By Charles deGravelles
On Monday, yet another mass shooting, this time in Washington, D.C., claimed the lives of 13 people and sent a now common shock through the spine of our battered country. Recently, the President tried to convince us to lob missiles into Syria, even as we continue to struggle, like Br’er Rabbit, to disengage from the tar babies of Afghanistan and Iraq. And now that we have passed yet another anniversary of 9/11, the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the “war on terror” seem no closer.
I live in an area saturated with violence. Two cities in Louisiana, New Orleans and my own hometown of Baton Rouge, are among the most crime-ridden in the nation. Murders and other violent crimes are commonplace; there is a steady flow through the court systems into the state’s overcrowded prisons, already the most populated, per capita, in the country.
I grew up in a more peaceful town and time, but I have certainly witnessed my share of the pain and grief that comes from violence. I have been a minister at Angola prison for 23 years, and I know that for every one of the more than 5,000 men who are incarcerated there, a tsunami-like wave of trauma, heartbreak and loss has radiated outward, engulfing the lives of loved ones of victims and perpetrators alike.
For three years I was spiritual advisor for a death row inmate, Feltus Taylor, a man who robbed and shot, execution style, people he had worked with at a fried chicken restaurant on Florida Boulevard. I was with Feltus on June 6, 2000 when he himself was put to death, execution style, by lethal injection in the death chamber at Angola. One of his victims, the only one to survive the shooting, forgave Feltus and reconciled with him, and these words of forgiveness and reconciliation were the last words Feltus ever heard as he died on the execution gurney.
All of this is to say I am not unfamiliar with the quest for peace in a world of violence. I am certainly an idealist, but I wouldn’t describe myself as a hopeless idealist. It is my strong religious faith and the experiences I’ve had over many years that give me hope, hope that, despite much evidence to the contrary, peace is both an imperative and is achievable.
Nonetheless, I was taken by surprise when I learned last fall that the Interfaith Federation of Baton Rouge had commissioned a renowned composer, Dr. Robert Kyr, to write a chorale on the theme of “Waging Peace.” I was intrigued for a number of reasons.
The first thing that caught my attention was Kyr’s method of composition. Here was a composer who was not going to write from on high — although he certainly could have; he’s a university professor of music. And he was not going to write from a great distance — although he certainly could have; he lives and works in Oregon. And he wasn’t going to write some generic piece filled with platitudes. Instead, he came to Baton Rouge several times to learn about us, to understand our city — who we are and what we’re going through. He sent out a questionnaire asking people to describe their own experiences of violence and peace, and he promised the people who returned their questionnaires that their words — not just his — would be included in his composition. To put it another way, the city of Baton Rouge was quite literally his co-composer.
Among the many who responded were my students at Episcopal High School. Again, I was taken by surprise. Many, many students responded — not only by filling out the questionnaire with their own words and phrases and experiences of violence and peace, but with lots of moving artwork as well. I shipped to Kyr a stack of student work six-inches high.
The final thing that caught me off guard is that I had never thought to use art as a weapon for “waging peace.” I am myself a poet, fiction writer, and a composer. You may trust me that I am not in Dr. Kyr’s league. I’m a rock and roll/rhythm and blues guy. If you want to get a feel for what my music is like, check out the name of my band: Shadrach and the Tongues of Fire!
Nonetheless, to write a piece of music about peace for — and with! — a community at war with itself — was amazing to me. The composition was premiered in Baton Rouge in May at Broadmoor Baptist Church. It blew me away. It is a remarkable piece of music — in its organization, in the many expressive moods of its music, and perhaps most of all in its many voices, the voices of my neighbors in all their pain and hope. After it was over, someone asked me how I liked it. “I am one big goose bump,” I responded.
To put it another way, I was inspired. And one of the things I was inspired to do was to create a class for high school students called “The Quest for Peace in a World of Violence.” As I envisioned it, the class would study violence and peace from the bottom up — from suicide through international conflict — but it would come down, by the end of the semester, to our own city and its challenges, and we would work as a class to make some contribution — however small — towards peace — here in this place and now.
When I pitched the course to the high schoolers in January, I was hoping only to get enough students to make a class. But they took the bait. Eighty-five students signed up for the course as their first choice; the waiting line was wrapped around the block. Students who had already met their religion requirements and didn’t need the credit were signing up. What can I say? I was one big goose bump.
We began our work in August. We’ve compared motives for violence in Homer’sIliad to Cain’s murder of Abel in Genesis, and we’ve also been on a field trip to the Baton Rouge Crisis Intervention Center to learn about suicide. We’ve looked at Picasso’s Guernica and Goya’s Third of May, and we’ve also been to the Capital Area Human Services District to learn about the relationships among mental health, addictions, homelessness, poverty and violence. We’ll be listening to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and we’ll also be hosting East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux to learn about BRAVE,the new community initiative against violence in Baton Rouge. Our list of academic and practical adventures goes on and on — from a trip to Angola prison to putting up our own homemade “pinwheels for peace” in the rotunda of the State Capitol building for Louisiana World Peace Day.
My students come to class each day excited. We are doing something real. We are heading into the impossible. I look forward to keeping you abreast of our adventures.
Charlie deGravelles lives and works in Baton Rouge, La. He is an Episcopal deacon, serving at Trinity Church and as a chaplain at Episcopal High School where, among other things, he teaches a course in “The Quest for Peace in a World of Violence.”