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“Shalom activists” inaugurate new Peace School

   
 


Menwith Hill is reputedly the largest US spy base in the world, housing huge covered satellite dishes in golf ball-like domes capable of intercepting phone calls, emails, and faxes from and to all parts of the world.

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Shalom activist Ben Gilchrist holds a peace flag at the Menwith Hill demonstration while Kathy Thiessen, background left, looks on.

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October 27, 2006
-by Dan Dyck with Kathy Thiessen

Winnipeg, Man. and London, England — On a late summer evening, a convoy of self proclaimed “shalom activists” drives over the English North Yorkshire moors toward several enormous golf ball-like dome structures known as Menwith Hill.

At 560 acres, Menwith Hill is reputedly the largest US spy base in the world. Capable of two million intercepts per hour, huge covered satellite dishes dot the horizon, always listening, grabbing phone calls, faxes and emails from the thin air of cyberspace. It is apparently accountable to no one and authorities refuse to answer the questions of the public, reporters, or members of Parliament.

On this Tuesday evening, the base again is confronted by a nonviolent demonstration led by a group of Quaker women representing the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases (www.CAAB.org.uk) and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – a weekly event that’s been going on for five years.

This time the typically small vigil is boosted by 15 students from the inaugural year of Peace School, the vision of Jonathon Dorsett of Leeds.

Peace School (www.peaceschool.org.uk), a member of the Root and Branch Network that includes the London Mennonite Centre, is the direct result of Dorsett’s personal epiphany experience. While working for OXFAM, the peace activist met a colleague who had been putting his life at risk in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dorsett realized that he and “most Western people of ‘good conscience’ picked what and where we involved ourselves without putting ourselves or our lifestyles on the line.”

The protesters are confronted by police officers from the moment they leave their cars. Rules of engagement are reviewed – no crossing the yellow line that marks the edge of the base, do not cross the road, do not obstruct traffic. Meanwhile, other officers record the names and descriptions of the participants and video tape the affair.

“The police officers were a little friendly, in an official sort of way,” said Kathy Thiessen, Peace School participant and Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker at the London Mennonite Centre. “Some of the Peace School people conversed with them, telling them about why we were here on this night and about Peace School.”

Participating in the protest is just one aspect of shalom activism, posits Dorsett. Shalom activism must be applied to all spheres of life: prayer, community, worship, gender equality, economics and value-based living – living the values of God as shown through Jesus.

“It felt unsettling for me to be there, standing at the gates,” said Thiessen. She and her husband Vic have previously worked at the Military Counselling Network in Germany. “[There] I was friends with military women and wives. [At Menwith] I did not like being looked upon as a nuisance by the women driving through the gates.”

Residents and workers at the base have grown somewhat accustomed to the weekly demonstrations, though some still clearly get annoyed, said Peace School participant and Mennonite Central Committee worker Dora-Marie Goulet. “If I were them I could imagine getting to the point where I really wouldn't like Tuesdays, just because I'd have to go past these people again, who were trying to suggest that what my life presently revolved around was fundamentally wrong.” Goulet palpably felt an exacerbated sense of “us and them” as employees tried to get home after a long day of work.

Goulet believes that relationship building is fundamental to a path to peace. “Talking to the officers was the highlight for me, because although the ‘persistant widow’ method of the demonstrations is a tried and true way of working for change, change can also come through relationship, once everyone remembers that everyone else is human too,” she said. “Peace building is a lot more complex than marching and waving signs.”

Dorsett was positive about using the Menwith Hill experience as a practical application for students. “On Tuesday we had been discussing the issues of empire and the powers. So there we were at Menwith Hill, stumbling against empire,” he said.


 


Jonathan Dorsett spent a year setting up the Peace School. Its first sessions began in late August, 2006.

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Sidebar: A Peace School is born

Jonathan Dorsett’s very intentional peace journey took 18 months of personal reflection and applied discipleship study at Workshop.

Workshop, like the newly formed Peace School (www.peaceschool.org.uk/), is a member of the ecumenically-minded Root and Branch Network which includes the London Mennonite Centre, a ministry of Mennonite Church Canada Witness and its partner, Mennonite Mission Network.

At Workshop, the reflective and gentle spirited Dorsett first “encountered the vision of shalom.” Shalom activism “actively takes the initiative, working to bring about radical change …impacting every area of life from the personal to the global,” says Dorsett. This encounter made everything in his life “… fall apart and at the same time come together and make sense. Suddenly all the fragments of the Christian faith I had experienced slotted into place with shalom as the Kingdom vision.”

A grant of £6000 from Seedbed – an organization that puts money into grassroots Christian initiatives in the UK – enabled Dorsett to develop the concept of Peace School. By August 2006, 15 people from various backgrounds came together for the first ten residential days of a year of discovery.