Sis & Jerry Levin: Peace Warriors

A Birmingham couple on a quest for authentic peace

Story by Beth Wilder and photos by Brit Huckabay

If Jerry Levin was a vindictive man, we could understand it. If he was bitter and angry, we could wrap our heads around that. If he was anything other than the lovely, charming gentlemen he is, no one would blame him. After all, he is the former Cable News Network (CNN) Beirut bureau chief who was abducted in March 1984 by Hezbollah (the Shi’a Islamist militant group based in Lebanon), held hostage for 111/2 months, blindfolded and forced to survive on small amounts of cold food while enduring anonymous guards playing random games of Russian roulette against his skull. He was detained for most of that year in solitary confinement, chained to a wall or radiator, imprisoned in a nondescript building with other American journalists—some of whom never came home. He is one of a group of U.S. hostages whose ordeals where kept under wraps by the U.S. government, a government that feared media coverage and a public outcry might agitate the captors and damage already tense relationships in the Middle East. He is the same man whose wife, Sis, defied the wishes of the U.S. State Department, CNN executives, their families, and even the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D. C., and flew to Damascus to negotiate with Syrian officials for her husband’s release. Jerry is a man who, after months of these negotiations, was finally allowed to escape (it’s Jerry’s belief that his captors wanted to save face to the world, so they just looked the other way) by slipping out of his chains, tying together his blankets, carefully lowering himself out of a second-story window, and walking through the desert for hours through dangerous territory. He is a man with an incredible story to tell, a story that would excuse some bitterness and anger on his part, but he is also a man who refuses to let that one moment in history cloud his vision for a better world. He is a man on a quest for true peace with his steadfast partner and wife matching him step for step on the journey, carrying the torch for nonviolence and always advocating for good.

          Much has been written about Jerry Levin, his career as a journalist in the early days of the CNN, his horrifying hostage tale, and the peaceful negotiation process his wife Sis spearheaded. Once the news reporter, Jerry quickly became the newsmaker in February 1985 when images of his release landed on the front page of almost every newspaper in the country. Jerry has written two books about his experiences: Reflections on My First Noel and West Bank Diary. Sis’s book, Beirut Diary: A Husband Held Hostage and a Wife Determined To Set Him Free, was made into an ABC television movie starring Marlo Thomas as Sis. But it is what happened after the news cameras and reporters turned their attention to other global atrocities that truly defines the Levin’s lives. It is the peace-keeping work they have dedicated their efforts to for three decades that Jerry and Sis hope to leave as their legacy.

          After the horror and shock of the abduction wore off, Jerry spent his initial days in captivity in contemplation, trying to reason why a group of people would feel so disenfranchised, so disillusioned, that they felt the need to kidnap and torture American journalists to get attention, to be noticed, to be heard above the rest of the chaos in the world. It was during these dark days that the agnostic Jew had a profound spiritual awakening. “I understood for the first time what Jesus was trying to teach us when he told us to love our enemies,” Jerry says. “I was oblivious to the truth before my captivity, that violence is a monster—not just the violence of the bad guys, but the violence of the good guys, too.” Jerry went into captivity believing the line everyone had been sold, that peace comes through strength. It did not take him long to fully understand the futility of all violence, even violence conducted in the quest of a greater good. “Coercive peace does not work,” Jerry often says.

          “What is peace? Authentic peace?” Jerry asks. “I can tell you what it is not. It is not the absence of war. Peace is more than NOT going to war. That is just the tip of the iceberg. We have to address all types of violence, melt the hulking iceberg, before we will ever have true, authentic peace.” Jerry goes on to explain that violence does not always involve weapons and fighting. “There is the structural violence of unjust social policy; political violence that leads to oppressive governments; cultural violence that devalues certain people; the violence of racism and colonialism that still exists today; and the violence of moral exclusion that rationalizes aggression on behalf of the ‘good guys’. These are all violent acts that get in the way of true peace.”

          This is where Sis jumps in, because true peace is not only something she believes in, it is something she has studied extensively, eventually receiving a doctorate in Peace Studies from Columbia University under the tutelage of Dr. Betty Reardon, the world’s expert on Nonviolent Conflict Resolution. “We all understand the Whys of peace—why we need peace, why we should care about peace abroad, why peace matters—but few understand the How,” Sis says. “I understand the How, because I lived it during Jerry’s captivity.”

          Against almost everyone’s advice, Sis knew the “How” to Jerry’s freedom was in the understanding of his captors and their perspectives. She knew if she could speak with them, listen to them, and really hear them, she could convince them that releasing Jerry was the right thing to do. Sis flew to Damascus where she pleaded her case to officials representing the Syrian president and the Lebanese Shia faction Amal. To quote a Washington Post article written about Sis at the time, she was, “A devout Christian who had considered studying for the Episcopalian priesthood, an American appealing to Muslim leaders to release her Jewish husband from his Arab captors.” The plan worked—a plan that seemed outlandish and risky to government officials—but a plan that Sis knew was right because it was a plan rooted in the Golden Rule.

          “When Jerry and I lived in Beirut, before his captivity, I came to love the women I met there like sisters—Jewish women, Arab women,” Sis explains. “Despite our religious and cultural differences, we truly became friends because we talked to each other. We understood each other. When I realized Jerry’s captors were people just like us, I knew we could find a way.”

          Jerry laughs when he thinks about being in captivity and having no idea what his wife was doing to save him. “What a novelty Sis must have been in Damascus,” he says. “This tiny Southern lady presenting to these diplomats, charming them and educating them at the same time.”

          For a seasoned journalist like Jerry, finding himself in Beirut was not a huge stretch. A native of the Detroit exurbs, he spent his career in television news, working his way through a series of news director jobs before joining CNN in its early days. His stops along the way included Houston, Chicago, Washington, and Birmingham, where he was news director for Channel 6 in the early 1970s and where he met a single mother of five named Lucille, better known to family and friends as Sis. Lucille “Sis” Hare is a native of Birmingham. She grew up in an affluent family with loving parents who never dreamed she would wind up negotiating with Middle Eastern officials for a hostage release. As a young woman, she lived with her family in one of the first demonstration houses in what was then the brand-new development of Mountain Brook. After her first marriage ended in divorce, Sis went to work as the director of the Birmingham Arts Council. It was in this capacity that she found herself waiting in the Channel 6 News offices for an appointment with the newly appointed news director. Jerry and Sis both remember the day vividly. She waited outside Jerry’s office while a heated argument was going on behind his closed door. Moments later, an angry, well-dressed man burst out of the door, almost knocking Sis down as he stormed out of the office. Sis was startled by the interaction and a little apprehensive about meeting Jerry after the scene she had just witnessed. She found him sitting calmly behind his desk, smiling. “Don’t worry about that,” he said to Sis. “I learn more from my enemies than I do my friends.”

          “I fell in love on the spot with those words,” Sis says. “I knew I had met a man with a unique perspective.” The devout Episcopalian was smitten with the “Yankee Jew in show business” (her mother’s words—not hers). It would be years before Jerry’s conversion to Christianity, but the differences in their backgrounds never mattered much to them. Their love story has lasted for over 40 years.

          In the years since Jerry’s release and his retirement from journalism, he and Sis have been instrumental in the worldwide peace building movement. Jerry estimates he has given over 2,000 presentations and workshops on nonviolent conflict resolution across the country and around the globe. In 2001, they both joined the efforts of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), an organization that supports and amplifies the voices of local peacemakers who risk injury and death by waging nonviolent action to confront violence and oppression. Sis and Jerry have walked Palestinian children to school in the West Bank, escorted farmers to their fields in areas of conflict, and linked arms with other CPT volunteers to create a human shield in Iraq to protest the Second Gulf War. They have traveled the world promoting nonviolent conflict resolution and discouraging the use of military force to bring about peace. They realize their work is not without controversy, but Jerry explains that neither of them is apologetic for their point of view.

          Sis and Jerry both know that the path to true peace begins at home. “Hate is not in our DNA,” Jerry explains. “Hate is a learned behavior. To end hate and achieve true peace, we must start in our homes, teaching young people the path to understanding.” Upon their return to Birmingham (living in the English Village), Sis worked with UAB to create a Peace Studies class. Her ultimate goal was to teach teachers how to bring peace studies to all school children and instill in them the process of nonviolent conflict resolution. “True peace begins at home, in our classrooms, on the playgrounds,” Sis says. “We have to be taught the absurdity of fighting. We have to be taught how to talk about our problems. We have to be taught that we can work our differences out without killing each other.”

          “That’s her true calling,” Jerry says. “Teaching nonviolence.”

          And it’s a lesson we all should learn.

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