Our paths crossed in the late 1970s in Washington. I was a Franciscan brother
attending a retreat at a local church, and Philip Berrigan was the main speaker.
Here in person was the man who had spent time in federal prison for a variety
of nonviolent yet provocative actions protesting war and nuclear proliferation.
His style was like John the Baptist, very in-your-face, challenging all of us
to do more to promote peace through acts of civil disobedience. Berrigan was a
living sacrifice for peace; he seemed never to tire.
Since that weekend, my life was never the same. Going public in opposition
to my country's policies was a huge jump for my family and me. I felt my father's
hurt. Many colleagues and friends didn't understand. I experienced a tiny sampling
of Phil Berrigan's many sacrifices. He spent a total of 11 years in prison for
his protests. My one night in a Washington jail was an eye-opener: the cup of
cold coffee, stale peanut butter sandwich, steel bunk without a mattress, variety
of insects, lights left on all night, and the sounds of the screams of fellow
inmates. I also never felt more alive and in solidarity with the victims of our
The last time I heard him speak was during the summer, and I remarked how frail
he seemed. Later, I learned he had been suffering with cancer. But while his body
was weak, his words were as strong as ever. Even at the end of his life, he was
faithful to the call of God, tireless in warning against our apparent societal
compulsion to destroy the planet. His solution was simple: to be living witnesses
to the love of God for all humanity regardless of race, religion, gender and nationality,
communicated through self-sacrificial acts of mercy and justice, trying to disturb
business as usual with a human cry for sanity and solidarity.
Stephen Oldham (soldham@sjprep. org),
a former Franciscan, lives and writes in Cheltenham. He offered this reflection
Sunday at St. Vincent's Church in Germantown.