House on a truck shelters roving peace advocate

DAN RODRICKS

May 11, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Karl Meyer drove his Peace House into Baltimore last week, for a two-day stop in a long journey that began 35 years ago when a shy farm boy from Vermont first acted on his great notions to save mankind.

A few minor adjustments in thinking -- and several jail sentences -- later, the whiskered peace activist is still on the road, spreading his philosophy of nonviolence, simplicity and reverence for the earth.

The Peace House is a symmetrical bulk of copper and wood that Meyer, a carpenter, erected on a Ford flatbed truck. He sleeps in it, drives it across the country, conducts lectures out of it. The Peace House contains a library on nonviolence. Its side windows display a sort of Hall of Fame of social activists, pacifists and thinkers.

Here are Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Bertrand Russell, Sojourner Truth, Mohandas Gandhi. There's a photograph of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk who helped Meyer organize a demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Cesar Chavez is here, and Abraham Muste, Helen Caldicott and the Sioux wise man, Black Elk.

Black Elk, a survivor of the first battle of Wounded Knee, is quoted on one of the posters: "The center is really everywhere; it is within each of us."

Karl Meyer subscribes to that idea. It was something he learned early on, the hard way. Back in the 1950s, when not yet 20 years old, Meyer went to Washington for two reasons: to lobby Congress for an end to the nuclear arms race and to establish a storefront shelter for the poor. Neither venture worked out very well.

"I was very idealistic," he says. "I was naive. I realized that, to bring change, you can't start at the top, you have to start at the bottom. I learned that you didn't go [to politicians] and ask them to learn to live in a peaceable way. You have to do it yourself. I learned that you can't save the world, you can't really save

another person. The world has to want to save itself; that other person has to want to save himself."

His inspiration was Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement to serve the poor and work for peace. In fact, the first time Meyer was arrested -- and he's been arrested many times during his 55 years -- he was with Dorothy Day in the Bowery, New York. It was 1958. Meyer had left the University of Chicago to save the world. He met Day as she and her comrades set out to protest the nuclear arms race by refusing to take part in a mandatory statewide air-raid drill. When they were arrested, the protesters were sitting on benches in a park, enjoying the sun. On his first venture into the world of peace activism, Karl Meyer got a 30-day jail sentence.

He's been arrested since then for his role in protests against nuclear arms, the war in Vietnam and, during the 1980s, U.S. policy in Central America. He marched for civil rights with King. He founded his own Catholic Worker soup kitchen and shelter in Chicago, and operated it for 13 years. His door was always open to the poor. "I didn't tell them how to live," he says. "I just provided them with food and shelter."

"I've had 35 years of firefights," he says on the steps of Viva House in West Baltimore, home of the Baltimore Catholic Worker soup kitchen. The Peace House is parked curbside, 10 feet away. "Now I'm going to have another 35 years, and I'll try to reach young people, one by one, with a fundamental message of living the nonviolent life, living peacefully together, sharing, material simplicity, service to others, reverence for the earth, and integrating all those principles."

And, these days, he's frequently asked about the horrors of Bosnia -- specifically what he thinks the world's response ought to be. Tough call, Meyer says, but certainly the answer is not in guns and air strikes. The road to peace requires imagination and hard sweat.

"Mobilizing world opinion," Meyer says. "Massive diplomatic intervention . . . The challenge to the world community is to show that this road is possible and to foster the development of strong public opinion within Yugoslavia for taking the road to peace.

"The task of the world community is to give voice to the demand for peace in behalf of the unarmed victims. Those in Yugoslavia who are open to a peaceful path probably constitute a silent majority. We must appeal to them. We must allow them to feel part of an overwhelming international consensus."

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