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On Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, remember compassion and peace

A school student takes a photograph of a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi at a Gandhi memorial hall in Gauhati, India, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018. Oct. 2 marks the birth anniversary of the independence leader.
Associated Press

Back in the 1950s, when I was a child, most U.S. school children learned that Feb. 22 was George Washington’s birthday and Feb. 12 was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. We knew that Dec. 25 was the day most Americans, whether they were Christian or not, celebrated Christmas, which was considered the birthday of Jesus. The Fourth of July was like the birthday of the United States, and here in Utah, July 24th was like the birthday of Utah.

Back then, I didn’t know of Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez or Mahatma Gandhi. But now I know that King was born on Jan. 15, Chavez on March 31 and Gandhi on Oct. 2. So when I received a phone call in the summer of 1998 from a woman with Peace Brigades International asking me if I would plan an event on or near Oct. 2, I knew she meant Gandhi’s birthday. And I said, “Sure.”

I didn’t know I was taking a step that would lead to the creation of a new Utah nonprofit, the Gandhi Alliance for Peace, which has continued to celebrate Gandhi’s birthday annually with a public event — until this year. Because we don’t want to risk that someone attending our program might get sick with COVID-19, for the first time since 1998, we are not hosting a public celebration of the birth of Gandhi.

That first year, we organized a “Salt March” at the Great Salt Lake, inviting people to walk a few miles to remember Gandhi’s nonviolent Salt March, and then attend a program at Saltair. After that, at each annual Gandhi birthday celebration we have honored a few Utahns for their work for peace and justice. In 1999, at the Jordan Park amphitheater, we presented a Gandhi Peace Award to Rev. France Davis, Diana Hirschi, Dr. Scott Leckman and Dee Rowland. We planted our first “peace tree” as we affirmed the values of truth, nonviolence, peace and justice.

In 2012, we moved to Tracy Aviary where we continued our tradition of planting a tree and honoring someone for their commitment to nonviolently work for justice.

This year, we will again honor a peacemaker, Dayne Goodwin. Dayne’s peace activism started over 50 years ago during the Vietnam War and extends to the contemporary U.S. wars in the Middle East. He has worked for justice for the Palestinians and helped get the University of Utah to divest from apartheid South Africa in 1987. We will present him with the plaque each of our honorees has received. But, our program will be in a backyard and not open to the public.

Over the years, we have had many highlights at our Gandhi birthday celebrations. Usually around 100 people attend. One of my favorite memories is when we gave the award to Iraq war veteran Marshall Thompson in 2009 for walking across Utah, calling attention to the suffering of the war in Iraq. It was a cold and rainy day with our smallest attendance ever. But the students of the Divya School of Dance were not deterred, as they danced barefoot on the cold cement of the pavilion. Marshall Thompson and his family were not deterred, either, as they drove down from Logan and celebrated Gandhi’s birthday.

Another favorite memory came after our 2006 program, when the Deseret News wrote its Oct. 3 editorial, “Remembering the mahatma.” That editorial was a strong affirmation of the importance of continuing the work of Gandhi, and I was thrilled. In addition to providing information on Gandhi, the editorial included five Gandhi quotes.

One of those quotes feels especially pertinent today: “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes. … Honest disagreement is thus often a good sign of progress.” May we practice compassion for ourselves and others as we make mistakes. We are all bound to goof frequently. May we learn to listen to understand (rather than to win) as we meet to discuss our disagreements.

One of my hopes is that as a country and as a global community, more people will recognize Oct. 2 as Gandhi’s birthday. Hopefully we will better learn his teachings of nonviolence and compassion. Maybe someday, Oct. 2 will become a U.S. holiday.

Deb Sawyer is the president of the Gandhi Alliance for Peace. She was born in Salt Lake County and has spent most of her life in Utah. To learn more about the Gandhi Alliance for Peace, you may visit gandhialliance.org.