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A lifetime commitment to peace and justice is confirmed

by Jordan Green

 

Hal Sieber opposite Nelson Mandela. (photo courtesy Joyce Richardson)

 

The walls of Hal Sieber’s apartment living room are virtually covered with his paintings. One of the two largest and most commanding is of St. Francis of Assisi.

Growing up in a German Catholic immigrant family in western North Carolina as a precocious boy prompted by his mother’s encouragement to write poetry, Sieber’s published work the first 12 years of his life were preoccupied with the goal of peace and the theme of justice. Around the time he graduated from high school, Sieber received a visit from the Yiddish writer Sholem Asch, who spoke of Francis. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that he would join the National Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order in the mid-1990s.

“Francis had a youth that had a lot of sins floating around in it,” Sieber said. “Francis had been one of my mother’s heroes, and she read to me Rilke poems that commented on Francis in Book of Hours.

“I had met Father Louis Cannino, who had become my local spiritual advisor and who seemed to be such a good, genuinely good person,” Sieber continued. “I had been impressed over the years by how widely he’s admired. There’s even a United States postage stamp in his honor. As time went on, John Paul, who had been a recipient of the Franciscan peace prize, had become an international hero, much to my liking and appreciation. My mother had visited Jerusalem and noted that the Franciscans were caretakers of Jewish and Muslim properties, and visited Italy, where she noted that St. Francis was the only commonly appreciated Roman Catholic at a time when the Catholic Church was under bombardment for its mischiefs. And the list goes on. Why I had become so strongly committed to Franciscan spiritual values — the specific reasons — I really don’t know, but I guess the Lord knows.”

Sieber said he learned from both a journalism colleague at the Carolina Peacemaker, who caught the news on PBS, and a friend who heard it on WSJS 600 AM radio, that he had been received the Secular Franciscan Order’s National Peace Award. The announcement may have come on Sept. 11, 2001, he said, but the award was given in October 2002. The names of some of the other recipients may ring familiar: John Foster Dulles (2001), Ralph Bunche (1954), J. Edgar Hoover (1960), the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (1963), Robert F. Kennedy (1968), Mother Theresa of Calcutta (1974), Anwar Sadat (1980) and Pope John Paul II (1986).

“I was the first nobody in a list of spiritual greats,” Sieber said.

“I didn’t even know how significant the award was, and I didn’t know for a couple of days really,” he said. “My wife was with me though, and she was beaming. My wife, Delores, she loved to raise her fist in defiance and feistiness.”

Hal Sieber married Delores Mason-Lipscomb in the early 1990s. She died in 2007.

“To her it was a recognition, not of my accomplishments, but of, first of all, our joint activities and, secondly, her own leadership on behalf of education rights in High Point. She had been the chairman of the iconic High Point William Penn Foundation.”

The award “naturally threatened to give me a big head beyond which even a vain person could comfortably tolerate or even understand,” Sieber said, but in retrospect he seems less impressed with himself.

Sieber said he does not recall the specific reasons he was nominated for the award. Bob Stronach, public relations co-chair for the Secular Franciscan Order, said the sole criteria for the award is that it must be given to someone who has made a specific impact on peace and justice, and that he believes Sieber’s award honors his efforts in equal rights and race relations.

“You can’t be in favor of justice and not be in favor of peace,” Sieber said. “You can’t truly be in favor of peace without being in favor of change. You can’t truly accept change except in the context of a world such as the one St. Francis raised high to us all…. Peace and justice have been intertwined and so have sin and grace, mistakes and accomplishments, the love of God and the neglect of him.”

Sieber’s efforts, along with those of his wife, to save the historically black William Penn School in High Point were only one in a long line of commitments to improving race relations, which also included working to ease white resistance to public school desegregation as public relations director of the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce in the early 1970s.

“Delores and I worked very passionately to restore William Penn School to its former grandeur and potential, and to shame white High Point back into appreciating the institution in the wake of W. James Crowe’s defense of racial injustice.”

Much as WEB DuBois found it more than a century ago, the race line remains a significant fact of American life.

“I’m disappointed about the quality of individual commitment and community commitment to the eradication of skin color from all parts of human life and endeavor,” Sieber said. “I’ve seen everybody’s life improve as a result of the secret and not-so-secret advocates of justice in Greensboro. I suspect, however, that everybody’s life has taken a step back, so to speak, at the same time. It is difficult to turn on the news on what’s left of the electronic media without seeing race’s plain and ugly role in our society’s continued conflict of what is just and good and right.”

Spirituality and commitment to social justice, history and politics are interwoven in the same skein for Sieber.

“We will never have the peace that passeth all understanding, and by never I mean never, without having justice that passeth all understanding.”

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