"It means to be poor and live among the poor, to be nonviolent and insist upon nonviolence. To be truthful and loving, not owning stuff and not lording it over anyone. And it means going to some position of equity with one another, with an understanding that the Spirit speaks where she will and that it is up to us to listen. It means that we must be people of prayer and people of the good book; that we continue studying our scripture and trying to make sense of it in our lives today."
--Elizabeth McAlister, The Catholic Agitator, May 2005
McAlister's above comments were part of her advice about how Christians should "be the Church we want the Church to be." McAlister, one of the foremost war resisters of the 20th century, will be leading the monthly roundtable discussion this Sunday at Chatham County's Silk Hope Catholic Worker. Silk Hope will also be celebrating the return of community member Dan Schwankl, who was released from federal prison last Friday after completing a 90-day sentence for his civil disobedience protest last November at the U.S. Army's Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formally called the School of the Americas).
The madness of the Vietnam War drew then-Sister Elizabeth McAlister out of the convent some 40 years ago, and she has been leading a life of resistance ever since. To those on the Catholic left, McAlister, 65, will always be linked to her late husband, Philip Berrigan, who died from cancer on Dec. 6, 2002. Together, the couple founded Jonah House, a resistance community located in inner city Baltimore, and raised three children: Frida, 31; Jerry, 30; and Kate, 23.
McAlister, who will be leading a women's retreat in Greensboro this week, said her life turned upside down when Berrigan died at the same time that two community members, Dominican nuns Sister Carol Gilbert and Sister Ardeth Platte, were awaiting a federal felony trial for hammering on a Minuteman III missile silo in eastern Colorado as part of anti-nuclear protest.
Platte, Gilbert and another nun, Sister Jackie Hudson, received long prison sentences for the protest. Gilbert was released last month and returned to Jonah House. Hudson was also released. Platte remains in prison.
"It's not an easy thing to talk about," McAlister says. "Phil's death was combined with the nuns being in prison. We were bereft and had to pretty much go back to basics, and the basic is the basic of love one another. And we realized if we aren't about that, then you know there's no sense in our being about anything and we aren't going to make it."
Because Berrigan spent 11 years of his life in jail or prison for acts of resistance, McAlister knew something about holding down the fort in his absence. Still, McAlister, who has also spent close to four years incarcerated for her conscience, said her faith allows that Berrigan lives.
McAlister received confirmation of Berrigan's presence when she spoke to her daughter Kate on the phone last Sunday, and Kate told her about a dream.
"The dream was that she and I and [a friend, Jesuit priest Steve Kelly] were standing next to Phil's open coffin and he was dead and then he started breathing and moving and sat up and she hugged him and cried.
"And I said to her, 'He's alive.' And she said, 'Yeah. Yeah.' Isn't that a wonderful dream? I think he is alive, and I think so many of them that have gone before us are alive."
Losing a partner is tough, McAlister said. Berrigan missed the birth of his first grandchild, Amos Philip, born to son Jerry Mechtenberg-Berrigan and daughter-in-law Molly Mechtenberg-Berrigan. McAlister said the peace movement also misses Berrigan.
"It's his presence; it's his wisdom; it's his single focus that he always returned us to when we went this way and that way," McAlister says. "And we don't have that now, and we miss it. I know I'm talking in the we because it is a we thing."
In the face of a government that is becoming less and less tolerant of dissent, McAlister says things could get worse for those who resist, and they shouldn't expect any help from a complicit church.
"I think the time is quickly coming when even those simple things we do will be regarded as more criminal than they're regarded now," she says. "And we're not getting backing from the church. And more of us are going to be excluded from that."
McAlister said war resisters should keep doing the work of peace, and "keep doing it with great heart and great spirit and great love ... living among the poor, meeting the needs of the poor as much as you can and then addressing their oppression to those who keep them that way.
"Whoever's pope, whoever's bishop, whoever's senator, whoever's president and attorney general--those are the things we know we can do and those are the things we know we have to do."
McAlister, who must go to court next month in Virginia for a Pentagon arrest, said Jonah House will continue to give bags of food to the poor in their neighborhood each week, "and we'll do our resistance at the prison and at the White House and at the Pentagon and wherever, and we'll risk arrest and we'll go to court and we'll address it and we'll write and we'll speak. There isn't a magic formula of what we must do, but we all know what we must do, and the people who are in need and the people who are suffering are the ones who tell us what we must do."
For more information on the Silk Hope gathering, call (919) 663-4334.