew this theme was timely and important.
Setting the play in one of Gandhi’s ashrams seemed like a great way to dramatize his deepest held convictions. Gandhi was very intentional with his ashrams, turning them into places where everyone was welcome. Everyone admitted into the ashram was expected to participate in the community’s life, which included an equal division of labor to keep the place running. This was no small feat in the India of Gandhi’s day. To bring Hindus, Muslims, and Christians together, as well as people from the various castes, was almost unthinkable. Nevertheless Gandhi persisted, believing that his ashrams could be living examples of how Indians could live together in unity, despite their differences.
It was hard for those coming to the ashrams to let go of their prejudices against those who either held a different religious belief, or were from a different caste. It is said that even Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, balked when she understood that she too would have to clean toilets—work that was “reserved” for those on the lowest rungs of the caste system. She even went on strike for a while when Gandhi admitted a family of “untouchables”—the lowest caste—into the ashram. Learning to accept those who were different was no easy task. But Gandhi’s unflinching belief in the ability of people to rise above their differences helped the people in his ashrams learn to see each other in another light—the light of their shared humanity. Even Kasturba gradually had the courage not only to embrace the family of untouchables, but even to treat their son as if he were one of her own.
As Kirsten and I brainstormed the best way to dramatize this, we landed on the fun idea of giving the characters in the play a hand held “wall”—a square piece of cardboard taped to a stick that they could hold up in front of their face when meeting new arrivals to the ashram who were not part of their “tribe” or group. The play would visually showcase the ways in which people are always putting walls up between themselves and others. Kirsten took this idea and ran with it, writing a highly comical play that focused on all the ways our putting up of walls can actually be quite ridiculous—and hilarious. It was simple, it was funny, and it was powerful because it was such a true depiction of what each and every one of us tends to do on a daily basis—consciously or subconsciously—when we hold up our own invisible wall as soon as we encounter someone “other” or different.
As the play took shape, we collaborated with the creative and passionate music teacher, Jo, who worked hard to compose songs to go with the story, turning it into a wonderful musical. Later we would hear from Jo how, during one of the dress rehearsals, it suddenly dawned on her that not only were her students learning about those who are different from them, they were also learning how to face conflict head on. When the students sang, “We lay down our walls. This is our call. We’re walking on the path of peace. We lay down our walls. Instead, love for all. We’re walking on the path of peace” with their hands clasped and their feet beating the floor, she was moved to tears by their passion and unity. Students and teachers alike were excited to see the production come to life, eagerly awaiting its premiere, which was set for the end of March 2020.
Everyone reading this can guess what happened next. One week before the Gandhi production was set to debut, the school—and much of the world—shut down and the play was put on hold indefinitely. Ironically, just as the students were rehearsing their song about putting down walls, walls were going up across the globe. Suddenly people everywhere were confined to the walls of their homes and countries, their freedom of movement restricted like never before. But it wasn’t just physical walls we all faced; we also felt ourselves enclosed by the walls of our fears—the fear of the unknown, of how this global tumult would play out.
As spring rolled into summer, walls not only enclosed us, they divided us in new and devastating ways. Contentious elections in various countries, racial tensions, tensions between those who could afford to wait out the virus in relative comfort and those whose lives were effectively destroyed by it—there was no lack of ways in which walls went up and the divisions between people became apparent in the year 2020.
But if 2020 was the year that made visible the fault lines in our world’s social, political, and economic structures, it was also the year in which a brave group of students at a small school in Kenya declared with great gusto that they would lay down their walls and walk in the way of peace. As Jo told us: “I think the greatest impact Peace Heroes had on my classroom was teaching children (and teachers) to see: to see through conflict, to see a shared humanity, and to see beauty in those standing right before them.”
We can let the walls in our lives define us, or we can choose to lay them down for the sake of a unity that is much more hopeful and beautiful. As we head into 2021, I wonder if we can commit, together with those students in Kenya, to put down our walls and walk in the way of peace? This is the opportunity that 2020 has opened up to us. I pray that we will have the courage to seize it.