A longtime Olympia activist has become somewhat of a celebrity in India with his spot-on portrayal of spiritual leader and civil rights icon Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Bernie Meyer started portraying Gandhi in the early 2000s through his involvement with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international peace organization. He was eventually tapped to teach youth in India about Gandhi’s principles.
Since 2005, Meyer has logged 14 of these educational trips to India. The most recent took place last September during the International Youth Peace Festival, when Meyer spent about five weeks speaking at college campuses and events.
Meyer sees the role as a calling that helps spread Gandhi’s messages of love, truth, nonviolence and social justice. In his presentations, Meyer tells Gandhi’s story in full character — complete with a white robe and proper accent. The people of India treat him like the real Gandhi and even ask for photos or autographs, he said.
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“American Gandhi is what they called me, and then it caught on here,” said Meyer, 77, who cherishes every opportunity to apply Gandhi’s principles to modern political issues. “The fact that an American does this means a lot to them.”
In the fall, he plans to return to India for what might be his last overseas journey as Gandhi. The trips require months of planning, said Meyer, who usually pays the airfare and relies on hosts for lodging.
The cost is worth it, said Meyer, who also has published an autobiographical book titled “The American Gandhi: My Truth Seeking With Humanity at the Crossroads.”
“Gandhi is an inspiration for the peace movement,” he said. “I’m constantly reading about Gandhi.”
At the local level, Meyer has portrayed Gandhi in demonstrations at the state Capitol campus, and has given presentations at libraries and other venues. One notable local event was the Salt Walk of Life, a 2006 rally in which Meyer led a group of about 200 people down Capitol Way in Olympia to raise awareness about global warming.
Glen Anderson, who runs the Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation, has known Meyer for several years and praised his ability to channel Gandhi’s values with authenticity.
“Bernie is the real deal,” Anderson said. “His commitment to nonviolence and peace and social justice and human rights goes way back.”
Nonviolent protests have been part of Meyer’s life since the 1960s. On his living room wall is a photo from 1969 that shows his arrest at the Cathedral of Saint John in Cleveland, Ohio.
Meyer, a former Catholic priest, was part of a group that took over the altar and challenged the church to take more leadership on political issues such as poverty, civil rights and the Vietnam War. In the photo, police are picking him up off the church floor in what Meyer called “a pivotal point in my life.”
Just last month on Martin Luther King Day, he was arrested during a nonviolent protest of nuclear weapons at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Silverdale.
Meyer is a friend to many who work on social justice issues in the community, said Cindy Corrie, president of The Rachel Corrie Foundation in Olympia.
“This is somebody who just, to his core, lives all of these things that he believes about how we should treat each other,” she said. “His knowledge about Gandhi and what he’s done with that knowledge is remarkable.”
Corrie started the foundation to honor her daughter, Rachel, a peace activist from Olympia who was killed in 2003 during a military operation on the Gaza Strip. Rachel Corrie had been engaged in nonviolent resistance on behalf of the Palestinians.
“The movement that she was a part of was really guided and inspired by Gandhi’s teachings,” Cindy Corrie said of her daughter, adding that Gandhi’s teachings also influence the foundation. “We really work to foster universal human rights and really advocate for nonviolent approaches to all of the problems in the world. Acts of violence and acts of revenge just lead to more of the same.”