Oliver North had his piles of telegrams. Two blocks away on a Capitol Hill lawn between the Supreme Court and the Methodist Building, Quest for Peace had its display of public support: piles of boxes loaded with clothing, medical goods and educational supplies. About 1,000 pounds in all, it was bound for Nicaragua.
A few reporters and television cameras recorded the scene. It wasn't the media pack salivating over every arching of Oliver North's eyebrows, but the meaning of the story couldn't be ignored. The volunteers loading the boxes into trucks in the mid-day July furnace represented the other side of the Nicaraguan policy debate.
Quest for Peace is a Washington-based nationwide campaign backed by nearly 500 cosponsoring organizations. It assembled volunteers and the half-ton of supplies as a way of saying that despite the publicity boon that North inadvertently won for arming and rearming the contras, an alternative is in place. Since July 1986, Quest for Peace has sent $50 million in humanitarian aid to the poor of Nicaragua. A goal of $100 million has been set.
Before the trucks were filled, Thomas Gumbleton, a Catholic bishop from Detroit, spoke to the volunteers. Gumbleton is known for helping push the Catholic hierarchy to condemn contra aid as ''illegal, immoral and unwise.'' He said this latest Quest for Peace donation should be called ''the Oliver North Reparations Shipment. . . . The people of this country want foreign policies that are legal, moral, democratic, accountable, life-giving and supportable. If our government won't do that, the people will.''
No contrast could be greater. North, a White House gun-runner who lies and takes the classic I-followed-orders defense, believes that giving money to mercenaries who burn villages, rape women and murder children is the way to peace in Nicaragua. William Callahan, a Jesuit priest in Washington who organized Quest for Peace and joined Gumbleton at the gathering, describes his program as ''feeding hungry children, clothing naked refugees, bringing potable water to thirsty villages, providing toys and sports equipment to young people. . . . We don't need a shredder to 'clean up' the program. We don't need to lie about what we are doing."
The contrasts between the visions of North and Callahan are as sharp as those between other Americans involved in Nicaragua. Elliott Abrams, a North ally, said in November 1985 that ''The purpose of our aid is to permit people who are fighting on our side to use more violence.'' Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who appeared at the Quest for Peace rally, said the opposite. The boxes and containers being shipped meant ''clothing not uniforms, bandages not bullets, aspirin not ammunition, and Bibles not assassination manuals.''
The temporary surge of support for North -- veneration by telegram -- does not alter either the strength or appeal of U.S. organizations supplying goods and services to the Nicaraguan poor. They receive little national publicity, but they are well established. Besides Quest for Peace, which has dispatched 1,200 tons of aid to Nicaragua in three years, other groups include: Witness for Peace, which has sent 2,300 volunteers since December 1983; the Nicaraguan Network, which has organized 40 Sister City programs; the Nicaragua Exchange, a New York-based group that has assisted some 1,400 Americans to volunteer in health clinics or literacy centers.
Where is the Reagan-North-Abrams equivalent of all this? Have any of those awed by the Northern lights volunteered to take up arms with the contras? Do those true believers ever extend their anticommunist blustering to spending their own time or risking their own lives on behalf of the contras?
The absence of personal involvement is one with the moral bankruptcy of arming a band of jungle killers. At the hearings, North preached to the country that the ideas of Marx and Lenin pervade Nicaragua. He needs to speak with the U.S. Catholic bishops, who trace the current revolutions in Central America to Pope Paul VI and his 1975 call for radical reforms: "the church has the duty to proclaim the liberation of millions of human beings -- many of whom are her own children -- the duty of assisting their liberation, of giving witness to it, of ensuring that it is complete."
That isn't Marxism or Leninism. It's Christianity. It's why groups like Quest for Peace are supported by so many U.S. religious orders. It explains, too, why the piles of Nicaragua-bound boxes leaving Washington mean more than the pile of telegrams coming into North's hands.