July 08, 1985 12:00 PM

The idea came to Justine Merritt, a former high school teacher from Denver, following a religious retreat three years ago. Deeply troubled that the threat of nuclear war cast a long shadow over the future for her seven grandchildren, Merritt had a brainstorm. Why not wrap a huge embroidered ribbon around the Pentagon? “It will be just like tying a ribbon around your finger,” Merritt told herself. “It will serve as a gentle reminder that we love the earth and its people.”

Though she had no money to finance the project (indeed she is impoverished and lives in a bare, two-room walk-up apartment), Merritt was undeterred. She quickly sent a note to people on her Christmas mailing list asking each of them to make a yard-long tapestry for the Pentagon Ribbon based on a universal theme: “What I cannot bear to think of as lost in a nuclear war.” In addition everyone was asked to dig out their own Christmas lists and to encourage all their friends to participate as well. Within months a sizable army of volunteers had been mustered. Then miraculously the numbers of would-be artists and just-plain-folks inspired by Merritt’s simple plea for peace continued to grow and grow at an exponential rate.

Next month Merritt’s vision will become a reality. In a demonstration planned to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, as many as 100,000 people from around the world are expected to gather in Washington, D.C. to string together some 20,000 tapestry panels in a 10-mile-long ribbon which will circle not only the Pentagon but the Capitol and the ellipse next to the White House as well. “The ribbon will tell the political leadership of this country that they have misjudged the deep yearning for peace among people at the grass roots level,” says Merritt.

While giving voice to a political message of hope rather than anger, the event also will unveil perhaps the most ambitious needlework project ever seen. Many of the Pentagon Ribbon’s individual panels (most measure 36 by 18 inches) have been embroidered; others have been silk-screened, tie-dyed, painted, quilted or appliquéd. Home, family, pets and friends are recurrent subjects of the artwork, as is the word “peace,” which appears in several languages. One panel which features a huge cockroach with rhinestone eyes and corduroy wings poses the question: “Will they be the only survivors?”

A fashionably coiffed, gray-haired matron, Merritt, 61, is an unlikely character to be leading one of the largest political demonstrations in more than a decade. The project however is the flowering of a political and religious conversion that has shaken her life to its roots. Some 16 years ago she lived as the devoted wife of a chemical engineer in Homewood, Ill. “We had five children, two cars in the garage, four bedrooms and two baths,” recalls Merritt. “Our goals were a fireplace and a swimming pool.” Then, over time, she was radicalized by the civil rights movement, which culminated for her in the controversial 1969 shooting of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark by local police. “It made me think of Nazi Germany,” Merritt remembers. “All my life I had asked, ‘Where were the good people in Nazi Germany?’ And now the question was being put to me: What would I do?” Merritt quit her teaching job in a Chicago high school to work as an unpaid volunteer in a social service agency. “Everyone thought I was nuts,” she says. “They said I was having a change of life. Menopause. They’d credit anything but the reasons I gave.”

A year later Merritt and her husband divorced, and she joined a commune. The commune soon folded, and she returned to teaching at a Catholic high school on the South Side of Chicago. Then in 1975 she experienced a spiritual awakening. “It was a time of great pain and anguish,” she says. “At the end of it I accepted God.” (She since has become a devout Catholic.)

That same year Merritt moved to Denver to join her aging mother, Lucille Miller. Within a few months she decided to clean out the $600 in her savings account to visit her son Stephen, an industrial relations consultant living in Japan. There she was deeply moved by a trip to the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima. “They had an exhibit of school notebooks which look just like the ones our children use,” says Merritt. “In one, a little Japanese girl had recorded changes in her white-blood-cell count.”

In the years that followed Merritt scraped out a living by teaching occasional courses at the University of Colorado and working for a while as a counselor for juvenile delinquents. But by 1982 she had no regular job and had taken “private vows pledging celibacy, simplicity and openness to God’s will.” It was in that mood that she entered the retreat to seek her mission. After many quiet prayers a message was revealed to her as the closing words of a poem. It said in part: “No wonder we have terrors in our nights, hiding a planet’s extinction in our dreams; no wonder we wake exhausted at dawn…” At that moment the idea to wrap the Pentagon in piecework was born.

“The ribbon was God’s idea,” says Merritt. “My part was not to argue.”

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