Take a stand. And be public about it.
This was the advice physics professor Dr. Hans von Baeyer gave the congregation of 50 people in the Wren Chapel last Saturday, 15 November. He was an invited speaker at the open service on conflict and peace presented by the Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Society (JUUS) entitled “They Shall Beat their Swords into Plowshares:” Humanity in the Face of War.
Dr. von Baeyer shared vivid remembrances of his childhood in Germany during the second World War and his later coping with the concept of a national, or “German guilt” which plagued him into adulthood, even after he lived in the U.S. and mastered the English language. He often wondered what exactly his parents did during the war but also was haunted by a more personal question.
“ â€˜What would I have done if I were an adult during that situation?’ was a question that occupied me frequently,” he shared. He decided that, during his adulthood, he would tackle this concern by taking definite stands on moral issues of the time.
“I became involved in the Civil Rights movement in Tennessee,” he said. “I had to take a stand and be public about it.” Dr. von Baeyer also became a U.S. citizen so that he could vote, which he stressed was the minimal but definite way to take a stand on an issue.
The second speaker, Assistant Professor of Government Dr. Paula Pickering, told the story of her involvement in human rights. She began work as an analyst at the State Department during the Bosnian War, but soon felt frustrated by her detachment from the suffering documented in her e-mails.
“It made me wonder if I was doing enough to improve the situation,” she recalled. “I always felt like I was taking from people – I wanted to give back,”
Dr. Pickering joined a human rights organization and began to work directly with needy Bosnians.
“I had to reevaluate what I could do as an individual, even though I was part of an international organization,” she said. “Instead of trying to help as many people as I could, I concentrated on a small amount […] I could take small steps.”
The service was interspersed with hymns and readings from Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance speeches. A meditation reminded the congregation that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.
Dr. Pickering understands that the reaches of a student are constrained and it is difficult to contribute to human rights campaigns from within the brick walls of the College. However, she suggests ways to first become informed about issues through organizations such as Amnesty International or the International Relations Club. Students have the opportunity to volunteer locally in their own communities or to take advantage of the relative proximity to DC by applying for internships in NGOs, non-profit, or human rights organizations. The Reves Center also offers a summer program for students who want to teach English in Bosnia.
“Before you become active you need to understand [the issues],” she said.
The JUUS wrapped up the session in the spirit of their liberal dedication to social justice and the search for personal faith. Linking hands, they pronounced, “Our meeting has ended, let our service begin.”