1986 April 27 – 5th Sun Easter (Bulletin Letters)
April 25, 1986
It’s good to be back home after my many travels. I just returned from Kansas City and the Heartland Conference on Collaborative Ministry. The whole team, except for St. Jeanette who is on a 30 day retreat, went to this conference. It was a good time for us. A time to get new ideas and step back from the everyday struggles of ministry and get a perspective on where the larger Church is heading. We should be affirmed here in Harrison County because what we are doing with team ministry is on the cutting edge of the Church.
My vacation out East was just what I needed. I visited several Catholic Worker Houses along the way. I spent a couple of days with friends at Jonah House in Baltimore. I spent the rest of my time in Washington, D.C., visiting friends. I got to see my good friend Carol Fennelly from the Community for Creative Nonviolence (CCNV). They are very excited about the made for TV movie about them and their work for the homeless. I got to see a rough cut of the movie and recommend it highly. It will be aired on Monday, May 19, as a CBS movie special.
Also, while in Washington, I participated in an act of civil disobedience, protesting our country’s backing of the Contra forces in Nicaragua. What follows is an article I’ve written about my experience of getting arrested. I share this with you so you can better know the heart of your pastor. I don’t wish to force my views onto you, only to let you know what I’ve done and why I’ve done it. I come back to refreshed and revitalized from my experiences in Washington.
FRANK GOES TO WASHINGTON or HOW I GOT ARRESTED IN THE CAPITOL BUILDING
I was in Washington, D.C., on vacation when the national Pledge of Resistance called for nationwide demonstrations against the continued funding of the Contras in Nicaragua. I joined the local Coalition to Stop the US War on Nicaragua on April 14th as they took their protest to the Capitol.
The day began at 10:30 a.m. at the Methodist building a half block from the Capitol. The Quest for Peace Campaign was having a press conference. The campaign has pledged to raise 27 million dollars in humanitarian aid for Nicaragua to match the 27 million dollars Congress had earlier given to the Contras. Thus far they have raised 20 million dollars worth of humanitarian aid. At the press conference Bishop Thomas Gumbleton pledged the campaign would raise another 100 million dollars for Nicaragua should Congress approve the President’s request for 100 million dollars in Contra aid. This is a clear indication of how unpopular the President’s war on Nicaragua is with the majority of Americans.
Following the press conference, those planning to do civil disobedience met to go over last minute details. After a short meeting we broke off in small groups and made our way to the Capitol. In order to be inconspicuous we entered the Capitol at different times and at different entrances. We then met in the rotunda at noon around the bust of Martin Luther King Jr.
Anyone who has been in Washington, D.C., cannot help but be impressed with the many national monuments and government buildings. These temple like structures are designed to project an image of God like power and dominance. The Captiol building itself sits on a hill overlooking a vast parade field of national monuments. (Our state capitol looks much like the nation’s capitol, intentionally I suspect.) From the Capitol the Lincoln Memorial is the farthest away with the Washington Monument sitting halfway between the two. The Jefferson Memorial and the White House flank either side of the Washington Monument. This monument row is bordered by government buildings, the Smithsonian museums and the Potomac River.
In the Capitol the rotunda divides the House and Senate chambers. A painting of George Washington sitting in a Godlike manner adorns the top of the lesser Godlike characters from our nation’s history. Paintings and reliefs on the circular walls depict select moments in our American history. If a stranger to our land were to assess what sort of nation we are from the art in the rotunda, they would see a nation where white men with divine like power subdued and conquered nature and the lesser beings – the Native Americans, Blacks and Women. They would conclude that our nation’s formation and direction were ultimately decided by acts of violence and war.
On the floor of the rotunda sits life-size statues of some of our nation’s greatest warriors: George Washington, a violent revolutionary; Andrew Jackson, the great Indian killer; Ulysses Grant, a Civil War general; and Abraham Lincoln, the commander in chief of the Union army during a war that took more American lives than any war or combination of wars since.
Among all this sits the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. hewn out of a large black granite block. The bust’s simple design and sculptural style seem out of place with its surroundings. Etched in bold print below the bust is the word, “Humanitarian.” What an understatement, humanitarian yes, but much more – a faith-filled, God-centered person whose nonviolent struggles altered the course of history. In a setting where persons caught up in acts of violence and war are glorified and deified, the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. is both a contradiction and a blessing. It is a contradiction because he was a man of nonviolence. In the face of a great social evil, King’s way of righting a wrong did not succumb to violence. King never excused the use of violence for the sake of the just end sought in the struggle. The bust is a blessing because this nation caught up in its own violence and ill-gotten wealth, recognizes this black man.
It was appropriate that we gathered around this memorial to a man of nonviolence in order to stop the violence in Central America. Fifty-seven of us sat in a tight group in front of King’s bust. We began our presence with a public reading of King’s 1967 speech, “A Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam,” a very powerful speech in which King condemned our country’s role in Vietnam. Though the speech was given almost 20 years ago, King saw then what we are experiencing now when he said, “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malaise within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing clergy and laymen concern committees for the next generation. We will be marching and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.”
It was a powerful and moving experience for me to listen to these words of King at this time, in this place. While the speech was read, the Capitol security guards began to clear the tourists, press and support people from the Rotunda. Then they closed it off and began arresting us one at a time starting with the women. This process was slow and gave us time to complete the King speech and read a collection of church statements condemning our nation’s policies toward Nicaragua.
Among the statements was Archbishop James Hickey’s (Washington, DC) statement when he represented the U.S. Catholic Bishops before the Kissinger Commission in October, 1983, where he said “U.S. policy gives the appearance of encouraging war in Nicaragua…..Let me state personally that as an American citizen and as a Catholic bishop, I find the use of U.S. tax dollars for the purpose of covert destabilization of a recognized government to be unwise, unjustified and destructive of the very values that a democratic nation should support in the world.”
The arresting process continued to drag on. Literally in fact, because a number of the women chose to go limp upon arrest and were dragged across the Rotunda floor and down the stairs to the booking station set up in the basement. This extra time allowed us to individually address our group with personal testimonies. I wish I could transport you all through time and space back to the Capitol that day as you could hear first hand. For now I will simply share with you how I addressed these fine people.
I chose to wear my black clerical shirt and Roman collar, conscious that this would be my first arrest as a priest. As I gave my testimony, I took off my collar and shirt to reveal my “Farms not Arms” T-shirt underneath. The folks applauded the T-shirt message. I told them that I was a Catholic priest from a rural community in Iowa and from the diocese where Maurice Dingman was bishop. I explained that Bishop Dingman, one of the strongest peace and justice bishops in the country and a leading spokesperson for the family farm, believes we are setting up the same revolutionary conditions in the heartland of our nation as now exist in much of Latin America. As ownership and control of larger and larger tracks of farmland are placed in the hands of fewer and fewer people, the issue of land reform which plagues Latin American countries, will soon become a central issue in America’s heartland.
I went on to make the connection between what is happening in Central America and Nicaragua with the rural crisis of my state. The same global economic and political structures that are the root cause for the social unrest and violence in Central America are the very structures forcing Iowa family farmers off their land. In a global economic and political system where raw resources and human labor are sold at their lowest possible price, countries like Nicaragua, who buck the system and seek self-determination, will be seen as a threat, and our system of family owned and family operated farms will become obsolete.
After two hours of arresting people individually, the Capitol security decided to arrest the remaining 20 in mass so they could reopen the Rotunda. We had successfully staged the longest nonviolent occupation of our nation’s Capitol. We were all booked in the basement and transferred to the police precinct headquarters. Twenty-four local protesters were set free on personal recognizance and given a court date. Thirty-three of us spent the night in jail and appeared before a judge the following day at 6 p.m. We were formally charged and given a court date, but 15 of us from out-of-town arranged to come back the next day to plead guilty before a judge and take our chances with sentencing. We were lucky. The judge allowed us to give full statements to the court before sentencing us to time served. I told the judge that the next time I’m in Washington, DC, I hope I’m with some farmers trying to get some justice for the family farmer.
It is a mixed blessing being an American these days. It is very painful to see how badly we treat our earth, our poor and our neighbors. Yet, the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. does sit in the Rotunda of our national Capitol which means that all Martin Luther King Jr. was and continues to be is as much a part of the American experience as any past war or warrior this country has had.