As we cut the budgets and let the social programs wither, as global warming and invasive species threaten the integrity of ecosystems and human health, as endless and endlessly faster technological change leads everything that is solid to "melt into air," it is reasonable to ask, what should we try to preserve? What is worth holding onto? And what can we save that might help us make the world more just, caring, and sustainable?

Here's an answer from me—no doubt many readers will have their own: The Peace Abbey and the Life Experience School of Sherborn, Massachusetts. In the dark time that is the present, people stuck in poverty need material help, to be sure. But all of us need some institutions that envision a truly better society. Any place that gives us an indication that something else is possible is truly priceless, because it helps us give an answer to the kinds of despair that haunt my students when they ask: "But professor, isn't it just human nature to be competitive and selfish?" If we cannot get at least a taste of mutual respect, service to life, and honor for the truly noble among us, how are we to continue to believe such things are possible?

The Abbey is an interfaith spiritual center dedicated to the peace and justice teachings of all the world's faiths. The centerpiece of its grounds is a life sized statue of Gandhi, flanked by a series of plaques with quotations about peace and justice from Quakers, Catholics, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Taoists, Indigenous peoples, and secular champions of social goodness. It houses a remarkable library of resources on pacifism, socialism, peace, veganism, women's and gay rights, liberation for ethnic and national minorities, and interfaith respect and cooperation.

When a member of the armed forces seeks C.O. status the Peace Abbey is there to help; when a Tibetan-American is imprisoned by the Chinese for seeking to document Tibet's cultural heritage, the Abbey takes up his cause. When vegans, peace activists, or supporters of human rights need a place to meet, they use the Abbey. When America's response to 9/11 threatens the civil liberties of American Muslims, the Peace Abbey broadcasts the Muslim Call to Prayer over its loudspeakers; and when the U.S. invades Iraq, Abbey leaders chain themselves to the fence of a nearby army base in protest and are arrested for civil disobedience.

"To make gentle the life of the world," is the Abbey's slogan, but it knows that this gentleness must be expressed in political action: moral witness that there is another way than the variety of 'isms' (racism, nationalism, fanaticism, militarism, terrorism, imperialism, sexism, etc.) that shape the world now.

The founder of the Abbey, Lewis Randa, created a school for special needs students, The Life Experience School, as his C.O. service during the Vietnam War. The students who have passed through the doors of this tiny haven for the last forty years have had intellectual disabilities, serious emotional problems, and physical handicaps. While Randa and his staff have taught them as much of the "usual" as they could—a smattering of math or reading or social studies—the real educational message is far more vital. "You are important, you are worthwhile, your voice and your presence matter to the rest of us."