Stories from an insurrectionary childhood

Elizabeth McAlister, Philip Berrigan and the author (on knee).

Seamus Philip celebrated his three month birthday on Thursday. It was just like every other day — nursing and pooping, laughing and cooing, chewing on his hands and slobbering. He giggles and smiles and looks deep into your eyes now. He can hold his head up and has mounted an aggressive conditioning regime with the goal of turning over and crawling ASAP. Watching him, loving him, caring for him, living with his constant changes — all of this provides daily opportunities for me to reflect on my own early years and upbringing.

I wonder how his dad and I will impart our values and core beliefs, I wonder what kind of man he will grown up to be; I wonder what stories he will tell his friends and his children about his childhood. I already know they won’t be the same stories I tell.

I was born into and brought up at Jonah House — a nonviolent resistance community grounded in its founders’ Catholic faith and built for the express purpose of nurturing and sustaining resistance. It was formed in the early 1970s, when the war in Vietnam was effectively off the front pages and effectively over in the minds of most people as a result of Nixon’s Vietnamization of the war. The anti-war movement had been killed off, bought off, turned off or sent off to jail.

My parents — Elizabeth McAlister and Philip Berrigan — and their friends looked around. They saw the continuation of war in Southeast Asia, thousands of nuclear weapons and new wars on the horizon, and they wondered who was preparing the next anti-war movement as the war planners at the Pentagon prepared for the next war. They concluded that it was them.

They concluded that the anti-war movement that confronted the war in Southeast Asia had tended to be episodic, reactive and too intense to sustain a long-term commitment from most individuals. People tuned in, turned on and burnt out — in a tightly orchestrated cycle that went way too fast to build the kind of opposition that lasted. Then they looked at the Catholic Worker, which has been plodding along — sometimes huge and vibrant, sometimes small and on the margins, but comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable since the 1930s. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin had created a place where it was “easier for people to be good,” where laypeople could practice the works of mercy, serving the poor while resisting the forces of war, racism and capitalism that create poverty. How had they kept going? The answer: community. Shared purpose, shared prayer, shared study, shared work.

So my mom and dad formed community, revising the Catholic Worker model to emphasize resistance over the works of mercy and adding employment. The community would paint houses and share a common purse so as to not be beholden to the whims of contributors.

This is the place I grew up with my brother and sister — chaotic, intense, crowded, ever changing, never spotlessly clean, with dishes, sheets, clothes, and even pots and lids that never matched. But our homework got done, our lunches were packed, our teeth and hair were brushed (sort of), our curiosity was satiated, our needs to run and play were fulfilled, our minds were crammed with facts and figures and images, our consciences and faiths were built in practice on the streets and in the study of history and the gospels. We were raised by a village. Sometimes we loved it, sometimes we hated it. But it was always home.

Once when my brother Jerry and I were five and six (or so), we visited our dad in jail a week or so before Christmas. Only later did I understand how hard this must have been for mom and dad. But to us dad being in jail was just how things were.

We sat across from him in some dreary visiting room — maybe a well-meaning guard had hung some tinsel on the concrete blocks. Right away, Jerry said — in his bold and confident way — “Dad. I want to thank you.” I, the older sibling, had no idea what he was talking about. Where was he going with that? “Thank you for the best Christmas present of all.”

There had been no presents. It was not even Christmas yet. And by the look of dad, clad in beige and unequivocally behind bars, there would be no presents.

“You action for peace is a gift to Frida and me, and to all children,” Jerry continued. I was as stunned as dad — but not out of pride or gratitude like my dad. I was just a bit jealous. I should have said that. I am the oldest, after all.

We got a beautiful toboggan that Christmas from dad. We catapulted down snow hills for years on that thing, always fighting over who got to sit in front. We thought dad was magic or that the prison had one heck of a commissary.

Fast forward a few years to November 1985. Our little sister Kate had just turned four and Jerry and I were 10 and 11. It was the November 17, mom’s birthday and she was in Alderson, West Virginia, serving a two and a half year sentence for a Plowshares action in upstate New York.

We had talked on the phone, and then later that evening she sent us a card. I found it recently with a whole packet of letters from that period. It was addressed to “my dearest ones — Frida, Jerry and Katy.” On the front she drew an echidna, a small mammal that hatches from an egg and has spines like a porcupine. Every letter came with a picture of a new and strange animal. The letter said in part:

I’ve just finished talking to you on the phone and my heart is full and warm with a sense of you and your presence and love that binds us together even though we are apart. We are going to have a little prayer time now and a party. And you’ll be with me tonight and all the time until I see you again.

At this moment, with the little guy asleep on my lap as I type, I cannot imagine leaving Seamus and going to prison. But, now that I am a parent, I can start to imagine how hard it was for my dad to wish us a merry Christmas in a prison visiting room, for my mom to not be with her kids on her birthday. And I can be grateful — on a completely new level — for their commitment to peace and justice.

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