By Ed Chasteen
After asking directions from a man on the street and pedaling through downtown, I pass a vegetarian restaurant to my left. The aroma grabs me. No time. Got to find a room. You can eat later, I tell myself. Half a block past, I have to stop for a red light. Over my shoulder I glance at the restaurant.
And I can’t resist. I wheel my bike inside the restaurant and walk back to gawk at the beautiful food. I get my food and sit at the table next to the only other people in the place: a girl, a young woman, a man and a woman; sitting at the same table and all talking about health food.
And I feel the same urge to talk to them that I felt to come in this place. I almost turn around and blurt out my mission. But I can’t quite get myself to do it. I sit there long past the time it takes to eat, trying to talk myself into talking to them. Why is it so hard? How is it different from how it has been all across the country? I don’t know. But it is.
It’s past closing time. I can’t figure out how to interject myself into the conversation of these four, so I walk up front to my bike. There’s no way out except past me. I’ll stay here until they come past. Hopefully something will develop. But the door is locked; a waitress comes to say I’ll need to come out the back door. So I roll my bike down the aisle between the tables, past where we have all been sitting. They are standing to leave. The woman says, “My, that’s a good looking bike.”
This is my opening I’d been looking for. Quickly I tell her all about the bike and my ride. And needing a place to stay.
“You can stay with me” she says. “The loft in my garage hasn’t been cleaned but you’re welcome.”
Norma Corr draws me a map. The people with her are visiting from Chicago. They are out to see the town and not planning to be home for a while. But I’ll need to get there soon or it will be dark. I find my way along the streets and the bike paths Norma has listed, but not without asking supplemental directions from two older women walking their dog in the park. When I get to Norma’s, I take a seat on the bench in the small flower garden in front of her house.
When Norma and the others get home, we spend an hour in her living room talking about health foods, spirituality, her moving from Illinois to Oregon eight years ago, recycling trash. From out of the blue, Norma asks if I have heard of Peace Pilgrim. And suddenly I know why I could not pass that restaurant by and why I had to speak to Norma.
Twice before in my life I had met Peace Pilgrim. Those two meetings shaped my life and the planning for this ride. Now this third meeting promised to make sense for me of this cross-country odyssey. This was not a rational and conscious notion that came to my mind as Norma spoke, more a spiritual understanding that settled over me, an assurance that I was now farther along and about to know what Lloyd said I would.
The first time I met Peace Pilgrim I was a 21-year old English teacher at Round Rock High. My wife and I were also house parents at Texas Baptist Children’s Home. I was on my way to that home after school one day. Up ahead and to my right, I saw someone walking. As I drew close, I could read the words, “25,000 Miles For Peace” across her back. As I drove past her, I turned my head. Across the front of her blue tunic, it said “Peace Pilgrim”.
I had to know this person. I pulled off the road and stopped the car. I stepped out and ran back to her. “Who are you?” I blurted.
“My name is Peace Pilgrim, and I walk to tell people about peace. World Peace. And inner peace.”
I had heard people talk about peace before in my young life. But I had never been in the presence of absolute peace until that moment.
“Would you come home with me and talk to the girls in our cottage?” I heard myself asking her. She did. And the next morning, I took her to school to speak to our students in a hastily called assembly. She enchanted those students as she had me. While she was with us, we lived in the world we read about in scripture, a world where people love each other and live at peace. Then she was on the road again.
The second time I met her was twenty years later. I was teaching at William Jewell College when I read in the paper that she was nearby. I went to find her and brought her to campus to speak to my students. Her hair had been gray and pulled into a ponytail when I first met her. She looked no different or any older now. Her affect upon us all was the same.
Another decade passed, and I found myself planning this cross-country bicycle ride. Alone and without money, from Orlando up to Seattle and down to Los Angeles, I would ride. I would tell people about the Human Family Reunion, where who’s right is the wrong question and we all eat first and ask later. And when I sat to write about my ride, I found myself dedicating it to Peace Pilgrim.
Now three months into the ride, I had come to Eugene, Oregon. Passing that vegetarian restaurant in downtown Eugene, I had been overwhelmed with this irresistible urge to stop and go inside. Something would happen inside that restaurant that had to happen if my ride was to be complete.
I laughed out loud at the craziness of that notion. And I rode past the restaurant. But the traffic light on the corner turned red, and I had to stop. While I waited for the light to turn green, I looked back at that restaurant. And when the light changed, I made an unthinking U-turn. My third meeting with Peace Pilgrim awaited.
“Do you know she was killed in a car wreck?” Norma asked. I didn’t. “Have you read her book?” she asked. “I didn’t know she had one” “I’ve got a copy I’ll give you,” she replied. I was up most of the night. Reading. And thinking that I had ridden across America to meet Peace Pilgrim again.
And at last I knew what it was that Peace Pilgrim could do that so attracted me to her. She could go anyplace at anytime and talk to anyone about anything and feel safe. She was a World Class Person, the first and one of the few I would ever personally meet. And because I had met her, I had long been on my way to becoming World Class. Since that first meeting, I had been on my way, though not until now could I put that longing inside me into words. Now I can say it, and now I must live it: My mission in life is to move daily in this direction and to take everyone who wants to go with me.
I came into this world as a white male. I became a Christian. I have grown old. But color, gender, faith, and age are only the obvious descriptors of who I am. There are no boundaries on my soul, as there are none on yours. We are more than people see or hear or think of us. We are tailor-made in an off the rack world. None of us is meant to be compared to any other; we are unique in the world. Those boundaries people draw cannot contain us.
Boundaries are needed when we are new to life. We must learn one language, one faith. Essential, though, that is, such learning equips us only for the first part of life’s journey. This is not the full armor we must have for life’s long pilgrimage. Because we cannot learn a second language first or appreciate any faith until we are committed to one, we must be schooled early in our life in one language and one faith. Having learned well one language and one faith, we then are ready. Ready to move about in a world of 3,000 languages and dozens of faiths. Ready to become a World Class Person, able to go anyplace at anytime and talk to anyone about anything and feel safe.
We will forever approach this world and its people through the filter of that first language and faith, but we can in differing degrees become multi-lingual and appreciative of other faiths. My approach to the world will forever be shaped by the fact that I am a white, male, American, Christian. But I now know that I am more than these names given to me by those who seek thereby to limit where I can go and who I can talk to.
I want to be a World Class Person. I want to be at home wherever I go. All people are my people, all places on the planet are my home. This is the Declaration of Independence required of all who long to be World Class.
Any person on the planet has the potential to become World Class, and in the world as I would have it, many millions of people would choose to do so. That might be too much of a good thing, though. Millions of people the world over are needed to maintain those first languages and faiths that nurture young life. Unless some, however, become World Class, these first languages and faiths become too exclusive and arrogant, too likely to war on one another.
World Class Persons become ambassadors between languages and faiths, by their presence and behavior moderating the extremists in all camps, giving hope to all that even if they cannot personally endorse human differences, they can endure them. World Class Persons likely will never be widely popular, for their allegiance is to timeless and universal values. Since all of us live but a short time and in a peculiar place on the planet, we must devote most of our time and attention to local affairs and concerns.
A few World Class Persons from each language and faith community are all we need. Knowing they are there and hearing now and then of what they do and think, millions of people will give grudging respect and will be less likely to heed the home-grown agitators who sprout like dandelions in every place.
The message of World Class Persons lingers long in the collective human memory. In sacred books and political documents and oral traditions passed unbroken but transformed from that time when humans first talked, the words and deeds of World Class Persons buoy our hearts, minds, and souls amid the troubled waters which might otherwise overwhelm us. Our mission as World Class Persons is expressed in our motto:
Red and Yellow, Black, Brown and White
Christian, Buddhist and Jew
Hindu, Baha’i, and Muslim, too
All are precious in our sight
Now to sit in Norma’s living room and have her show me the book Peace wrote–a book I didn’t know existed–is to me confirmation of my life and the direction it has taken. Lloyd was right. Farther along I am understanding why.
After sleeping in the loft above Norma’s garage, she fixes me an early breakfast of millet and raisins, and delights in showing me the natural foods she uses. Norma was an elementary teacher in Illinois and owned a health food store for four years. She retired from teaching, sold her business, and moved to Eugene to “find what I was supposed to do.” She chose Eugene because, “You can live here for nothing. Everything grows. And people are conscious of the environment.”
Norma shows me books and literature from a variety of spiritual sources and viewpoints. She is searching. For direction. And for relationships. For two years a Downs Syndrome woman lived in her house. “The house is always full of interesting people.” Norma says.
The people in the house this morning are her daughter and granddaughter, and Howard, the daughter’s boyfriend, who has come out from Chicago to meet Norma. Norma’s husband died. Her daughter is divorced.
Eugene is bicycle heaven. People are so accustomed to bikes and have made such accommodations to them that I hate to leave, the way a kid feels about leaving a candy store. But I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.