“All people can be peace workers. Whenever you bring harmony into any unpeaceful situation, you contribute to the total peace picture. Insofar as you have peace in your own life, you reflect it into your surroundings and into the world.” – Peace Pilgrim
Peace Pilgrim, the woman who walked across America for peace for 28 years, was born Mildred Lisette Norman on July 18, 1908.
When she was 44, Mildred Norman adopted her new identity as Peace Pilgrim and set off across America on foot. Vowing to “remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until given shelter and fasting until given food,” Peace Pilgrim logged more than 25,000 miles on foot between 1953 and 1964, when she quit counting the miles she traveled.
She walked on for 17 more years before her journey came to an end. Ironically, the woman known for walking was killed in an automobile accident as she was being driven to a speaking engagement on July 7, 1981, at the age of almost 73.
What led a normal woman of modest means to set out on a journey of peace without the backing of an organization, or a plan for her travels? In her 20s, Mildred was pursuing the American dream with a good job and an active social life. A failed marriage and dissatisfaction with the treadmill of work and materialism led her to become like the Christian mystics of Celtic Ireland – a wanderer for God.
Walking one day in New England, Mildred had a vision of herself. “I saw myself in a navy blue outfit with the words Peace Pilgrim on the front, walking across America.” After divesting herself of all possessions except the clothes on her back, a folding toothbrush, a pen and a comb, Peace Pilgrim began her journey for peace on Jan. 1, 1953. She started walking from Pasadena, Calif., on her first of seven journeys across America and didn’t stop until her tragic death.
Peace Pilgrim spoke to churches, colleges and community organizations. She carried no money and ate only when she was offered food. She remarked that she usually missed no more than “four or five meals” in a row, but one time had fasted for 45 days.
Peace Pilgrim, like other mendicants, had no place to sleep either. She slept beside the roadway, in open fields, in bus stations or truck stops, and when invited, in the homes of her hosts. Despite her constant exposure to the elements, Peace Pilgrim contended that since beginning her walk she had not had a cold or an illness.
When Peace Pilgrim began her pilgrimage across America for peace, the United States was fighting the Korean War. She continued walking through the Cold War years, the Vietnam conflict, and into the presidency of Ronald Reagan. She spoke of finding inner peace as she walked for world peace and remarked at the goodness of people who befriended her.
Peace Pilgrim befriended everyone she met also. “We can all spend our lives going about doing good. Every time you meet a person, think of some encouraging thing to say – a kind word, a helpful suggestion, an expression of admiration. Every time you come into a situation, think of some good thing to bring – a thoughtful gift, a considerate attitude, a helping hand,” she advised her followers and admirers.
When Peace Pilgrim died, she was cremated and her ashes buried in her family plot at her hometown of Egg Harbor, N.J. Because of her belief that truth should not be sold, The Friends of Peace Pilgrim have distributed free of charge more than 400,000 copies of the book about her life, “Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words.”
Peace Pilgrim’s legacy lives on today. On Sept. 14, 12-year old Zach Bonner completed a walk across America for his charity, The Little Red Wagon Foundation. Zach took his inspiration and the idea for his walk from Peace Pilgrim’s journeys.
Peace Pilgrim continues to be an internationally recognized advocate for peace. In 2000, a statue by Costa Rican sculptor Fernando Calvo was erected at the United Nations University for Peace in Colon, Costa Rica. Peace Pilgrim exemplified the idea of making peace by making friends, and her life continues to inspire others almost 30 years after her death.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia.