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Ringing in the new year with a walk for peace in Saratoga Springs

Ringing in the new year with a walk for peace in Saratoga Springs

Small procession in Saratoga sees cause for alarm, optimism in America circa 2019
Ringing in the new year with a walk for peace in Saratoga Springs
Jun-San Yasuda, who founded the Grafton Peace Pagoda, leads the New Year's Day peace walk in Saratoga Springs.
Photographer: erica miller/gazette photographer

SARATOGA SPRINGS — A Buddhist nun who has walked tens of thousands of miles for peace walked a couple more in Saratoga Springs on Tuesday, marking the start of a new year by leading a small procession of like-minded people to spread her decades old message.

Jun Yusada, a Tokyo native widely known as Jun-San, has been carrying the message of harmony and peace since 1978 and isn’t done yet. On the first day of 2019, she was not sure how much farther she’ll have to walk before the message sinks in.

“It depends,” she said. “Some people are more open heart, some people not yet. But I have patience.”

Jun-San founded the Grafton Peace Pagoda in Rensselaer County 25 years ago and remains its caretaker. She says peace is part of the larger vision of stewardship for the earth and its people. 

She got her start as a participant in the Longest Walk, a 1978 trek from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of concerns affecting American Indians.

“Some native people from this land said, ‘Our mission is taking care of this Earth.’ We are [of] the same feeling. Without taking care of this Earth, how do we live in this world? That’s my feeling.”

Jun-San is part of that first generation of Japanese born in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Opposition to nuclear power and nuclear weapons is one of her concentrations, along with peace.

“If you think of it more deeply we are the same,” Jun-San said. “If more realize we are just from the same, then why we keep fighting?”

Faith was strongly intertwined with Tuesday’s walk for peace, said Saratoga Springs activist Linda LeTendre, who helped organize the event. The walk happened to be led by a Buddhist, but her message is common to all religious, she said.

“You can boil down the Torah, the Gospel, and the Holy Koran to three words: ‘Bread, not bombs,’” she said. “We are called to take care of each other, not blow each other up. … You only miss [the message] if you want to.”

LeTendre has been raising her voice for decades now, with mixed results. The very first cause she fought for, back in the 1970s, was the effort to preserve the historic rail station in Potsdam, N.Y., that was in the way of a highway being built. 

That station was moved and still stands today, home to a successful restaurant. But in the same period, the United States has spent trillions of dollars on armaments and used them in dozens of places, including its longest-running war, still underway in Afghanistan.

“You do the good for the good that it is and you let go of the outcome,” LeTendre said. “That’s what makes it an act of faith.”

The policies of the current administration in Washington provide cause for outrage, she said, but also optimism, thanks to the reactions to it.

“I see optimism in … people taking great risks under a fascist regime to say this ‘isn’t OK.’ We’ve been marching toward fascism for 20 years. This regime, I have to give them credit, they’re at least honest about it. They’re right out there doing voting suppression, giving money to the rich, building up the military, so at least they’re honest about it.”

She stopped the procession for a short prayer outside the New York State Military Museum on Lake Avenue, where the 75mm cannon and .30-caliber machine gun of an M4 Sherman tank parked on the lawn pointed directly at the group of three dozen or so peace walkers. 

The Sherman tank, of course, was one of the main killing machines the United States used in World War II to help defeat the fascist regime of Adolf Hitler and end its slaughter of millions of people. 

What about that, LeTendre was asked — is there such a thing as a good war, or at least a necessary war?

“I think that fascism could have been defeated at the Treaty of Versailles” ending World War I, she said. “We could have stopped that then.”

Having failed to do so, she continued, the world could have followed the example of the Scandinavian countries and persevered with nonviolent resistance.

“You don’t learn about that in schools,” LeTendre said. “I see that as part of the recruitment of people into the war machine. They don’t really teach the success of nonviolent intervention. It’s there if you want to learn it.”

A quick internet search shows her to be correct: Except for Sweden, which did manage to remain officially neutral, most accounts don’t show passive resistance in Scandinavia during World War II, just varying degrees of collaboration and participation in the fighting.

Army veteran Jay Yurcik of Greenfield was among those who walked for peace in Saratoga Springs on New Year’s Day 2019.

Asked if he thought such a rally would have played well in Nazi-controlled Berlin on New Year’s Day in 1939, he conceded it would not.

“I’m realistic about it,” he said. “I think to question war is a really good idea. You shouldn’t just automatically knee jerk go into violence.”

His own experiences as an aircraft mechanic serving in Vietnam — two years, three months and 29 days from 1965 to 1967 — help shape his opinion, even though he wasn’t in front-line combat. 

“People died not like they do in the movies, they just died from an accident or some stupidity — and they’re there doing what?” Yurcik said. “What I want to say is, is violence the solution to our problems today? Is violence the answer or just the solution for military contractors?”

Yurcik is old enough to have seen the national mood change more than once.

“I don’t even think peace is that popular anymore in the United States,” he said. “It was popular after the fall of Saigon and people said, ‘What happened, what did we do?’”

Rose McPartlane of Bergenfield, N.J., came north specifically to walk with Jun-San and carry the banner of Veterans For Peace. She’s a member of the group but not a veteran herself — her father is a vet, but he was spending Tuesday outside the Saudi consulate in New York City, protesting Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen.

“I’m kind of second-generation now,” she said. “I’m a peace walker. I’ve been walking with Jun for five or six years now and my father’s been walking 17.”

Her motivation is simple: “I don’t want my money, my government, paying for war. Killing is killing. Killing is wrong. We haven’t learned from our mistakes.”

But her opposition goes beyond the violence of war, to the decades-long effects on innocent bystanders, ecosystems and the warriors themselves. She recalls catching glimpses of the anguish a friend still feels a lifetime after his tour in Vietnam.  

“I’ll be in the car with him and he’ll turn to me and say, ‘You know, I didn’t want to kill anybody.' And I say, ‘I know, Frank. Do I go left or right at the light?’ Because I don’t know what to say to him.”

Grace Nichols of Albany works with Jun-San at the Peace Pagoda and helped put together Tuesday’s walk.

“Our message of peace, opening our hearts, making changes, is really relevant here,” she said. “In this area there are a lot of people whose livelihoods are tied into the war machine. And indirectly through our taxes, that’s true of all of us.”

Tuesday’s peace walk ended with a vigil seated on the curb at Broadway and Church Street. The sight of a small cluster of people beating Japanese hand drums and led by a chanting woman with a shaved head drew some stares and glances from passersby, a few encouraging words, and many supportive horn honks. One passenger in a passing car dropped his window and twice bellowed “Build the wall!” 

He drew snickers from the small crowd, an impromptu survey of which would likely have found 0.0 percent support for President Trump’s planned anti-immigrant wall on the Mexican border.

There’s one more message that the peace walk can promote, said Cynthia Johnson of Berne, who attended with an elderly rescue dog named Maisy: Unity requires a rejection of polarized extremes.

Johnson had been planning to make the long drive to Saratoga to sing at another event and came earlier when she heard about the walk. “I’m familiar with Jun-San from the Peace Pagoda in Grafton,” she said. “We could use some peace, we could use people coming together.”

She added: “There’s nothing that you can talk about that doesn’t have some divisiveness.

“The crazier the world gets, the more the world will come together. The middle will help the world … recoil from extremism from the far left and far right.

“The more polarized you get, the more people who aren’t polarized realize how crazy people can be on either end. It’s a continuum and we all have to figure where we find ourselves and what it’s worth standing up to.”

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