Monday Q&A: Modesto Peace/Life Center on a mission since 1970

jholland@modbee.comMay 4, 2014 

  • PEACE/LIFE CENTER

    Address: 720 13th St., Modesto. The office is not regularly staffed. Call (209) 529-5750 for appointments.

    Online: www.peacelifecenter.org. The site has a link to videos that the center has produced on various issues and to a monthly newsletter called Stanislaus Connections.

— The Modesto Peace/Life Center launched amid the Vietnam War and has worked on environmental, civil rights and other causes ever since.

It has protested other wars, sent children to its Peace Camp in Tuolumne County and hosted speakers from around the nation and world.

Longtime leader Jim Costello reflected on the volunteer-run center, which he described as “working in the spirit of nonviolence fostered by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. for peace, justice and a sustainable environment.”

How did the center come about?

In 1970, in the middle of the Vietnam War, some members of the Church of the Brethren, Quakers and others started the center to provide draft counseling. We helped many young men probe and act on their conscience. We organized marches, demonstrations and educational efforts that said repeatedly that war was morally wrong. Along with millions throughout the country, we helped bring that devastating war to an end.

What issues are at the forefront today?

Immigration reform is an important issue. We are attempting to join other community groups working on this. Homelessness and inequality are important issues. Several of our members are creating a documentary with interviews of some of our local homeless people in order to inform the community on how they live and the problems they face.

Do you often encounter Modesto-area residents with different views about war, the environment and other issues? If so, how do you engage them?

We certainly encounter people who yell at us or flip us off when we stand in public protest to war, violence and intolerance. Most of them just blast away and do not seek any dialogue, but when they do, we listen respectfully to what they have to say and try to find points of common ground. Sometimes our public protests bring positive response from those who agree but are not comfortable taking a public stand, or those who are simply glad not to be alone in their own quiet yearnings. Principles of nonviolence guide how we behave at our activities. Some who see us as a threat don’t really understand.

How many members do you have?

We have about 1,150 on our mailing list and about 400 active contributors. More people become involved when hot issues occur like the wars or when there was the threat of nuclear war.

How are you involving young people?

We offer a yearly Peace Essay Contest, in which 800 to 1,000 Stanislaus County students in grades 5 to 12 participate by writing on a peace-related topic, and a Peace Camp in the Sierra, which connects children with others whose families also are willing to try to create a more peaceful world.

What are the center’s most important accomplishments?

In the mid-70s, members of the Peace/Life Center created Stanislaus Safe Energy to stop a proposed nuclear power plant outside of Waterford. We initiated the first Solar Faire that promoted energy conservation and renewable, sustainable power sources like solar energy.

In the early 1980s, with the tension mounting between the Soviet Union and the United States, the Peace/Life Center initiated the Choose Life demonstrations at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. We host a Hiroshima Remembrance each year Aug. 6. A grass-roots citizen diplomacy effort, the Modesto-Khmelnitsky Sister City friendship (with Ukraine), began, which Peace Center members helped initiate and which continues today.

In the 1980s, we worked with the local Interfaith Committee on Latin America to stop the U.S.-backed wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Our summer Peace Camp, now in its 32nd year, started in 1982, when we hosted Jim Wallis of Sojourners as our keynote speaker. In 1987, we launched our yearly Peace Essay Contest.

In the 1990s, we opposed the U.S. invasion of Panama, the Balkans war and the first war against Iraq. We became intensely involved in the movement to stop the U.S.-backed sanctions against Iraq, which, the U.N. concluded, were responsible for the deaths of over a half a million Iraqi children.

In 1994, we also began our collaboration with Tommie Muhammad at the King-Kennedy Memorial Center to begin the free-to-the public, annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration. The new millennium saw the center focusing on the Middle East. In cooperation with the Modesto Church of the Brethren, we’ve organized a number of educational events on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since 2001, we have sponsored monthly Peace Vigils at Five Points against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We try to foster community with our yearly Pancake Breakfast, to be held at the Modesto Church of the Brethren from 8 a.m. to noon June 1. All are welcome.

Will the center be around for a long time to come?

We have been hanging in there for 44 years, so we hope to continue for a long time. We are supported solely by donations and could use more to help keep us viable and to support our peace-oriented activities.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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