For a man colleagues describe as someone whose “inner peace radiated out to others,” a memorial tree or plaque would not have been quite the right way to honor his life.
Instead, Rock Hill’s faith community and Winthrop University on Monday honored Father David Valtierra with a peace pole – a six-sided wooden pole to remind people to reflect on peace and to strive for social justice and equality, which Valtierra worked toward, and helped others to do the same.
Valtierra, 62, died in 2010 after nearly four decades of service to The Oratory, to other churches in York County and to Winthrop’s student ministries. He taught peace studies courses at Winthrop after helping professor Ginger Williams launch the peace, justice and conflict resolution program in 2006.
He is remembered as a Roman Catholic leader who initiated and strengthened friendships with “those of other faiths or those who had no religion at all,” said Peter Judge, professor and chairman of Winthrop’s philosophy and religious studies department.
“He also defended the idea that our intellectual lives can be infused with the presence of God,” he said. “The two are not mutually exclusive.”
Valtierra, who arrived at The Oratory on Charlotte Avenue in Rock Hill in 1974, was “a man of great faith,” Judge said, who was “not afraid to ask critical questions – of himself, of his church and of his God.”
He was ordained as a priest in 1976 and led Winthrop’s Newman Catholic Campus Ministry.
In Winthrop classrooms, Valtierra helped students think critically about issues such as war and peace, reconciliation and conflict resolution. He was known for his giving heart and his commitment to serving others through his church and for God.
Valtierra reached out and inspired people from different walks of life and different age groups, said Brother David Boone, who served with Valtierra for many years at The Oratory.
Whatever was asked of him, Boone said, Valtierra “was very dedicated to everything he did.”
Valtierra didn’t “evangelize,” Boone said, but he took time to listen to others and show people that he cared. He helped those who were hungry or lost or hurting. With all the groups and people Valtierra served, Boone said, “he wasn’t a man to waste time.”
On Monday at Winthrop, dozens of people attended a ceremony to unveil the peace pole in Valtierra’s memory. A prayer was spoken that the pole would “be a beacon that lights the way to peace. ... May the peace pole remind us to wage peace,” not war.
Others prayed for more understanding among people and for everyone to take more time to love and celebrate differences they see in others.
Becky Garris shared a traditional Catawba Indian prayer and prayed for “peace and understanding of each other. ... Let us remember that we are brothers, regardless of the color of our skin or our native tongue.”
Four Winthrop students – from Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and France – shared a message of peace, spoken in their native languages. Others sang songs about peace.
Those who knew Valtierra best say he was a man who had found inner peace and knew that world peace began with individuals.
“Most people think that world peace is an elusive goal and that there is little chance that we will attain peace in our time,” said Williams, an associate professor of history. “All peaceful solutions, however, begin with individual commitments to peace and non-violence.”
Williams had talked with Valtierra about what sort of memorial would be fitting to honor him at Winthrop, but no decision had been made until about a year after he died. The campus has enough trees, she said, and Valtierra didn’t want a plaque for others to look at.
Peace poles were created in Japan in the 1950s and first came to the United States in 1986. With more than 200,000 installed around the world, the peace pole is the most recognized symbol of peace internationally.
Valtierra’s peace pole – which sits in Winthrop’s Hardin Family Gardens, surrounded by water features and paved pathways – will serve as a place for people to reflect and to be reminded “of our need to change in order to have a chance at world peace,” Williams said.
“The more we reflect on the prospects for peace, the more likely we are to experience peace.”