Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Ribbon is Passed

A bright light has passed from our world. On January 7, 2009, Justine Merritt – artist, activist, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother – died from pancreatic cancer. She was 84 years old.

Most people haven’t heard of Justine, and yet her extraordinary faith and dedication was a brilliant example of how one solitary life can change the world.

I had the privilege of meeting Justine at the 1992 Earth Summit. We were both staying in a small convent within the Tijuca National Forest, high above the chaos and congestion of Rio de Janeiro. Our days began with a non-denominational church service in the convent’s small chapel. At one service Justine read from her poem, “Gift.” She began,

“For months,
or is it years,
I have carefully,
I have silently prayed to the Creator to spare the ocean’s shells;
for the safe of one lovely shell, I’ve prayed,
do not let the earth be destroyed…”

As she continued to read, I was completely spellbound by the beauty and power of the poem that had been written in answer to a prayer.

A decade earlier, Justine had gone on a retreat to pray for guidance after converting to Catholicism. Divorced with five adult children, she told me later that she secretly hoped she would be guided to become a missionary and travel to Africa. Instead, Justine was inspired to use her passion for needlework to create an extraordinary work of art.

“It occurred to me to tie a ribbon around the Pentagon,” she said. “The ribbon I envisioned would be a symbol of peace, encircling a symbol of war, and it would be tied around the Pentagon in August of 1985, the fortieth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

The idea was to create a piece of handiwork to depict what the artist couldn’t bear to see lost forever in the event of a nuclear war. In December 1982, Justine sent a mailing to the hundred or so friends and family members on her Christmas card list and asked them to create their own ribbons, and to spread the word to others. It was her hope to have 2,000 segments, (40 from each state) held by 1,000 people around the Pentagon, a distance of approximately one mile.

On August 4th, 1985, a team of nearly 2,000 volunteer coordinators was needed to help organize the 10,000 individuals that had gathered in Washington to fulfill Justine’s vision. Together they tied together 26,000 Ribbons from the United States, Japan, Germany, Canada, New Zealand, France, England, Russia, Guatemala, Peru, Tanzania and The Netherlands, fifteen miles around the Pentagon, Capitol Hill and most of downtown Washington.

After the event in Washington, Justine began to realize the threat of losing a loved one, and the threat of destroying our beautiful planet also wore heavily on the hearts of humanity.

”We are all part of this beautiful tortured Earth,” she said. “There are things that we cannot bear to think of as lost forever.” It was Justine’s prayers and ribbons that took her to Rio in 1992 to participate in the Earth Summit. The Ribbons were used in the opening ceremonies of the Global Forum, as well as in a prayer vigil outside the gates of Rio Centro, where he official UNCED Conference took place.

Justine’s remarkable story didn’t end there. She continued to write and inspire anyone lucky enough to meet her. In her 70s when most would choose to retire, Justine became a pilgrim. She gave up her apartment, sold her worldly possessions, and for years traveled across the United States, often staying with friends – both old and new – spreading her message of love, peace and stewardship for the planet.

Eventually Justine traveled to Rome and presented a ribbon to His Holiness Pope John Paul II in October, 2001.

In recent years, Justine’s failing health limited her travel to trips with her beloved children and grandchildren to the beach near her home in Eugene, Oregon where she died on January 7th.
In eulogizing her mother, her daughter Regna said,

“She showed us that each one of us, drawing on our own creativity, courage and love, can make a huge difference. Each of us can leave a legacy for future generations.”

“Justine changed thousands of hearts and minds through that colorful, peaceful demonstration and through the intense work of building hope. The work she started with the Ribbon continues today internationally. Justine's enormous light has moved on but her spirit and love remain here in our hearts.”


For more on the life of Justine Merritt, visit

A collection of Justine Merritt’s poetry entitled, “Journey”, was published by Hope Publishing in 1993.


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