70 Years of Peace Work at Gaia House Interfaith Center

Student Christian Foundation 1945-55Student Christian Foundation 1945

University Christian Ministries 1955-1961University Christian Ministries 1955

Interfaith Center 1961-Interfaith Center 1961

70 Years Of Peace Work
At Gaia House Interfaith Center
By Treesong

This article originally appeared in a Nonviolent Carbondale Coalition publication titled "Carbondale's Emerging Culture of Peace".

Gaia House Interfaith Center is a student and community center located at the crossroads between the SIU campus and the Carbondale community. As the organization celebrates its 70th anniversary, its members are examining the center’s long history of peace, social justice, and environmental advocacy.

In 1943, the center was incorporated under the name Student Christian Foundation. This ecumenical campus ministry, founded under the leadership of Southern Illinois Normal College President Roscoe Pulliam, brought together seventeen officers representing six Christian denominations to provide for the social and spiritual development of the college’s students. It may have been the first racially integrated campus ministry in the nation, taking a remarkable first step in bringing together students of diverse beliefs and backgrounds.

The Student Christian Foundation initially served as a social and spiritual center, offering meals, dances, housing, and religious programming for its integrated population of students. In 1961, the organization built a community center on the corner of Illinois and Grand that it still calls home today. This new building at the crossroads between university and community would prove to be a welcoming venue for many social change movements.

During the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, as a popular counterculture emerged locally and nationally, this community center became a central hub for new forms of activism and new types of cultural, economic, political, and spiritual discourse. Students and community members came to the center to participate in national and international movements by holding discussions, organizing events, and establishing new organizations. Examples of this peace and social justice work included participation in Mississippi Summer, involvement in Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, draft counselling during the Vietnam War, and provision of meeting and event space to a variety of other peace, social justice, and environmental organizations. One of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes north of the main building became Synergy, a resource center where people dealing with substance abuse, domestic violence, the draft, and other complex personal and political challenges could go to be accepted and supported.

The presence of this hub of community organizing and discourse during a time of critical cultural reflection had a lasting effect on Carbondale. Several long-lasting activist groups, including the Peace Coalition of Southern Illinois and the Student Environmental Center, can trace part or all of their origins back to discussions and events at the crossroads of Illinois and Grand.

During the ‘80s and ‘90s, the center continued to be a venue for community organizing around peace, social justice, and the environment. The Peace Coalition and others demonstrated in opposition to various military actions including guerrilla warfare training at Fort Benning, sanctions against Cuba, the Gulf War,sanctions and air strikes against Iraq, and the war in Kosovo. The Student Environmental Center organized and supported campaigns to protect the Shawnee National Forest and take action on other environmental issues. Along the way, the center’s campus ministry expanded from its ecumenical Christian roots to become a genuinely interfaith community.

The center started the 21st Century with the unveiling of a new labyrinth on the spot where the Synergy dome once stood. In addition to providing a space for individual and group spiritual exploration, this labyrinth also hosted peace and social justice events related to 9/11, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a celebration of the life and vision of Buckminster Fuller. Now known as the Labyrinth Peace Garden, this labyrinth is managed by an independent organization and is currently undergoing a revitalization campaign to enhance its natural beauty and develop future programs related to peace, social justice, and spiritual living.

Given its broad mission and the economic circumstances of the region, the center has at times struggled to sustain itself financially. During early 2012, as traditional campus ministry funding diminished, the center experienced a financial crisis. Supporters organized a series of fundraising events and a new membership program. These efforts were successful in keeping the center open. Currently, the center is funded through a combination of community donations, membership dues, and fundraising events such as the Christmahanukwanzadan winter holiday celebration.

After 70 years, the organization now known as Gaia House Interfaith Center continues to make history. The center offered meeting space and other resources to student and community activists during Occupy Carbondale’s presence across the street on the SIU campus. More recent peace activities include a march and rally against drones and participation in the 11 Days For Peace. In honor of its 70th anniversary, Gaia House has also organized Be the Change, a series of social justice, environmental, and spiritual events planned in cooperation with other local social change organizations. This series has included events related to human trafficking, child abuse, women and social justice, marriage equality, fracking, food justice, and climate change, as well as the many faith and belief traditions of Gaia House.

As the need for voices and actions in support of peace, social justice, and environmental sustainability continues, members of Gaia House look forward to continuing the work of social change in decades to come, providing a spiritual perspective on this work and offering a place for these discourses, organizations, and spirited people to call home.