University marks day of peace with calls for unity

By Douglas McCulloch | Sep 21, 2017
Photo by: Douglas McCulloch The Rev. Robert Lawrence holds up newspaper headlines from the 1938 hurricane he lived through.

The Rev. Robert Lawrence found a message of unity in an unlikely place: surviving through the Great New England Hurricane of 1938.

Speaking at the rededication of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s peace pole to mark the International Day of Peace on September 21, Lawrence recalled how complete strangers came together to save his life and his entire neighborhood during the storm, which claimed nearly 100 lives in Massachusetts alone.

Lawrence was eight years old and just leaving school for his two-mile walk home when the peak of the storm struck the South Coast. A ride with his schoolteacher ended quickly due to downed trees in the roadway. Told to run for his life, complete strangers offered up their home as shelter.

His family owned the only wood burning stove in the neighborhood – a critical piece of infrastructure at the time because it was needed to boil water without power. Faced with the possibility of a ten-day power outage, friends and strangers in his neighborhood worked in two-hour shifts to keep the stove going.

“There was the black American community that came in; there was a Chinese community that came in,” Lawrence said. “There were all kinds of other ethnic groups that came into my house – complete strangers – for two hour shifts to keep that stove from going out so we could have water to drink. I learned at an early age that we are completely dependent on one another.”

Citing the divisiveness of humanity as a key issue that makes peace difficult, that moment, he explained, showed him that humanity can indeed unite and bring people together.

“The common enemy of divisiveness doesn’t work. We have plenty of evidence to indicate that,” Lawrence said.

The university’s new chancellor, Robert Johnson, noted that with natural disasters and racial and ethnic violence happening around the world, the time for peace is now.

Referencing the white supremacist rally Charlottesville that turned violent in August, the bombing of a London Underground train last week, and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Johnson said spreading a message of peace and uniting people of different cultural backgrounds is more important than ever.

It’s something that every person has the power to do, Johnson explained, by learning about other cultures and perspectives outside of their own and by finding a way, no matter how small, to promote peace locally.

“Such knowledge generates empathy, and with empathy comes the ability to engage in civil discourse and find solutions to the anger and violence that permeates so much of the world today, from Charlottesville to London to the Middle East,” Johnson said.

The ceremony culminated with the presentation of a new plaque marking the university’s peace pole, which is located in front of the university campus center. The pole contains the message "may peace prevail on Earth" written in eight languages.

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