For granddaughter Sage, on the occasion of her 18th birthday

Dear Sage –

Welcome, voter! And Happy 18th birthday.

Because of what happened on July 5, 1971 (when I was 21), when the voting age was lowered to 18, you are getting a 3-year head start on me for being a fully enfranchised American. The context for me was this:

“Leading up to that period, the demand had grown that young people be given the opportunity to vote. Tens of thousands of young Americans were drafted into the military for the Vietnam War, and the Korean and other wars before that, when they turned 18. Yet, because they were unenfranchised, they had no say whatsoever in making the policies that determined whether the nation – and their own selves – would be involved in a bloody war overseas or not.”

President Nixon had not supported the 26th Amendment that lowered the voting age nationwide to 18, was forced by public opinion to bring on new voters, but nonetheless said this when signing the amendment:

“As I meet with this group today, I sense that we can have confidence that America’s new voters, America’s young generation, will provide what America needs as we approach our 200th birthday, not just strength and not just wealth but the ‘Spirit of ’76’ a spirit of moral courage, a spirit of high idealism in which we believe in the American dream, but in which we realize that the American dream can never be fulfilled until every American has an equal chance to fulfill it in their own life.”

Now comes your 18th birthday when you will be called upon to identify political leaders (maybe become one yourself after you complete your education) and support those who will provide what America needs. As you know that means addressing many issues of racism, mass incarceration, homophobia and equal rights for LGBT+ people, equal rights for women, immigration, militarism, war and peace, the elimination of nuclear weapons, affordable healthcare for all, sensible gun control, ending violence in our cities, protecting ourselves from predatory drug companies who bear much of the blame for the opioid crisis that had killed many thousands, getting corporate and dark money out of politics, protecting our air and water from pollution and contamination, and of course voting out Donald Trump in 2020. This is not even a complete list of what an enfranchised Sage Ella will be confronting, but you get the idea.

Yet towering above all those issues will be the issue of your lifetime – climate change and the atmospheric and social chaos that will result from a warming planet. Never has there been a generation which could say “I want to save the world” with that task being precisely what they are called to do, without hyperbole.

There is a movement underway that will be about making more fundamental changes in how we live and what we eat, where and how we get our energy, and how we relate to Nature that will be the most important movement in human history, without precedent. Either we do what must be done to eliminate fossil fuel emissions and begin drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere, or your children (if you choose to have children) will be condemned to witnessing the complete destruction of living systems that sustain our lives and the lives of millions of plant and animal species with whom we share the planet. Even the clouds may disappear from the sky, the science is telling us now.

Can you imagine living with no clouds?

Your peers are leading that movement now in groups like the Sunrise Movement (you have the T-shirt!) or the Extinction Rebellion or, perhaps quite importantly, the court challenge lodged by Our Children’s Trust, which seeks to establish that “through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.”

That case has been fought tooth and nail by both the Trump and Obama administrations who have not wanted a jury of peers to see evidence that the government and fossil fuel companies knew what they were doing would warm the world and threaten the sustainability of all life, yet government subsidized dirty energy anyway and fossil fuel companies raked in profits while making the public clean up their environmental messes.

There is statement by a judge in the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit that may go down in history as among the most important words in our collective history, if the young people get a chance to go before a jury:  “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” – US District Judge Ann Aiken

So, I persist, maybe even harangue my granddaughter on her benchmark birthday which should be an occasion of joy. But just as those in my generation insisted on the right to vote because we were faced with being drafted into war, so too have you been drafted into a collapsing climate, caused by a literal war against Nature for quick profits, and you must be the advocate for peace with Nature. You must join a movement to end that war against Nature, as much as you can, through efforts like a Green New Deal, taking part in political arena or entering there yourself someday.

Finally, as one of my favorite writers, the poet-farmer Wendell Berry, says in his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” – I say to you with this enclosed gift by which you can celebrate your birthday: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” Never forget to have fun and share the beauty of life with those around you, even as you are perforce required to be involved in protecting our planet and all it beautiful beings. Go have some fun, and I wish I could be there to give you a big hug and kiss.

I love you,


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Maryland Environmental Leaders’ Extraordinary Appeal for Clean Energy Jobs Act 2019

This is an advocacy letter, to be sure, but not one like you have seen before. This is not asking Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch to support a bill that can wait until next year if it does not pass now.

“Mr. Speaker, we appeal to you not to read into this letter any sense of commonplace advocacy. Our tone is unprecedented here because the science of global warming has changed dramatically. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October – for the first time – gave the world a deadline.”

Please take a look at the letter and pass it on to Maryland residents. The time is now to start addressing climate changer seriously in Maryland.

Enviro leaders’ ltr to Speaker Busch FINAL

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A Facebook Dialogue on Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church – re the PA report

RE: More than 300 accused priests listed in Pennsylvania report on Catholic Church sex abuse (Washington Post, August 14, 2018)

GORDON: Oh dear – mind if I take a moment from needling you on climate change to pose a nettlesome question about the Catholic Church, Stephen? As a good person and a good Catholic, your anguish over this latest revelation is palpable. But the key words to me are “latest revelation.” While the world abounds with good Catholics like yourself, the institution of the Catholic Church abounds with child abusers.

Whatever the reason(s) you think it’s happening – and I would dare anyone to suggest let alone prove that it isn’t still happening – child abuse is endemic in the institution of the Catholic Church. It’s a global problem (just read the list at the end of “Spotlight”), it’s been going on for decades (if not centuries), and far from being able to police itself, the Church hierarchy has been actively covering up the problem forever. If any other private or public organization in the world had this track record of criminal sexual predation, rape and child abuse, they would have been put out of business long ago. Why is the Catholic Church exempt?

I’m not on a crusade or anything, to me it’s just another sign of our world falling apart at the seams, but if it were up to me I would a) jail every priest who is shown to be abusing children, b) jail every bishop and cardinal who directly aided in any cover up of these crimes, c) relieve every other cardinal of their position (like they didn’t all know what’s going on?), d) end the Catholic Church’s tax-exempt status, and e) take all of the Church’s money and divide it up among all the individual parishes, with instructions to start a new church. They couldn’t possibly do worse than what exists already. (Although I’d let you all keep Pope Francis, he seems like a good guy!)

I don’t mean to be offensive at all, I am simply struck by a profound paradox – I find many Catholics (like you) to be among the most beautiful people I know. And I find the Catholic Church to be one of the most irredeemably corrupt institutions I can think of.


STEVE: Gordon, the week that this horrible news broke was also the week that Richard Sipe died. My pastor had been a student of his in Baltimore seminary 50 years ago. In grieving the Pennsylvania news of clergy abuse and the ongoing pain of victims, Father Joe mentioned that Richard Sipe was a prophet often scorned and turned away by the church hierarchy who did not want to hear what he had to say.

Sipe was the source that the Boston Globe reporters used for their “Spotlight” series. He is considered the best expert on how many priests are pedophiles and why sexual abuse of that kind and other abusive sexual relations by clergy persists. His research led to an estimate of 6% of American priests being pedophiles. Sipe later raised the percentage to 9%. Reports I’ve read put the percentage of pedophiles in the adult population at about 5%, so the prevalence among priests may be worse than in the general population, but it is hard to get a definitive prevalence statistic for the general population by which to compare. From the perspective and reports of the victims, I have read reports that 7% of adults report that they were sexually victimized as children, with the figure for women being more like 15%.

There were about 38,000 priests in America in 2015, so that might mean about 2,280 were pedophiles, or 3,420 at the 9% figure.  That’s a lot. Recall that in “Spotlight” the reporter heard Sipe’s 6% figure and exclaimed something like “that’s 90 priests!” – which would be 6% of 1,500, but in 2002 the Boston archdiocese actually had 1,678 priests (down to 1,088 in 2015), so even more than 90.

Sipe’s research connects the problem to the general issue that about half of all priests are sexually active, either as heterosexuals or homosexuals, and so a cult of secrecy has developed to prevent scandal to the institution, and that cult of secrecy has suppressed facts about pedophilia among the church’s clergy. As bad as the cases of abuse are, the cover-up by the church hierarchy makes it all even worse. That is why this Pennsylvania grand jury has done a great service, and why I will be asking the Maryland Attorney General to do a similar investigation in my state.

This truth must come out. Yes, the first reaction to a report of pedophilia should be for those in church authority to call the police and have it investigated, and yes priests should go to jail along with bishops and cardinals who can be convicted in a court of law of obstructing justice, and yes to priests being removed from any contact with minors by church authorities at the first credible report of such a problem (and stop the practice of passing them off to another parish or diocese), and yes the statute of limitations laws should be changed so that victims finally able to voice their pain can get justice – which of course is a secular change, but one the church lawyers have been fighting for fear of more lawsuits –  and yes to more compensation of victims, whatever that means to the divestment of church properties.

And you are on to something in suggesting that individual parishes are where “church” happens, and that they could (and in my view, already do) a better job of presenting a church of love, compassion, justice and mercy without having to worry about a hierarchy or corruption at the top. That is how many of us Catholics experience our “church” in one another, and in the sacraments, and we laugh it off when one of the bishops asks that we not be so overt in our acceptance of LBGTQ people in our church and our communion.

The great majority of Catholics do not experience their priests as predators (because the great majority are not), and I would say we are bewildered and angry and not sure what to do when we hear again not only how much of it goes on and how depraved it is, but also how our “leaders” cover it up again and again.

As for Pope Francis, it is all on the line with him now in how he responds to this. Things are better than they were in 2002 when the Boston Globe issued its Spotlight report, in that after that there were measures put in place at the parish and diocesan levels, such as background checks on church volunteers to prevent such abuse, and the bishops committing to act swiftly to remove offending priests, including reporting them to the police.  It is my reading that the cases exposed in the Pennsylvania AG investigation were mostly before 2002. Reports of abuse are down since then, it is reported. Yet things are by no means okay right now. There are lingering questions about the degree to which all bishops are abiding by the 2002 reforms, and church lawyers are still fighting the expansion of statutes of limitations.

The real reckoning must come at the level of the hierarchy, where Pope Francis needs to be demanding the resignation of people like Cardinal Wuerl of Washington, to use just one example now that credible evidence exists of his past behavior to cover up abuse.

Then also the church must get serious about no longer requiring celibacy as a condition of being a priest, allowing a married man (and for that matter, a married woman) to be a priest, and of course welcoming women into the priesthood. It is a big agenda.

In the meantime, for me this is not about numbers or prevalence. This is about creating a beloved community with others. I go to church to praise God and be with people who know that the church is not God (not an idol to be protected), only God is God, and God calls them to go out into the world to heal the sick, tend to immigrant families, advocate for peace, fight for the rights of LBGTQ+ persons, provide relief to some of the most desperate people in the world all across the globe, seek to end the violence in Baltimore streets, make affordable housing possible, fight the climate crisis and support our church with a lot of hard work to put on great chicken and crab fundraising dinners. Then they come back into church to take communion with one another and say these words before communion, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” which echo the words of the Roman centurion (the enemy, the occupier) who asked Christ to come heal his servant (“my servant will be healed’), but believed on what he had heard that Jesus had the authority to do that without coming to his house. I worship and pray with humble people who do good in the world and break bread with one another in a spirit of God’s healing love that crosses boundaries and leads us beyond the brokenness of the world. It’s all about love for us.

I pray to Jesus to bring that healing to the church I have never stopped loving, even though I detest some of its institutional ways and behaviors.

Articles about the work of Richard Sipe

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Dear cousin, can we talk?

Dear Cousin –

Gump Meme from Marcus

Since you made public on Facebook this post based on a scene from the movie “Forrest Gump,” may I also comment publicly back to you, perhaps toward some serious dialogue?

As you may have seen in my blog post entitled “He Did It. Trump Broke My Family” (which I shared on Facebook without specific identification of my family members), I am very upset over the “zero tolerance” policy that separates immigrant children from their families. In fact, to the extent that you support that policy, then we need to talk about the barrier that creates between us. As of August 9, 2018, there were still 559 children separated from their parents in what will be remembered as one of the most shameful episodes in American history.

For my Clark family, embedded in the Catholic faith, that policy should be understood as morally wrong and an affront to the teachings of Our Lord. Jesus said a lot about welcoming the stranger, especially in Matthew 25:31-46. That passage, which we read at my late wife Claire Marie’s funeral back in 1990, is known somewhat ominously as “the judgment of nations” and ends with these words: “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’”

Is our nation ready to be judged by this standard? Yes, I know there are countless acts of individual charity by millions of caring Americans, but I think Jesus had justice on his mind when he spoke those words. Are we ready to subject our public policy – be it on immigrants or abortion – to a standard of justice such as this one?

In addition to what Jesus said, the “zero tolerance” policy denies United States of America legally-approved access to asylum for people fleeing dangerous situations, punishing desperate people for even trying. Our Attorney General and President have lost in court over their attempt to ignore or twist the law that applies to asylees.

As for abortion, Jesus said nothing about that specifically, although I agree with one biblical scholar who says “There’s an impetus in the Bible toward the protection of the innocent, protection for the weak, respect for life, respect for God’s creation.” I like that part of the Bible most of all. And so, it is our Catholic teaching developed over the time since Jesus was here with us that abortion is morally wrong – and we Catholics must consider the church’s teaching on this carefully. However, I offer the qualification that it is not for me as a Catholic to oppose, as a matter of law, the choice for an abortion – given the multiple complications possible. There is also the fact that not all faith traditions or conscientious persons of faith agree that life starts at conception and therefore abortion is wrong. You might want to consider, for example, a Jewish position on abortion. It is as complex as the issue itself, which is precisely what a blanket prohibition of outlawing abortion refuses to recognize.

That is ironic because many proponents of making abortion illegal have a lot to say about attacks on their religious liberty, but they fall silent about religious liberty when it comes to prohibiting the choice for abortion. Here they want to impose their religious belief on others and deny to others the liberty of exercising their religiously-informed consciences. If we are to live as some of our founders fleeing religious persecution intended, in a pluralistic society of many faith traditions, and not live in a theocracy governed by a slice of people calling themselves Christians who rule over us, then we must constantly affirm and negotiate religious liberty as it applies to how we govern ourselves, given the differences between us.

There is this, also. At the heart of it all this is a matter of individual conscience as to whether to carry a child to term, based on often complicated and very individual circumstances. Even our Catholic faith assigns a high priority to the individual’s conscience on all matters. In that sense it is the woman’s conscientious choice before God, if she believes in God, as do many who choose an abortion. A Catholic woman would have to consider the church’s teaching in coming to a conscientious decision, but the Catholic teaching opposing abortion (or for that matter, the condemnation of abortion by some evangelical Protestants) cannot be the “law of the land” without trampling on the deeply- and conscientiously-considered choice of women, Catholics and non-Catholics and non-believers alike.

Perhaps I can see things this way because my Dad was brought up in a Protestant faith tradition that was based on a “personal relationship” with God, or Jesus Christ, and a direct one at that, not mediated by any church hierarchy. He believed that one stood before God without need of any intercession by a church authority. He did convert to Catholicism, on behalf of Mom, but not until after his Church of God mother died, to spare her feelings. To the extent that he took on some of the top-down “rules” of the church after becoming Catholic, that had mixed results in terms of his remarrying, but that is another matter to discuss with you at another time.

So, here is how I see the abortion issue as a moral choice, in the broader “respect for life” context. We Christians have not done a very good job of convincing our fellow Americans that we respect life – given our quietude on perpetual war, our atrociously high military budgets such as the $717 Billion FY2019 budget that President Trump just signed (“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” – said President Eisenhower), our failure to maintain a real safety net for people in poverty or the elderly (such as massive cuts being proposed for Medicare, Social Security, food stamps and affordable housing), our silence in the face of police violence unfairly directed at African-Americans and other people of color, our support for the death penalty (although Pope Francis is trying to guide us away from that), and too little concern over a climate crisis that threatens all life on this Earth.

You do not have to agree with me that this list I just made is about “respect for life,” but many of our fellow citizens do, wanting to see a public policy that protects the poor and elderly and infirm among us, and they are not even Christian. That is why some see it as hypocritical for Christians to oppose abortion while allowing these other assaults on life to go by. In that sense we have not won the argument in the political square that would reduce abortions. We are trying to get to respect for life on the cheap – asking for what the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called in another context “cheap grace” (“the grace we bestow on ourselves”). We want to say that we respect the life of the unborn but then turn around and enact public policies that put lives of the living at risk of grave suffering and even death.

Winning the political fight on abortion, including by any politically coercive means necessary when it comes to Supreme Court appointments (see the blocking of Merrick Garland and now the fast-tracking of Brett Kavanagh), is a “cheap grace” form of self-gratification in my view, if we cannot show the Love of Christ in respect for life across the whole range of issues that I mentioned. If we showed what Cardinal Bernardin once called “a consistent ethic of life,” then we would be dealing with the matter of procreation and child-bearing in that context of love and a supportive, fully pro-life society – which would reduce abortions to a minimum, but also provide that they be safe and legal for any woman who decided that was her best choice. Yes, we can outlaw abortion again, make it criminal, but it will not solve any of the problems that underlie choices to have an abortion. That will take a more holistic approach to exhibiting our respect for life, including welcoming the stranger and standing against the forced separation of immigrant parents from their children.

Given that, Forrest Gump in this meme you have shared does not know what he is talking about, and he really should not have such words put into his mouth because his character was wiser than this meme conveys. The simplistic and false equivalency between “freaking out” over zero tolerance policy and “freaking out” over making abortion illegal again is meant as a pejorative accusation of hypocrisy against people with whom you disagree (if the posting of this meme means you are okay with taking children from their parents and in favor of making abortion legal). Moreover, the meme infers that people are acting only emotionally in both cases (“freaking out’), when in fact those who oppose zero tolerance and support legal abortion do so on deeply-considered principles and after having given both issues a great deal of thought.

Thus, as often happens in divisive political rhetoric these days, the accuser (of “freaking out”) is in fact the one who is showing by memes like this that it is they who are “freaking out.” The meme accuses others of the very behavior it exhibits. If I am wrong about that, then write back and tell me how you justify from the Gospels that we have been hearing all our lives that we should not welcome the stranger or that we have a right to separate parents from their children when they come seeking asylum from us. Think about those 559 or so children still unable to be with their parents. And while you are at it, tell me why we Catholic Christians get to tell other people – get to tell women, to be more specific – with their different deeply held religious or ethical principles, that we will strip them of their ability to choose an abortion according to the lights that guide them?

Surely you must have thought through these issues before you shared a meme such as this? Sorry to go on and on about a meme, but it just struck me as dangerous thinking to reduce our differences and our need to dialogue to this kind of false equivalency broadside.

Can we still dialogue about such matters?



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He Did It. Trump Broke My Family

In 1981 my aunt Sister MJ, a Benedictine nun, spiritual matriarch of my Alabama family on my mother’s side, a woman known for her unconditional love of her nieces and nephews, decided to reinstate our family reunion. Through the summers of the 1950s and 1960s we had gathered in the back yard of our grandparents’ house in a small central-Alabama town. We called them “Daddy C” and “Mama C.” The reunions had lapsed after Mama C died in 1970. Then after Daddy C died in 1980, Sister MJ decided to start them up again. (Note: names are truncated here as a kindness to, and out of respect for, my deceased family members and living cousins.)

I wrote a poem for the 1981 occasion entitled “Backyard Reunions at Daddy C’s and Mama C’s House” It began like this:

Those years seem all suffused with light, that backyard in the heart of Alabama all filled with light. Light off the white boards of the house. Light penetrating the green leaves of the bean stalks in the garden. Light lovely and soft in the pecan tree branches that towered high above the yard, or ghostly pale, where it shone through the dried bass head our grandfather had tacked to the clothesline unnumbered fishing trips before.

The poem went on to celebrate games of “burnout” where we boys threw a baseball as hard as we could into each other’s mitts. Drinking soda pop from metal garbage cans filled with ice. Stuffing ourselves on half-chickens and corn ears wrapped in tinfoil taken from Daddy C’s barbecue pit. Enjoying fresh garden string beans with bacon fat from Mama C’s stove.

The reunions also reminded us that our family was a “Gold Star” family, evidenced by the picture of our Uncle Rene in his cocked Navy hat hanging on the living room wall. He was Daddy C’s firstborn son, 25 years old, a Ship’s Cook 3rd Class, when he perished in 1943 after his ship was sunk in the Solomon Sea by a Japanese torpedo, his body lost forever.

And how, every year we came to hear the story of the broken window pane, the one that Uncle Rene broke as a boy, before going off to war. And how, when Rene never returned, Daddy C just refused to repair that window – just let it be.  And how I would steal glances at that crack, a silver curve of light marking an unbroken line of grief.

After recalling more memories of “a community composed of flesh and faith” that was created in that back yard, a community I thought would endure forever, the poem ended so:

Life given and understood in the small details of that backyard. Details measuring, like the silver crack in the window pane, an unbroken line of love.

That is how I have thought of my family all my life. Never to be broken. That is how I wanted my own children and their children to think of my mother’s family, as well as cousins on my father’s side, all our Alabama cousins, all “our people.” The mother of my children is buried in a Birmingham cemetery alongside my parents, and recently my sister. Alabama has remained for me the place to go home and be with my family.

That all changed after Donald Trump became President of the United States.

Of course, fissures had been there before; every family has them. They showed up during the horror of the ill-gotten Iraq War, when one cousin’s son spoke at our 2005 reunion about being deployed to guide bombing runs into Iraq, a war I resisted as part of Military Families Speak Out. Yet I could understand that. He was a young man on fire to serve his country, acting on trust that his president would not deceptively send him to war. I had been there myself at his age. It was post-9/11.

Cracks grew wider in 2009 as cousins began sharing online Fox News reports delegitimizing a dark-skinned President, accusing him of being a closet Muslim, not even an American. Later there was the “Blue Lives Matter” retort to “Black Lives Matter.” Then later still the NFL “take a knee controversy” which Trump successfully re-branded as being about dishonoring the flag and disrespecting the military, not about unarmed black men dying from police violence. One cousin reacted this way: “When I got a new President, that was when I took a knee, to THANK GOD!  Donald Trump Is My President and I stand with pride for my Country my Flag the National Anthem and all the service men and woman then and now.”

I could deal with all that. We could thrash out our differences and each conclude that the other was badly misinformed. And besides, what difference could politics make in terms of breaking the deeper bonds of family between us?

Then came Trump’s explicitly racially-charged “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, stripping babies and young children from their immigrant parents seeking asylum. While I had grieved over President Obama’s record deportations and his sad, brief move toward incarcerating families (which the courts stopped), Obama had not built his immigration policy upon an overtly racist framework sold as necessary to repel “rapists” and “criminals” coming from “s***hole” countries. Obama was dealing with all bad options rooted in 20 years of bipartisan Congressional inaction on immigration. Trump was exciting his base with red-meat racist canards.

“Zero-tolerance” purposely designed to break up families – that is when Trump broke my family. How can I break bread, much less Holy Communion at the closing Mass of our reunions, with people who justify the detention of innocent children in cold cages under Mylar blankets? Why should my son and his children go to the reunion of a family that tolerates this?

Yes, I know, it is not everyone in my family, but the burden falls on us who know what Trump is doing to challenge with love our cousins who appear to be blindly following him. Silence is complicity when innocent children are being harmed like this, and it is our country that is doing it, and it is being justified in a specifically racist way that is not a silent dog whistle but a bullhorn amplifying the racist, fear-mongering justification. History tells us we all come to a very bad end if we remain silent in a time like this, and that means being unafraid to let our families know what we think and how we feel.

So it stands for now. Trump has broken my family. The loss feels very deep to me. It is not clear to me how we mend it back together, even with the abiding love I still hold in my heart for all my cousins.

Postscript: The house where Daddy C and Mama C lived was sold three decades ago. I went by to see it one summer. Of course, the new owners had fixed that cracked window.

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More than X’s and O’s on These NFL Players’ Minds

Memo 4 players sent NFL commissioner Roger Goodell & NFL Response

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The Vietnam War – My Story, What is Yours?

Watching “The Vietnam War” documentary surfaces the old memories, despite whatever flaws the documentary may have as history or memory or even film making. Not that I have the horrid memories depicted in the film, thankfully, and God bless and help the veterans of that unjust and unnecessary war who do suffer still from those memories, as well as the families of millions of Vietnamese that we brutally slaughtered, but my memories are not theirs because I am fortunate enough to not have to carry that burden around for the rest of my life.

The film has men and women who came of age in those days telling their story. Below is my Vietnam story, in a nutshell, which every man (and woman) of my age must tell – in answer to the questions: “What did you do in the Vietnam War?” or “How did you handle the draft?” or “Where were you 1965-1974 in the Vietnam War era?”

For people of a certain age who read this, what is yours?


I was in seminary 1967-68, having passed on a chance to go to West Point with a conditional appointment from Senator John Sparkman of Alabama. As a son of the South, God and Country were pretty much equivalent for me, and service was service, whether as priest or soldier. Since the diocese of Mobile-Birmingham did not have its own seminary (Catholics were only 2% of the Alabama population), I was sent to the diocesan seminary in Catonsville, MD. Yes, that Catonsville, MD where, not far from the seminary, on May 16, 1968 Fathers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, with seven other people (“The Catonsville 9”), burned draft files with homemade napalm, after which some guys at the seminary who had their draft files at Catonsville went down and voluntarily reconstructed them. I had noticed what happened down the street from me at the draft board, of course, because it made a lot of news, Catholic news, but I was focused on Senators Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy and the 1968 election as a means to get out the war, and my idealism took a major blow on June 6, 1968 when I woke up to find that Bobby Kennedy had been struck down after winning the California primary.

After Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and Bobby Kennedy’s deaths in early 1968, while I was finishing up freshman year at the seminary, and after witnessing the smoke from afar as Baltimore burned after King’s assassination, the life-goes-on-as-usual of the seminary and America, where a graduation ceremony was happening on the very day when Kennedy’s body went cold, when everything should have stopped with Bobby’s death, I felt, and we were all singing and endless “Na na na nah” from “Hey, Jude” as the top song of 1968, and the social turmoil of resisting authority that was present even in seminary life, such as boycotting classes over a dispute with the Rector’s heavy-handed discipline, which I did not understand at all, it was then that I became deeply disillusioned and quit the seminary, telling Dad, a career Army man, that I was going to join the Army.

I know, that does not make sense. Why would I support either McCarthy or Kennedy to end the war, and then sign up for it? I was 19. Does that explain it? I was brought up in a military family? Does that? Maybe it was that summer of 1968 when I saw another underbelly of the American experience while selling encyclopedias to poor families who could not afford them, and kind of falling for one of the young women who was on our sales team, only to find myself in a hotel in Mississippi while a couple of guys laughed as they listened through the wall to our boss having sex with “Peggy.” Then going back to the Catonsville seminary for a week to start sophomore year, but quickly realizing that my heart was not in that anymore and I did not really know what I wanted to do next.

That was the Fall of 1968, a year in which 16,592 American soldiers would die in Vietnam. Dad said “No, you’re going back to college” (his message, not necessarily his exact word), and so I did in January 1969, deferred from the draft while in college. I worked my way through the “D’s” of the college catalogue (University of Delaware, University of Dayton, and University of Dallas), looking for a humanities curriculum that might help me make sense of what it means to be a human being. Yes, I really thought like that.

It would not be until 1971, the day after I graduated from the University of Dallas, a bastion of right wing Catholics at the time (which educated some major leaders of the American Right, like classmate L. Brent Bozelle III, founder of the Media Research Center), which Playboy magazine listed as one of the safest conservative colleges to which parents could send their children in those days when 400 colleges nationally were holding “Vietnam Moratorium” boycotts and strikes and marches against the war (Mom probably hoped that Playboy was right), it was in May, 1971 that I entered the Army, by that time having been classified by the draft board as 1-AO Conscientious Objector with a middle-range draft number (151) who volunteered for the draft as a CO, moving to the head of the line, who would not have to carry a rifle, instead being slated to be trained as a medic, still attracted to being a hero, to being “a good American like my Dad” as the poem by a Vietnam Veteran says.

Why that? Why after protesting the war at University of Dallas? Why after throwing off my gown and tossing my mortarboard hat onto the stage, like a dangerous Frisbee, when the Baccalaureate professor/speaker, dressed in his foppish white suit and snakeskin cowboy boots, who had been chosen to be our speaker by the 1971 graduating class conservatives, almost as a joke and payback to the “liberals” like me, got up and gave a defense of America’s involvement in Vietnam? Why then?

Dad was still not happy with my choice to go to the Army, but I remember him as overall supportive of me. Mom was proud, I believe. Maybe Dad was still the answer to why I went to the Army. Maybe it was losing my college love and then another in a rebound relationship, and being somewhat adrift personally. But why did I refuse to go after a Danforth Scholarship for which Sister St. John, my favorite professor, wanted to recommend me? That might have gotten me to graduate school and avoided altogether any service in the military.

I really do not have the answers to my questions. I just know what I did. I volunteered for the draft under the 1-AO classification.

In the Army I came face to face with the dispirited and demoralized “lifers” who had committed to a military career, good men like my father. I saw my father in them in their faces, which appeared to me weary and demoralized, revealing the damaged integrity of being caught up in the Vietnam debacle – or was I reading that into them? Impossible to know. I did know this, however, that the Army was broken. I saw new recruits acting out to get kicked out of the Army; but by contrast, at first, I was so “gung ho” myself that I won the American Spirit and Honor Award for my basic training class of 80 men down at Fort Polk, LA, becoming the class sergeant and marching men (with guns) all over the base to the sound of my cadences (I have a big voice), some of which were, oddly, anti-war cadences. It did not matter as long as the men marched. And there I was, marching them. And there I was, a CO who had never lifted a fist in anger at anyone in my life, never been in a fight at all (still have not), facing down an angry soldier who wanted to hurt me, but refrained from doing so because I had those class sergeant insignia protecting me.

After Fort Polk I was off to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio for medic training, where I continued to do well enough that I was selected to go to the United States Army Airborne School at Fort Benning (the place of my birth) after medic training and learn to jump out of airplanes, which was considered to be an opportunity offered only to “elite” soldiers. I had done a loyalty and commitment interview to get that, a fact that left the officers who conducted it quite mad at me as things later turned out.

Only later would I come to such a crisis of conscience about the Vietnam War, which was still killing men in 1971 (almost 2,400 Americans that year), that I applied for full release as a 1-O status CO. Maybe it was after reading the motto of the medical corps – “”To Conserve Fighting Strength” – and learning that principles of triage would require me to let men die if they could not get up to fight, focusing instead on those who could still protect the fighting unit.

There is more. It has to do with a religious vision (nothing else to call it) that I had at the time, very much like the vision that Trappist monk Thomas Merton had at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky, which he describes in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, only mine took place on the street in San Antonio. I will write about that more at some point, but it was the moment when I saw for myself, realizing generally but not in specifics, that some sort of suffering lay ahead for me, and that it would be a privilege of my faith to undergo that suffering – it was then that I believe I saw  the God within everyone on the street around me that day, all of them beaming and translucent with some sort of light coming from within them, right down to the baby in a carriage, and I knew for certain that humans have a Soul, that we are Good, that we are made of Light, or whatever we wish to call it, that we are Life, not Death.  And I felt a peace about whatever was to come next, which I was still in the process of discovering.

So at some point I entered the process of lining up my dad and my own personal army of priests I knew from the University of Dallas (one of whom was an anti-communist Hungarian Cistercian priest who attested to my true belief, with which he vehemently disagreed, which could only help me), to plead my case of being a true conscientious objector who should be released to alternative service. I felt it was a sure thing that I would be released, but after much anguish I felt I had to speak out in some way more than that; especially, it seemed to me, because I knew how to speak out as a college graduate, while the other guys, every bit the CO I had become, some of them rural guys from Tennessee and elsewhere with only high school educations, were throwing furniture out of 4th floor windows or refusing to have their hair cut or coming up with other disobedient ways  to say “Hell, no” to the Army and the war, bringing much trouble into their lives.

I recall – is it a true memory? – being moved by the words of Isaiah to do more than just get myself out of the Army. (“The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to answer the weary a word that will waken them.” Isaiah 50:4)

And so I protested in ranks, wearing a small cross on a chain outside my uniform, gift of a Catholic retreat weekend that I had attended and which I later conducted while at University of Dallas, which I had worn under my T-shirt next to my chest until then, and doing that to object to the Vietnam War, and in order, quite deliberately and with forethought, to say “No” to Sergeant Brown when he ordered me to put it inside, and then to the Captain who gave me the same order, and to take that “No” to its logical conclusion and thus get to know what the Army stockade at Fort Hood looked like from the inside out, but not before being quarantined in barracks as I awaited court martial, where I sat up a small devotional altar with candles and scriptures next to my bunk (that was a little bit weird) and read Daniel Berrigan’s book “No Bars to Manhood,” and from where I would hurl my American Spirit and Honor Award as far out on to the yard as I could, no longer wanting any part of it.

And I remember feeling as I went behind the chain link and concertina wire at the stockade, after riding with two MPs from San Antonio to Killeen, Texas with my hands and arms cuffed behind me (they were sympathetic to my pain, but following protocol), that I was the freest man in the world and that everyone outside the wire fencing were the ones who were in prison. It had rained and the wire fencing glistened with the raindrops and I was at peace. My story was being told on national radio (Elizabeth McAlister heard it in NYC), and on the front page of the San Antonio News with Father Art Moser of the Newman Center at the University of Texas standing beside a very skinny me, and on the hospital radio where my mom was recuperating from cyst surgery in Huntsville, Alabama (she was mortified and embarrassed by my action), while my dad was being interviewed by the Huntsville Times and standing behind my act of conscience, pointing out that the Army had over-reacted since they were about to release me anyway. No TV coverage. The Army information officers had made sure after the courts martial that national TV not get me on camera with my little cross dangling outside my uniform.

I was sentenced to four months but served only one as my 1A-O conscientious objector status was granted and the Army did not want to feed me anymore, so they cut me loose.

My life by that time had forever been changed by those days. From West Point candidate to Army prisoner in five years, with ample opportunities to avoid military service at all, but drawn by some ineluctable force to go there.

Postlude: Before I had protested in ranks in the Army, I had gone out to hear Sister Elizabeth McAlister (three times! so much that she took me for an Army spy in my uniform) as she talked about her impending trial with Father Phil Berrigan and six other defendants in Harrisburg, where they were facing serious charges for their resistance to the Vietnam War. She moved me deeply. During the course of the courts martial I met two Paulist priests (Art Moser and his classmate Ed Guinan) who would inspire me to go back to the seminary (the Paulists this time) after the Army and ultimately redirected my life (after leaving a seminary for the second time) to service of the inner-city poor and homeless of Washington, DC in the Community for Creative Nonviolence, CCNV, that Ed and some fellow Paulists had founded, and resistance to what was left of the war as I became part of the “Catholic Left,” entered into marriage with a CCNV member running a soup kitchen and with her three children, and otherwise  setting me on that path of life (anti-war activism and homeless services at the core of it) for decades to come.

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