Two young girls danced down the sidewalk in front of the White House one sunny cold morning this week, tapping out a hopscotch pattern and carrying a bright green banner that said "Peace." Other children stood at the White House gate, alternately offering leaflets to passersby and huddling together for warmth.
The children, all seventh and eighth graders at Sidwell Friends School in the District, were taking their turn in a vigil calling for a freeze on nuclear armament that has been kept since July by Montgomery County Citizens for Peace MCCP . Some 400 persons primarily from 22 local organizations, most of them church groups, have participated in the vigil. Organizers said they will continue the vigil indefinitely.
The vigil, intended to educate the public on the group's position against nuclear weapons and to send a steady message to the White House, began as an idea that occurred to Rockville resident Curtis Pospisil as he returned home from a massive June 12 nuclear disarmament rally in New York.
"What we realized coming back from New York City was that [it] was a one-time demonstration and could be easily dismissed," Pospisil said. But living in the metropolitan area provides a "unique position to take the message to the White House itself" on a regular basis, he said.
"We called various churches in the Washington metropolitan area and all the peace groups we knew of" to generate interest in the vigil, said his wife, Pam Pospisil, one of 30 members of MCCP, an organization formed last spring by peace activists.
The Pospisils are Quakers who belong to Sandy Spring Friends Meeting in Montgomery County, one of 16 groups that have become regular participants in the vigil. Each group sends members to stand watch and hand out leaflets at least one day a month.
"As Friends and Quakers, we believe that there is God in everyone and therefore to injure, to kill another is to kill part of ourselves," said District resident Peter Ainslie, who was among four persons who came this week to represent Friends Meeting of Washington. "The teachings of Jesus oppose war and the preparation for war," he said.
Arlington resident Dean Mimms came with Ainslie after he visited Friends Meeting and heard about the vigil plans. Mimms, who said he found encouraging District residents' vote in the Nov. 2 election on Initiative 10 supporting a nuclear freeze, "took a day off from filling out federal job forms" to take part in the vigil, he said.
Other groups participating include Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and Unitarians.
Some adults take a day off from their jobs to attend the vigil. The 15 Sidwell Friends students came with their parents' permission having selected this activity from three options on field-trip day. They said they have studied the issue of nuclear disarmament in school.
History teacher Benj Thomas, who accompanied the students, said when they were asked in class whether they thought there would be a nuclear war, "very few of them" said no. "A few of them said yes and almost all of them said maybe." Thomas said he hoped the children would learn from the vigil that "it feels better to do something than to sit back and be scared."
"I'm worried and that's why I'm out here," said 12-year-old Kate Harrington. But "a lot of people are saying 'Why don't you go tell the Russians?' " she reported.
"We've gotten some people calling us Russians," said Sarah Balderston, 12. "You just let it pass."
Many of the students emphasized that they were taking part in the vigil out of their own conviction that money spent on nuclear armament should be spent on human needs. Some said they felt the funds should go to provide jobs, repair roads, feed the hungry and for similar purposes.
Although some passersby questioned the students' presence at the White House during school hours, the students said they viewed the vigil as another learning opportunity rather than an escape from the classroom.
"Part of growing up is learning what's going on outside your school, stuff that goes on in the White House . . . the State Department, and all the government offices," said Dominic Keyes, 12. "If you're growing up in a world where there's all these nuclear weapons, you ought to know about it," he said. "Wouldn't you want to know?"