Married for 30 years, Pinellas County public school teachers John and Sheila Stewart have a standing date most Wednesday evenings: They head to busy Pinellas County intersections to wave signs protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and money spent on them.
They wielded signs the day after the presidential election. They picketed on Thanksgiving Eve as turkeys thawed. On Christmas Eve, they'll make a stand a short sleigh ride from Tyrone Square Mall.
On Wednesday, John Stewart's sign read: "Financial Crisis? Bring the troops home! Spend the money here! Call Congress. (202) 224-3121."
Stewart and his wife embrace their counterculturalism. They have no call waiting on their home phone, have eschewed cell phones and began recycling long before the word "green" was snapped up by marketers. He has protested at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas, in Fort Benning, Ga., and for the 22nd year, both will join others of like mind for caroling at St. Petersburg homeless shelters.
The couple's social activism began in 1981 after they heard a Presbyterian minister preach about the incompatibility of Jesus' teachings with the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
"I'm trying to live out the Sermon on the Mount. One of the ways I do that is when I go out on street corners," said John Stewart, 53.
A teacher at Osceola High School, he traces the roots of his involvement in social causes to the era in which he was raised.
"I think part of it was growing up as a Cold War baby and being terrified of nuclear war and feeling pretty powerless. I always believed that stuff they taught me in ninth-grade civics, that you need to be a good citizen,'' he said, adding that his evangelical background taught him to act on his beliefs and to take Jesus seriously.
Sheila Stewart, 54, who teaches at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School, was also influenced by her upbringing.
"One of the things was the example of my father,'' she said. "He was a fighter pilot in the Air Force and he was also an officer and he taught me to take a stand on things, which he did often in the military. A lot of times, it had consequences for him. He was just one of those people who stood up for what he believes in. And my mother was like that too. Both of them were very strong role models for me and they were spiritual people, too.''
Inspired by the Presbyterian minister, the Stewarts joined a house church, Immanuel Community, and participated in regular protest vigils at a now-closed Pinellas County nuclear weapons plant. When the congregation disbanded after the plant closed, the couple became involved with Pax Christi, an international Catholic peace organization. Neither is Catholic, but John Stewart said "there's a strain of service and activism in Catholicism'' that he didn't find in Protestantism.
The Stewarts say they value the friendship of other peace activists they've met over the years, among them members of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, and Veterans for Peace.
"There's one woman in her 80s who has been involved since her 20s. There's Anne Richter, who has been a midwife all over the world, specifically in Africa and Afghanistan, and has lobbied to change laws for women and children; and veterans who have seen war and are now active against it and folks who are interested in things much bigger than themselves,'' John Stewart said.
The couple, who have no children, met while attending what was then Madeira Beach Junior High School and began dating at St. Petersburg College.
They said they don't try to influence their students.
"I don't talk about the protests in the classroom,'' John Stewart said.
"I don't want them to agree with me, but I do want them to have their own belief system and act on it.''
Theirs is a shared passion, his wife said.
"It's really kind of enriched our marriage,'' she said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.