“My first work camp was one of the most exciting experiences for me at SCI. Actually, I wanted to go to Russia, but I ended up in Germany because I wanted to have contact with the Russian people. Therefore, I got the tip to contact the SCI branch in England, which I wrote to by hand. I got a long handwritten letter saying that there are no workcamps in Russia this year, but it could be that two Russians will participate in a camp in Germany. It was a solidarity camp to collect donations for orphans or children who were disabled because of their experience in the war. That was in 1975 and I had the idea that we would collect donated products on the street, which in turn would sell themselves and thus raise money for the children's home. There should also be a study program for this, which I imagined would be certain indoctrination. But I thought that the goal in itself was good and I would have the opportunity to meet Russians”.
John was 20 or 21 years old and just finished his studies. He remembers that it was a long way to get there - by bus, train, ferry and train he was traveling for over 30 hours.
“I was the first to arrive. Only half an hour I lay in bed until there was a knock at the door and a big person came in and asked me if I could speak Russian there are two people downstairs who don't speak German or English if I could help them. The two young men were the work camp participants from Russia and came to my dormitory where the four of us lived together for three weeks: The two Russians, who were both from Komsomol, the big Russian youth organization (there was no other), a Czech, a dissident, and me. That was interesting. It was in the middle of the Cold War, the Helsinki conference was just over and relations improved a bit, but those three weeks with the three people were exciting. I was the one who mediated between the two sides, as a neutral observer so to speak. I was entrusted with the financial management, had to collect the money, count it, etc. In the end, we had 10,000 DM.”
However, a group of Vietnamese students had helped. They cooked, baked and sold drinks on the street so, most of the income came from them. John mentioned that study program was very instructive because he saw and heard a lot of things he had not seen and heard before about the war, the resistance and the crimes committed by the Americans. This made him aware of what war does, what war means to people and what propaganda means are used to influence public opinion.
“We were 16 people from 15 different countries. It was such a wonderful experience to see so many people from so many countries with so many different backgrounds and cultures all working together for a common purpose with so much enthusiasm. That impressed me.”
After workcamp John was inspired and asked himself what he wanted to do with his life.
“I didn't know exactly what to do, they told me there was a volunteer position in their office. But it was a very small organization with only one full-time employee who had just been hired and one conscientious objector who did his civilian service (Wolfgang Schur, who later became managing director). At that time there was no office, but it was in the basement of a private apartment. I said: "Yes, I will!". I was not there for long when someone said that there was an East-West Commission (it had a different name then), but that the German branch was responsible for this international group. Young and naive as I was then, I said I could try. At that time I was asked how long I would like to stay in Germany, whereupon I said: "One year at the most". As I said, I actually wanted to go to Russia, to the other side of the Iron Curtain, to see how people live there and whether it really is the way it is presented here. I was told: "No, you'll stay here for ten years". And as you can see, I am now in my 45th year. Did you still end up on the other side of the so-called Iron Curtain?”
After a few years in Bonn he was in Poland for a year as a volunteer at the time of the Solidarność movement. As he remembers that was also a very exciting time in Poland as first stay in a so-called "socialist" country. There John was able to compare the systems very well - then came this movement, which went through the country like an inferno.
“I thought that everyone was wearing the Solidarność badge. I must honestly say that when I was in Poland I did not meet any communists, not a single one. I also met some very rich people, which I did not expect, much richer than the people I met in Germany. It was very interesting, many contradictions in the country, but the hospitality was wonderful.”
He remembers clearly another highlight in 1983: The largest peace demonstration in Bonn ever, with 400,000 people. “Since they did not fit onto the Hofgarten, we had to move to the opposite side of the Rhine. There we had our SCI booth and were quasi overrun by humans. I've never seen so many people in my life. Our office was also the headquarters from which the demonstrations were organized and we had journalists from all over the world there every day, working with the people of AGDF [ev. Arbeitsgemeinschaft Dienst für den Frieden].” The main reason for this was that they wanted to conduct interviews that mainly organized this.
John has mentioned that he learned to understand other cultures much better and to develop empathy. ”Whenever there are conflicts, I try to put myself in the place of both sides. I find it very important, if you want to solve a conflict, to develop a certain empathy for the other person.
There are some more memories about SCI from the point of John’s view: ”When I started here, it was said that SCI is a catalyst for change, to awaken consciousness in people. People don't necessarily stay there, but they are there and dedicate their talents to other organizations or to other levels and carry this on. The SCI idea always remains in them as a "seed". So they are still active for peace in different ways. Some who work in influential positions today say that they owe to SCI what they have learned in their commitment to life. What is important for me at SCI is the work it does between enemies of war. This was already the case after the First World War and we should continue this tradition. My first work camp I led was a camp here in Bonn with young people from Northern Ireland when the war and violence took place there. They were difficult young people, half Catholic and half Protestant. At the end of the work camp, where we built a kindergarten for disadvantaged children, we were really like one big family.”
However, he says that in the beginning there was so much distrust that they hardly spoke to each other. But in the end the atmosphere was so good that we sang and danced together. ”Of course they, unfortunately, went their separate ways again afterward and had no chance to meet - except in a house of the Northern Ireland SCI branch. This was a very dangerous job, the manager of SCI Northern Ireland was murdered because of his work in bringing the two communities closer together. This is also one reason why, since the outbreak of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, we still organize the many projects with German, Ukrainian and Russian multipliers* to create an atmosphere in which people be able to talk directly to each other and notice that the other side has been misinformed. They learn empathy for others. This, in turn, reduces the risk of armed conflict. This work should, in my opinion, be better appreciated for what the SCI does in such sectors.”
To sum up, John says that SCI is his life and ”It is the most important thing in my life.” There are some more memories about what particularly impressed him. ”It is that there are so many people who are involved in so many parts of the world, in so many countries, are committed to a peaceful, just and solidary world. I was not so aware of that. I think that SCI is indeed one big family. We share the same values - there are of course certain assessments or positions on political developments, but we have remained faithful to our basic goals, which were given to us, so to speak, by our grandparents like Pierre Ceresol, which I think is very important.”
John also says that it is important to continue to search for and address the real causes of the problems and not just treat the symptoms. ”Sooner or later, I hope everyone will understand the futility of war and the enormous waste of lives and resources, as well as the environmental destruction and migratory movements it causes. I hope that more and more people will understand that we must act radically now to prevent climate change and I hope that we can create an economic system that is environmentally sustainable and not just for the benefit of a few. I hope that the SCI will continue to fight against all forms of racism, anti-Semitism, nationalism and discrimination on the basis of gender, and to fight for human rights and dignity for all. Let us continue to work with people, not for them. True democracy also means not going to the polls every four or five years, but a daily struggle at all levels. Peace work is full of pitfalls and setbacks, but if we persevere and offer people a realistic vision that inspires hope and optimism - our movement and the countless millions of people around the world who are fighting for peace will be successful in the long term. Every single person can contribute to this! And last but not least: If you get knocked down, get up again!”
Personally, I am inspired by this story of John Myers, who dedicated 44 years of his life to SCI and made a huge contribution to volunteering for peace and global justice in general! Let’s have it as a great example for our future activities.