It's straight-up noon on a hot Memphis Wednesday and Pamela McFarland is the first to arrive at the front steps of First Congregational Church in Cooper-Young. Dressed in black, she has come here to join the Women in Black vigil almost every Wednesday since the invasion of Iraq. "Because," she says, "it is something I can do."
The Rev. Cheryl Cornish, First Congregational's pastor, rests several black foam boards against the base of one of the church's columns. As Julia Hicks, the church's director of missions, sets up a conga drum, more women arrive. Some they know; some are strangers, here for the first time. Each reads through the available signs: "Women in Black"; "Stop the Violence"; "Be a Peacemaker"; "Stop the War on Iraq"; "Grieve the Violence"; "Around the World Women Stand for Peace." Each chooses a sign and takes a place in front of the church.
Every Wednesday since March 2003, Memphis Women in Black have gathered on the church steps. During the buildup to the war in early 2003, they held daily vigils. "People from all over the world voiced their opposition to this war," Cornish says. "There were over 3,000 protests globally between January 3rd and April 12th of 2003, involving over 36 million people. And yet, we invaded."
The vigils, now held from noon to 12:30 p.m., are a way to connect with the global movement for peace.
"It was the women of Israel and Palestine who needed to express their grief. Women are the ones most affected by war and the ones who are most left out of the decision-making process," Cornish says.
Women in Black began in January 1988, a month after the first Palestinian intifada, when 15 Israeli women began gathering weekly at a major traffic intersection in Jerusalem. They dressed in black to denote their grief. They raised black signs that read, "Stop the Occupation." Palestinian women joined the Israeli women. Within months, women were holding similar vigils throughout Israel.
As word spread, women in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia held solidarity vigils. Soon, Women in Black in other countries were protesting local issues as well. In Italy, it was organized crime. In Germany, the women gathered to grieve the violence of neo-Nazism, racism against guest workers, and nuclear arms. In Belgrade, Women in Black maintained their nonviolent opposition to the Milosevic regime. In March 2001, the Belgrade women were awarded the Millennium Peace Prize for Women from the U.N. Development Fund for Women.
As Julia Hicks begins drumming, retired consultant Dave Lindstrom takes his place in the shade of the porch, holding the "Blessed are the Peacemakers" sign. He and another man stand in the background, a supporting role. A longtime peace advocate, Lindstrom marched on Washington in 1963, where he heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Lindstrom has stood on the steps of First Congregational Church almost every week since the vigils began. It's as much a part of his life as brushing his teeth. And when there's a cold north wind blowing freezing rain? "You just remember to wear a black raincoat."
"Sometimes it seems pointless," McFarland says. "But regardless of what you think of war, still, kids are dying. Kids and people and old women are dying and nobody wants little kids to die."
Judy Bettice, a member of Pax Christi and St. Patrick Catholic Church, saw a flyer about the Memphis group. Since she was teaching full-time in a Memphis city school, she could only join the vigils during school breaks. Undaunted, the proponent of nonviolence told her high school students about Women in Black and that she planned to wear black to school every Wednesday in solidarity. "Many weeks later, when I forgot it was a Wednesday, students asked me why I wasn't wearing black that day!" she says.
"Women in Black is first of all a statement of grief," Cornish says. "Grief for all the fallen children, women, men, soldiers, and citizens around the world who have been victimized by violence. It has been moving and healing to wear black and to name our grief — first of all, at the 9/11 attacks. We wear black to grieve every soldier lost in Iraq, every Iraqi citizen and child victimized by this war. We grieve that families have been separated; futures devastated by this war."
There's not as much traffic on South Cooper in the middle of the weekday. For the most part, drivers are watching traffic. A few slow down to read the signs. Most of them honk or give a thumbs up. Walkers tend to just keep walking. Now and then someone will comment — like the man who strolls by with three young children. He reads all the signs, then says, "I agree with every one of them." The Women in Black smile and nod in response.
"I wish passersby knew the actual power of their responses," Hicks says. "When we get negative responses — which is quite rare — it simply reinforces our conviction to continue this presence for peace and nonviolence. But the positive response — even just a slight wave — is a joyful reminder that we're not alone and that we're standing for many, many people who either don't have the time or maybe the readiness to stand on the street for themselves."
For Cheryl Cornish, "Women in Black has been a way that I have expressed my faith and my commitment to live after the way of Jesus. When I stand on the street with a sign saying 'No to War,' I am living my faith and trying to say to others that there is another way to live."