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Published: Saturday, 3/31/2001

True believer devotes life to peace and justice

DETROIT - Jim Bristah believes in peace; always has, always will. Naturally, everyone else says they do, too. Yasser Arafat, Ariel Sharon, even those who start wars pay lip service to their devotion to peace. But, to put it mildly, he walks the walk.

He's marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., been arrested, been jailed, done time in a federal pen, all of it, because he thinks war is just plain wrong.

And when he had done everything else, he started an art gallery. Last week, 82 years young, he was on hand for the premiere of a new exhibit at the museum he founded, his Swords Into Plowshares Peace Center and Gallery, at 33 East Adams at Woodward near the heart of downtown. The exhibit, “Visions of Peace: Children's Peace Art,” is impressive; hundreds of images created by children in schools across Michigan and Ontario.

But Swords Into Plowshares is even more special. Supported in part by Detroit's majestically Gothic, 150-year-old Central United Methodist Church, it is one of a handful of galleries dedicated to supporting anti-war artists of conscience. It has hosted nationally acclaimed exhibits celebrating peace and chronicling man's inhumanity to man.

Fifteen years ago, the Rev. James W. Bristah was retiring after a lifetime as a Methodist minister, the vast majority of which he spent in a special assignment dedicated to social issues. During his last summer, he was involved in a project where people created peace ribbons to mark the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

That concept evolved into the gallery. “I thought it was an idea whose time had come,” Mr. Bristah said. Ironically, he's proud that for most of his life, he hasn't been in step with the times. Back in his youth he was in the seminary when World War II came.

For him, all war was immoral, but as a seminarian, he qualified for an automatic deferment. Yet special treatment didn't seem fair to him. He gave up his deferment; declared himself a conscientious objector, and was sent to a camp in Ohio to do alternative service. This wasn't an easy step to take. While avoiding the military was the thing to do in many circles during Vietnam, it was highly unpopular, to say the least, after Pearl Harbor. Yet even risking severe social disapproval wasn't enough. With millions dying worldwide, Mr. Bristah thought he ought to endure the consequences of his convictions. He deliberately ran away to Detroit, making no effort to avoid capture.

They sent him to federal prison in Milan for almost two years, where, by standing on his toilet, he could see another prisoner across the way who was waiting to be executed. “It was really an incredible experience. You learn a lot about sociology and psychology in prison,” he chuckled.

For awhile, he was sent to solitary confinement in the “hole” for protesting unfair treatment for his fellow prisoners.

He survived. Eventually, he went on to become one of the first white prisoners to voluntarily share his cell with a black convict. When he got out, he was determined to spend his life working for justice - “racial justice, economic justice, war and peace.”

Which is what he did. He integrated his church staff before that was fashionable. He worked for the poor and downtrodden, married Jo, the daughter of Baptist missionaries who was born in Burma, and raised four daughters.

He remembers sitting on a stage with Martin Luther King, Jr., when he came to rehearse his “I Have A Dream” speech in Detroit, a few weeks before he gave it in Washington. That's when he was still explaining to some who Dr. King was.

Later, when Dr. King was assassinated, he became chairman of an interfaith committee charged with preventing further violence. Days later, Pamela, the youngest of his four daughters, got arrested in Royal Oak for violating a prohibition against staging a peaceful protest. As a minor, she was released to her father's custody, which he found amusing, since he was under arrest for the same thing.

“I don't know what I ever did to get such wonderful daughters,” he said, shaking his head. His eldest daughter, Christine, was in elementary school not long after the height of the McCarthy red scare when a teacher announced that Memorial Day was coming, and it was an occasion to honor our nation's soldiers. Christine raised her hand.

Her daddy had gone to jail to avoid killing people, she told the teacher, and she thought that it was time to honor her father, too.

Two months ago, most of his friends wondered if he'd even make the gallery's next show. A sudden stroke felled him in December, impairing his balance and speech. But if they thought that would permanently slow him down, they were wrong. Just before the show opened, I got the courage to ask something I had long wondered about. Vietnam, my generation's war, was one thing. But the pure devil of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis was something else.

Had he ever had second thoughts about opposing that war? Jim Bristah looked at me. He is, after all, a believing Christian. “I can in no way imagine Jesus using a machine gun, much less an atom bomb,” he said. I'm not sure I've met anyone more sincere.

Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman and a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. E-mail him at OMBLADE@aol.com or call 1-888-746-8610.



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