BY COLMAN MCCARTHY
WASHINGTON. At the far end of a narrow second-floor hallway in the Perry School Community Services Center, a three-story brick building in a low-income neighborhood that’s a short hike from the U.S. Capitol, is the Peace Room. At the top of the door is a painting of a wide-winged dove. Inches below are words that might have been lifted from a bumper sticker: “Stand for peace.” “May peace prevail on earth.”
Open the door and in a room no larger than 25 feet by 15 feet, shelves are packed with peace books and more painted messages: “Check feelings, it’s OK for both of us to win.” “Peace train, hop aboard.” “Identify the problem.”
Since 1998, the room has been the operational hive of Little Friends for Peace. The directors and co-founders are Mary Joan and Jerry Park, who have earned a revered place in the nation’s peace education movement.
This is the 35th year of Little Friends for Peace, a nonprofit that began in 1981 when Mary Joan Park, in her early 30s, opened her home in St. Paul, Minn., to a group of 5-year-olds. They were told stories about peacemakers, and were taught the ways of cooperation, the benefits of sharing and kindness, and practical lessons of conflict resolution: skills for a lifetime.
At the Perry Center in early January, Mary Joan remembered the early days of her academic efforts to increase peace and decrease violence: “When I was doing child care in my home, a little boy of 5 said to me, ‘Mrs. Park, you aren’t going to live long because you don’t like guns and there are a lot of bad guys out there and they are going to get you.’ ”
Another recollection: “For a time, we had a pregnant teenage girl living with us. She said once, ‘I’m glad I’m pregnant because I probably am going to die in a nuclear war in two years and I want to experience what it is to be pregnant.’ ”
Thirty-five years ago, it was unlikely that either Mary Joan, now 67, or Jerry Park, 74, foresaw how expansive Little Friends for Peace would become. Currently, with the help of some 70 high school and college volunteers, it runs educational programs in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. This includes classroom teaching; training workshops; afterschool peace clubs; evening adult courses; seminars in addiction centers; retreats; intergenerational summer peace camps; and an annual weeklong seminar in El Salvador.
The couple estimates that more than 10,000 children and adults have been served. In 2008, Pax Christi USA honored the Parks with its Teachers of Peace Award.
“Peace education is education that helps find inner peace,” Mary Joan said. “It touches on social, emotional and spiritual wellness. It is education that helps discover our gifts and talents. If we want peace, we have to experience, learn and practice it.”
Mary Joan, one of eight children in a Catholic activist family in Elmhurst, Ill., earned a teaching degree in 1970 from Mount Mary College in Milwaukee. (Last October, the school, now a university, awarded her the alumna Madonna Medal for community service.)
Getting her footing, she taught seventh and eighth grades at St. Isaac Jogues Elementary School in Lisle, Ill. For a year, she toiled for minority children at the Ascension Elementary School in Minneapolis.
In 1973, she met Jerry Park at a warehouse that stored textbooks for religion teachers. They married four years later, and the couple has raised six children. The oldest, Sarah, 37, earned a master’s in peace studies at the University of Notre Dame and is now an immigration lawyer in Atlanta. The youngest, Timothy, 27, has a degree in the culinary arts and runs a pastry order company, Timmy’s Pieces of Peace. He serves as the chef at the family’s summer peace camps and afterschool programs.
Jerry Park, raised in Milwaukee and the son of Navy physician who was part of the medical team at Pearl Harbor in 1943, entered a diocesan seminary at 17 in 1958. He stayed seven years and left before ordination “because of the celibacy rule and coming to realize that a priestly ministry can be broader than being a cleric.”
In 1966, he joined the Peace Corps and was dispatched with a large group of volunteers to India. After returning to the United States, he found work in two Washington-area parishes as the director of religious education. Neither post lasted long, owing, he says, to being supervised by two pastors “who were resisting the reforms of Vatican II. Neither of them trusted laypeople. I was replaced twice by nuns.”
He went to Minnesota and from 1979 to 1985 was at the Lutheran Social Services program that helped settle unaccompanied children from Vietnam and Cambodia. Not long after, his fortunes were a bit brighter as a director of religious education: “I found a progressive pastor in St. Paul who encouraged me to offer suggestions to parishioners to find new ways in their own ministries.”
In 1988, the Parks relocated to the Washington area, and four years later, at 51, Jerry enrolled at the University of Maryland and in three years earned a nursing degree.
“Because of my father and brother being physicians,” he recalled in the Peace Room, “medicine was in my blood. Nursing was a calling that complemented all the teaching and social work that came before.”
Jerry’s current nursing commitments include serving at Christ House, a rehab facility for homeless men, and Joseph House, a hospice for men with HIV.
With grants from Catholic Charities and foundations, the current budget for Little Friends for Peace is $100,000, well short of a gigantic sum that would be fitting and might have upped the $14,000 that was Mary Joan’s perennial salary. Deservedly, it’s a bit higher now.
From the evidence, the Park children were none the worse for having full-gusto activist parents.
In fact, it was a boon. From Sarah the attorney to Timothy the chef, each is grounded in their adult lives and engaged in work that matters. Tommy Park, who earned a master’s degree in sports industry management at Georgetown University, is the executive director of the Alexandria (Va.) Soccer Association, which engages more than 4,000 youths.
“My parents always exposed us to numerous and diverse people,” Tommy said. “We often hosted foster children, refugees and exchange students. Their parenting style focused on being open to all of us and our differences.
“When we had conflicts, and we were certainly not immune, the peace train went into full steam. Sometimes it was annoying how well they were able to calm us, when I just wanted to battle my siblings for the sake of it. For example, my mom would take me out to lunch to talk about what was bothering me, why I felt how I did and how I could move forward. This would be after I threw a major tantrum that would put most parents over the edge and result in being grounded for a week. But how can you pout or not talk about your feelings when someone is listening and showing they care and are taking an approach of kindness rather than more conflict?”
“My children,” Mary Joan reflected, “were and are the heartbeat of my life. What I’ve tried to do with Little Friends is what I was first testing out with my husband and children: Our home became the teaching laboratory for the tools of nonviolence. Whatever the social justice work we were doing, the most important thing was our family. We loved being with our children and parenting them to the point that not only I was I a stay-at-home mom while they were young but Jerry lessened his hours so he could spend time with them. We involved them in our ministry.”
With the 2015 publication of their book, Live Peace, Teach Peace: Best Practices and Tools, it appears that the Park energy is not sapping.
“When friends ask me when will I be retiring,” Mary Joan said, “I answer that I want to use my gift and talents as long as I can. Little Friends keeps finding people of all ages with appetites for new tools for living nonviolently.”
[Colman McCarthy, a former Washington
Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C.]