Peace Pipeline

A few Sundays ago, Julie Imada went to the Heritage Christian Church in Aurora to pass out a bundle of fliers announcing an upcoming visit to Denver by retired South African archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The lobby of the large, mixed-race church was lined with glass counters displaying church-related books and videotapes for sale, as well as kiosks stuffed with church handouts. Video screens showed a service in progress in a vast auditorium. It looked like a good place to get out the word.

"I would think religious communities would be unified in bringing such a spiritual leader to Denver," Imada says.

But she was wrong about Heritage Christian.
Two deacons gave her the okay to distribute fliers in the lobby, but moments later, an older deacon approached her, Imada says, "kind of barking at me. He said, 'Do you have permission to pass these out?'"

Imada told him about the other deacons, but he returned with reinforcements. "These big white security guys come over," Imada says. "They've got these big radios, like the CIA. What kind of a church has security cops?"

The guards had guns, too. They took her to the security office. Apparently, no one knew who Tutu was. "I'm like, 'My God, I must be in the twilight zone,'" she says. A pastor was called over the walkie-talkie, and he shouted at her that she wasn't allowed to pass out her fliers anywhere on church property. The pastor didn't seem to know Tutu, either, Imada says.

"It wasn't like they were gonna beat me up, but the guy on the other end was like hellfire," she says.

When Imada reported back to her boss, Dawn Engle couldn't believe it. "It's like they didn't know who he was, and when we explained it, they didn't care," says Engle.

As bizarre as the incident might seem to anyone familiar with the lifework and reputation of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tutu, it's all in a day's work for the people who are bringing him to town.

Engle is the co-founder of PeaceJam Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has spent the last few years bringing together high-school kids and Nobel Peace Prize winners. Between them, Engle and co-founder Ivan Suvanjieff have slept in airports, fended off luggage thieves, worked without pay, had grants dry up and been attacked by soldiers in the Burmese airport. At the same time, they've single-handedly created an organization whose board of directors consists of twelve Nobel laureates: Tutu and South African president Nelson Mandela; the Dalai Lama; former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias; Aung San Suu Kyi, elected president of Burma in 1990 but later placed under house arrest by the Burmese military; Rigoberta Mencha Tum, a Mayan activist in Guatemala; Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire, peace activists in Northern Ireland; Latin American human-rights leader Aldolfo Perez Esquivel; Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, activists fighting the Indonesian occupation of East Timor; and American anti-land-mine crusader Jody Williams.

(The Nobel Peace Prize, awarded by the Norwegian Legislature, honors individuals who "have done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.")

Engle and Suvanjieff have gotten a small taste of the laureates' struggles. So have the high-school kids who come through the PeaceJam program. For two months kids study a laureate, who then visits them for a weekend workshop. The kids eventually present plans for community-service projects in their own schools and neighborhoods.

The program, which is sponsored by Regis University, has already brought four Nobel winners to Denver. Betty Williams spoke at the inaugural PeaceJam in March 1996; Rigoberta Mench Tum came through the following September, the Dalai Lama visited in June 1997, and Mairead Corrigan Maguire came this past March.

In the meantime, PeaceJam kids have helped start two teen centers--one in Boulder and one in Wheat Ridge--and have become involved in everything from cleaning up neighborhood parks to starting their own AIDS awareness programs.

Putting together Tutu's upcoming visit has been a year-long struggle. Not only is there the PeaceJam workshop to organize--the curriculum must be distributed to dozens of participating schools--but, says Engle, "there's the care and feeding of a Nobel laureate. You have to worry about their security. There are logistics with travel. You have to make sure they are fed according to their dietary needs."

And you have to raise money, which most often comes from public speeches--separate from the conference--that the laureate makes when he or she is in town. In Tutu's case, speeches are planned for Sunday, November 15, at Macky Auditorium in Boulder (7 p.m., $25-$50) and Monday, November 16, at McNichols Arena in Denver (7 p.m., $10-$40). "You go from educator to conference planner to diplomat to being like a concert promoter," Engle says.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
T.R. Witcher