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Merton Center festival marks 50 years of fighting for peace and justice in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Center made its name in the 1970s and ’80s, working on such peace and social-justice issues as ending the war in Vietnam and curbing nuclear proliferation. Over the decades, the group has taken up many other struggles, from opposing U.S. military intervention in Central America to advocating for civil rights at home.

Fifty years after its founding, the Merton Center remains on the job. And it’s marking its half-century anniversary with an outdoor festival this weekend.

The free event is called Love & Living, and it features six hours of live music, food trucks, kids’ activities, a “thrifty fashion show” and more in Allegheny Commons Park, on the North Side.

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Musical performers include hip-hop artist Kyna James, an activist who performs as Issue; Latin dance band Guaracha; Pittsburgh’s May Day Marching Band (often seen at protest rallies); Smokestack Lightning, which performs acoustic versions of movement and labor songs; and touring performers Ananga Martin and Sunni Leilani, both of whom participated in the 2016 protests against an oil pipeline on the Standing Rock Reservation, in North Dakota. 1Hood’s Treble NLS, also an activist, will host an open mic.

There’ll be some low-key activism too, with about 20 local advocacy groups offering information and games spotlighting everything from voter registration to disability rights. Participating groups will include CeaseFirePA, the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, Our Children Our Earth, and Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid.

“We’re going to have a lot of people coming to meet new people and welcome them into connecting with their communities or with work they’re doing,” said Merton Center director Gabriel McMorland.

Local activists founded the group, in 1972, to oppose the Vietnam War and provide medical help to the Vietnamese. The Center, originally based on the South Side, was named after Thomas Merton, the renowned American Catholic monk, author, and anti-war activist, who died in 1968.

Members, staff, and supporters have since done everything from meeting with Westinghouse officials about the company’s role in producing first-strike nuclear weapons to traveling to Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador as part of the Witness for Peace initiative. They’ve also protested hunger locally and around the world, and raised their voices against apartheid in South Africa and police brutality at home.

In 1993, the group relocated to Penn Avenue, in Garfield, and created the East End Community Thrift store, which operates to this day, though the Center recently relocated its headquarters to Wilkinsburg. Meanwhile, the Merton Center has served as fiscal sponsor for groups including the Pittsburgh Prison Book Project and the local chapter of the international global-warming initiative

McMorland began working with the group as a high school student, in 2003, when its key causes included opposing the invasion of Iraq. He became an organizer in 2014, and director in 2017, though he recently announced he will leave the job once his replacement is found.

McMorland said other groups and programs that emerged from the Merton Center include the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

“Really it’s a meeting place and a community more than it is a self-contained island of an organization,” he said. “The legacy is really bigger than any of us.”

The Love & Living festival runs noon to 6 p.m. on Sat., Sept. 3. More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: