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AT THE PEACE CENTER, WORKING TOWARD A TRUCE ON THE HOME FRONT

It has been 22 years since the last helicopter rose from the U.S. Embassy roof and shuddered into the Saigon sky, marking the end of the Vietnam War.

Most activist groups born of the war have long since followed it into history. But the lights never went out at the Western New York Peace Center.

After spending its first two decades concentrating on such far-off concerns as the carnage in Southeast Asia and the prospect of global nuclear Armageddon, its third decade has seen its focus return home, to the schools and streets of Buffalo.

Now more than half of the center's efforts are dedicated to teaching people how to avoid violence in their daily lives, a curriculum called "non-violent conflict resolution." The center presents three-day seminars in area schools, workplaces and prisons in what it sees as a logical extension of its mission.

From the beginning, James Mang has helped shape the center's mission and guide it through its 30-year history. Mang was a Catholic priest for 12 years before deciding, in 1977, that his collar was growing too small for him.

He still believed in the church. But he also had come to believe he could not follow his heart as one of its priests. A Catholic priest could not devote himself to political activism the way Mang wanted to, or date a certain young woman named Audrey.

When Mang obtained his dispensation from the archdiocese and left the priesthood, he traded his priestly profession for another expression of his spiritual self: peace worker.

For 17 years, fighting the twin Goliaths of violence and injustice has been Mang's full-time job, as center director.

When you ask him how he pits himself against the dark side of human nature every day, evil as old as Cain and Abel, his answer is simple.

"I think I could not not do this work," said Mang, 58, speaking softly and choosing his words carefully. "It's a calling.

"I've always believed, in a fully spiritual sense, that people in the world are basically called to peace, to relationships that aren't based in evil or violence," he said. "You have to believe that peace and social justice is possible, and that if you keep working at it and get more people attuned to it, why, we'll evolve into a more peaceful and just society."

Mang is on the same mission he began while still a priest, in 1967, when he joined the fledgling peace center. As the Vietnam War crept toward its bloody nadir, a group of ministers including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. decided to organize opposition to the United States' involvement. They formed Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, a nationwide group whose Buffalo chapter was named the Western New York Peace Center.

After the war ended, the center remained as a clearinghouse for activists concerned about American support for brutal Central American dictatorships, the threat of nuclear war and growing military spending, and other issues. That work remains a vital part of the center's brief today, Mang said.

But in 1988, the center started studying a new way to work for peace in the local community: non-violent conflict resolution.

The center's program is run by Mang's wife and co-worker of 19 years, Audrey Mang.

The classes try to teach people to stop and think about situations instead of reacting instinctively, said Mrs. Mang. Over the past decade, the center has held its three-day seminars for high school students, teachers, prison inmates and groups of employees, she said.

"Everybody wants to know how to deal with conflict," said Mrs. Mang. "It's more real to people than, say, nuclear weapons. They're very far away. Violence is right down the street."

The classes' message has resonated in such places as Grover Cleveland High School, where more than 850 students and 200 teachers have participated since 1992, she said.

Grover Cleveland football coach Al Thomas was skeptical at first about the idea that non-violence training classes could help students avoid trouble. But as he took the class himself and saw its impact on students, he became a believer.

"It lets the kids know there are alternatives, different ways of handling things," Thomas said. "I really have to believe it has a positive effect."

The center is located at 2123 Bailey Ave., in a trim two-story building that formerly housed a dentist's office. Mang is one of three paid staff members, from a center budget of $95,000. The group spent its first 28 years in a succession of church basements; a longtime member donated the building two years ago.

What does a peace worker do? Mang said he spends much of his workweek researching local and national peace issues to include in the center's bimonthly newsletter, organizing events and coordinating issue-based committees, and networking with other advocacy groups.

The job pays $17,500 a year, making it easy to believe Mang when he says he doesn't do it for the money.

Being a peace worker "takes a belief that war and violence are not inevitable," Mang said, "and that if we keep organizing against it, that it will make a difference in individual people's lives and then eventually in our society."

Mang "has tried -- and very much succeeded -- to keep us focused on the realities of injustice," said the Rev. John Weimer, a Catholic priest at Buffalo State College's Newman Center.

"I know him to be an extraordinarily faithful person -- faithful to the vision of a world that could be more just than it is. It's a tough journey when you're constantly slaying dragons and they keep growing new heads."

The center's work against violence is "even more important today than when it started," Father Weimer said.

"There are serious issues that need to be addressed -- the violence in the world and the violence in our own lives."

The center will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a vegetarian dinner and benefit auction on Oct. 23. Invitations have gone out to the 600 members, who faithfully support the center with annual donations, usually $35 and up, Mang said.

The steadfast support of the center's membership was key to its survival, said Mrs. Mang. "There is a very faithful contingent of people who have supported it for so long, people who will not only send in a check every year but come out to events," she said.

The Vietnam War ended, but the problems with American society are still with us, said Mark Mahoney, a Buffalo defense attorney and longtime member. That's why the center is still needed.

"There is no more fundamental question in human destiny," said Mahoney, "than how we treat other people."

Many of the center's current members have been part of its work for most or all of its 30 years, said Mang. One such volunteer, Wayne Alt, will be honored at the dinner.

"Till the end of time, there will always be a need for something like the Western New York Peace Center," said Mang, "because there will never be a perfect society."

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