The phone recently rang at the Nonviolent Peaceforce offices in Minneapolis, offering a gift that seemed too good to be true.

Would the nonprofit group, which sends peacekeepers to global hot spots to help prevent further violence, be interested in a free electronic billboard on Times Square in New York City for two months?

“I had to check it out to make sure it was real,” founder Mel Duncan said with a laugh.

It was real. The caller represented an advertising company that had rented the Times Square billboard space to a private corporation. But the corporation wasn’t ready to roll out its promotional campaign, so it decided to donate the space to four nonprofits.

How the Nonviolent Peacekeepers got on its radar screen is unclear. But by Nov. 7, electronic photos of the peacekeepers at work were being flashed for 10 seconds every hour on one of the world’s busiest squares.

The display will continue through Jan. 5.

Duncan said the message of peace is especially appropriate this time of the year.

“During this holiday season, when 1.5 million people pass by that sign every day, it’s a good reminder that dedicated nonviolence can bring about peace in some of the world’s most troubled areas,” he said.

The glitzy gift is particularly unusual because the Nonviolent Peaceforce is a low-budget operation. Its U.S. headquarters are in a house near Loring Park, and only recently did it open international offices in Brussels.

The group provides teams of trained unarmed peacekeepers who have been invited to war-torn countries to work with civilians and community groups to prevent the further outbreak of violence. Nine Nobel Peace Prize laureates have endorsed its work, including the Dalai Lama and former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Whether the crowds swarming Times Square on New Year’s Eve are inspired to support the group remains to be seen. Regardless, “it’s an unprecedented opportunity’’ to reach a huge and varied audience, Duncan said.


Jean Hopfensperger 612 673-4511