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Peace Out at the Meyerson

Maya Angelou, left, and Tim Seelig, far right, at the Meyerson on Saturday
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Meant to write this up earlier in the week, but we clearly tripped on a poll and fell on your caucus. So, then, back to Saturday, if you don't mind, when some 2,000 formally dressed folks streamed into the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center for an event dedicated to peace, certainly that most elusive of goals.

Specifically, the event was the first annual Voices of Peace concert, organized by the nonprofit Hope for Peace & Justice. Clearly, the highlight of the event was the speech by Maya Angelou -- more about that in a moment, though. Because round about 2 p.m., the event kicked off with a welcome from the Rev. Mike Piazza, the organization's president and the former pastor of the Cathedral of Hope. The occasion, he explained, was the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq. No longer should American discourse be dominated by fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, he argued -- it's time for "progressive people of all faiths" to speak up and call for change. No mention of "hope," for those so scanning.

Images from around the world flashed on a large screen and across the stage, which was filled with hundreds of chorus members and a full orchestra arrayed under the pipe organ. The music was rich, powerful and graceful, the kind of otherworldly sound you might expect from the Vienna Philharmonic. After the first few songs, the male chorus of Hamilton Park's First Baptist Church filed onto the stage and picked up the pace with the classic spiritual "Down by the Riverside." And, likewise, I can't possibly do justice to Dalton Sherman, the fourth-grader who won the recent annual Martin Luther King Jr. Oratory Competition, whose call to action riffed on one of King's most famous speeches.

Next up was Maya Angelou, the keynote speaker. She slowly made her way to the podium using a cane. At 80, she's stooped and gray, but her voice was as resonant as ever. "When it looked like the sun wasn't going to shine anymore," she sang, beginning a series of vignettes strung together with the idea, drawn from Genesis, that "God put rainbows not only in the sky, but in the clouds, so that in the worst of times, the most threatening, there's a possibility of seeing hope." She told of a time, long ago, when she smiled at a white girl who returned her greeting by sticking out her tongue and calling her a nigger. "I saw the life of Baltimore from May until December, but of all the things that happened there, that's all that I remember," she said.

Who knew the Meyerson stage could hold so many people?

But then, years later, came the rainbows. Decades after her crippled Uncle Willie was terrorized in his Arkansas hamlet by Klansmen with "big guts and big guns," she was escorted to Uncle Willie's funeral by eight white cops -- with big guts and big guns. She hugged them. On the same trip, she was contacted by two prominent politicians who, like her, had been illiterate and poor and had learned to read and do their times tables at her uncle's side.

"Who would imagine that this man -- poor, crippled, and black during the lynching years -- would have that much impact on the world?" she said.

And that was her point. That you never know what difference one small action or word might make for someone else or for the world. She wasn't somber and serious the entire time -- she recited a poem mocking health food and jokingly extolled the virtues of "smoking carnivores" -- but the speech was a call to reject cynicism and selfishness, to be people who bring joy to those around them and stand up for what they believe in.

Sitting there in the opulent symphony hall, on the eve of a landmark primary contest between the first frontrunning black candidate and the first female presidential contender, I watched the screen flash the numbers of those killed in Iraq and the cost of the war and was reminded of another public moment with Maya Angelou. On the morning of January 20, 1993, she stood on the National Mall and read "On the Pulse of Morning," the inaugural poem she wrote for Bill Clinton. Fifteen years later, her beautifully crafted words -- far too perfect to quote piecemeal here -- seem eerily appropriate. --Megan Feldman

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