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D.C. Couple, New Orleans Priest Honored For Their Work For Peace

D.C. couple, New Orleans priest honored for their work for peace
Pax Christi USA names Mary Joan and Jerry Park, 2008 Teachers of Peace; Fr. Vien Nguyen, recipient of the Eileen Egan Peacemaker Award

At an awards ceremony which included social justice advocates from across the United States, Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace movement, recognized the work of Mary Joan and Jerry Park by naming them the recipients of this year’s Teacher of Peace Award. The Parks were honored for their long commitment to teaching peace and nonviolence to children through their Washington, D.C.-based organization Little Friends for Peace. Past Teacher of Peace Award recipients include Dorothy Day, Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., Sr. Helen Prejean, C.S.J, and Msgr. Ray East, who was on hand to formally present the award to the Parks.

“Jerry and I are humbled, honored, grateful and energized to receive this award,” stated Mary Joan Park. “We are all peacemakers, peace-builders, peace partners, and we are all on this journey to build a culture of peace. Tonight is a great night to honor and recognize all teachers of peace, of making this a career, validating this mission of peacemaking.”

The Park’s were honored by Pax Christi USA at a ceremony at the National 4H Conference Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The couple has been working in the Sursum Corda neighborhood in D.C. for the past twenty years, and ten years ago they opened up the Peace Room in the Perry School in that neighborhood.

“Martin Luther King, Jr. said that ‘every good things starts with a dream,’ and Gandhi said that ‘if we want real peace in this world, we shall have to begin with the children,’” said Mary Joan Park. “Jerry and I believe this is our calling, and we are grateful to the God of Peace for leading and guiding us as Teachers of Peace.”

Several children, participants in Little Friends for Peace, were on hand to share in the ceremony, and Anne Little, a mom, teacher, and community worker who has worked with the Parks to curb violence, joined them as well. Leaders of Pax Christi USA regions, many of whom have had members attend one of the Parks’ many peace camps, were also in attendance.

“We hear so often how important it is to pass peacemaking skills on to children, especially in this culture which glorifies violence,” said Dave Robinson, Pax Christi USA Executive Director. “Mary Joan and Jerry have made this their life’s work, and their dedication to teaching peace to new generations is essential if our children are to know a better, more peaceful, more just world than what we have now.”

Also honored at the awards ceremony was Rev. Vien Nguyen, pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in New Orleans. Rev. Nguyen is the second recipient of the Eileen Egan Peacemaker Award, named for one of Pax Christi USA’s founders and given to recognize an extraordinary witness during times of great crisis or conflict. Rev. Nguyen was recognized for his efforts at rebuilding and organizing his community in New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“When the Pax Christi USA National Council visited New Orleans to see first-hand the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, over and over again we heard that we needed to meet this incredible priest and his community in New Orleans East,” said Judy Coode, former chair of the Pax Christi USA National Council. “Rev. Nguyen’s community had a 95% return rate in an area that has seen only 45% of its people return; but more than that, he has continued to fight for the dignity and rights of his people in the face of the injustice which followed the storm.”

Rev. Nguyen shared how his community stood up to the Bring Back New Orleans commission, explaining to the commission that they were making decisions which affected the lives of church members and that they deserved to have a place at the table and in the decision-making process. He went on to share how they continue to fight a new landfill which was placed just over a mile from their church, in their neighborhood, which is mainly African American and Vietnamese American.

“New Orleans East has been dumped on for the past many years because we are a minority community,” Rev. Nguyen stated. “They did not think that we would fight this landfill. But they were wrong. We did, and we will continue to fight.”

Rev. Nguyen also shared about his community’s efforts at development rooted in self-determination, including starting a school, two clinics, and plans to build a senior center and an urban farm.

“To paraphrase the poet Robert Frost, we have accomplished much, but we have miles to go before we rest,” said Rev. Nguyen.

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