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Stepping forward for peace: a public display of unity and peace

Joe Holtaway reflects on the multi-faith peace walk in January 2024 and invites people to join the next one on Sunday 23 June.

Our silence reclaimed Whitehall for me and allowed many to express themselves without words. Photo: Michael Preston for Quakers in Britain
Our silence reclaimed Whitehall for me and allowed many to express themselves without words. Photo: Michael Preston for Quakers in Britain

In 2012, at 28 years old, I stood just behind the fountains at Trafalgar Square waiting for a taxi to arrive. It was early April, bright and cold. The square was busy, as it often is, but today was different. Instead of the movement and transient atmosphere, people were sat down facing a stage in front of the fountain.

The taxi for which my friend and I were waiting arrived. From it, crossing towards us, came Thich Nhat Hanh, teacher of Buddhism, poet and peace activist, and friend of the late Martin Luther King.

My job that day was to welcome him and see he had his mic fixed in place ahead of addressing the two thousand people sat before the stage. He smiled kindly, bowed, thanked us for our help and made his way up the stage stairs. I would meet him twice more before his death in 2022.

In my 20s I found spiritual homes in both Quakers and the Plum Village tradition, which follows the teaching of the Buddha as offered by Thich Nhat Hanh. As a friend and elder at Westminster Meeting, Chris Goodchild, reassured me, "they are good dancing partners!". Not that I needed the reassurance, really, as both traditions, particularly their young adults' groups, had connections, events and members in common. The spiritual holding of both felt both beautiful and so needed in my life at that time.

As a Quaker, I feel inspired by the idea of being able to be "rooted in Quaker tradition and our own experience, yet also meet contemporary challenges" (1999 Yearly Meeting Agenda Committee). Historically, both traditions have been constant in their efforts to find ways of living that recognises the need for both spiritual practice and social engagement.

In 2024, now 40, I found myself back in Trafalgar Square, again on sound support, this time for a Quaker – Plum Village collaboration, and this time awaiting a multi-faith collective continuing the message of peace.

Built on friendship

Working together with Rehena Harilall and Jassy Dennison from Plum Village, and in the early stages, Chelmsford Friend, Jo Cooper, my colleague Judith Baker and I began to bring together faith representatives to discuss what the event might look like.

We hoped to bring people together to share a public display of unity and peace during a time when 32 significant armed conflicts are playing out around the world. Forefront in many minds was Israel's military campaign in Palestine that "put the British government at risk of complicity in genocidal acts".

I remember thinking it would take some skill and patience to harmonise the vision with the needs of various individuals and faiths. Words can be so loaded with meaning, especially at this time. Some faith groups were concerned that certain words and phrases would discourage their members. After a few meetings, and indeed much skill and patience, a consensus was reached where we decided to walk together in silence, without messages, and with white flowers. The only words on display, 'Peace Walk: for non-violence and reconciliation'.

I was humbled by those early meetings we held. Members of different faiths coming together; we shared silence, we cried and we sang. There was a feeling for me that the intention to find a shared peace amidst all that is happening – the fear, the genocide, the oppression – was possible. A peace was there that felt compassionate and dynamic.

Peace is every step


For me, participating in the walk was like being in a gathered Quaker meeting. I was in a state of deep contemplation as we walked, concentrating on Peace in every one of my steps. I felt a deep unity both of spirit and of commitment to Peace with those of other faiths around me.

- Judith Baker


On 21 January 2024, from 11.30am a sea of participants began to gather at the foot of the steps below the National Portrait Gallery. From the top of the steps the faith representatives stood together to share their prayers for peace. Christian, Sikh, Muslim, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Hindu, Baha'i, Jain and Druid led by Judith and Rehena, with Vari McClusky (Plum Village) inviting a meditation bell between speakers.

I experienced clearly a sense of what determination and love there is in the peace movement. The stewards, the police liaison, the organiser crew, the guests and the participants together in this moment of solidarity.

From the steps we walked, leading the crowd down Whitehall to Parliament Square and back again to Trafalgar Square. The road was closed and the Met police supported from a distance.

Reclaiming space for peace


I hope that, like me, most if not all present found a connection to each other and a recommitment to peace. There has to be another way to solve the conflicts of today, war is not the answer.

- Judith Baker


I found the walk deeply moving. Whitehall commands a lot of decision-making power when it comes to international conflict. Generations of politicians discussing warfare, and decisions on arms sales are debated and made there in Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament. Many Quakers have been there too, on vigils and demonstrations through centuries.

Our silence reclaimed that space for me, in a quiet way, and I feel allowed many to also express themselves without words. Centred were voices often excluded: voices of colour, of women and of faith, voices that speak of peace and continue to inspire me in every step.

The next interfaith Peace Walk is planned for Sunday 23 June 2024. To find out more and for further announcements visit the Plum Village UK event page. If you'd like to volunteer as a steward please fill in this online form.