(Apologies in advance for the length of this.)
Last night, I felt my phone vibrate. I looked down to see just another notification for an AP news bulletin. No big deal. But then I read it. At least on my phone, which isn’t the fanciest and has a smaller screen than most, the notifications always come across as teasers. They never give you the full story, just enough to make you actually unlock your phone to read the full story. This one read “Vietnam War protestor and Catholic priest…”
Before I even opened my phone to see what the rest of the headline read, I somehow knew what it would say, and I was right. “Vietnam War protestor and Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan dies at 94.”
Most people probably swiped it away. Some random Jesuit priest. Who ever heard of Daniel Berrigan anyway?
Well, I have. I owe a lot to Dan Berrigan. He’s part of the reason I am where I am.
Daniel Berrigan was born May 9, 1921, in Minnesota, although he was raised on a farm near Syracuse. He had always felt a call to ministry in the Catholic Church, and joined the Jesuit order in 1939 at age 18. He’d be ordained as a priest in 1952. He began teaching New Testament at a small school in Syracuse, while also writing and publishing poetry. During this time, he also began actively working against poverty and violence.
During the Vietnam War, Dan and his brother Phillip worked alongside others, most notably Thomas Merton, to form an interfaith coalition which spoke out against the war. Dan actually flew into North Vietnam during the Tet Offensive to rescue three US airmen, some of the first American POWs to be released during the war. What he saw while he was in Vietnam led him to increase his anti-war efforts.
Dan became known for his participation in acts of civil disobedience. At one point, he was arrested and tried, but when asked to report to prison, he went underground. It took 4 months for the FBI to find a middle-aged Jesuit priest. He wasn’t even really hiding. He stayed with different families and preached in public multiple times, and it still took them four months to find him. Later, a friend of his expressed her misgivings about participating in acts of civil disobedience, asking “What about my children if I go to jail?” Berrigan replied, “What about your children if you don’t?”
In the 60s and 70s, Dan made the rounds of college campuses around the US, giving speeches on civil disobedience and his understanding of the message of Jesus Christ. One of his appearances was at High Point College in North Carolina (now High Point University). One of the attendees during his speech was a Dr. Earl Crow, a High Point faculty member who had been skeptical of having such a troublemaker come around campus. Before the end of Dan’s speech however, Dr. Crow was a believer. They became fast friends. Dr. Crow would become involved in Dan’s acts of civil disobedience, even getting arrested together in front of the Pentagon. Dan would later officiate at Dr. Crow’s wedding.
This is where I come in.
Dr. Crow would eventually come to be an adjunct professor in the Religion department at Wake Forest. I would also wind up at Wake Forest, although by a much more circuitous route. Those of you who know me well know that my initial goal was to attend the Naval Academy, though I was wait-listed and planned to alternately attend the Virginia Military Institute. After dislocating my shoulder and undergoing surgery (in July at the worst possible time), I was forced to rethink my entire plan. I called Wake on a whim to see if my previously-declined spot was still available, and it was.
While my plan had been to attend Wake for a year and then transfer to the Naval Academy, that all fell apart after my very first day in my First-Year Seminar entitled “Christian Perspectives on War and Peace,” taught by Earl Crow. I was actually late to class the first day. Those of you who’ve attended Wake know that the organ loft in Wait Chapel is positioned in such a way that it’s impossible to get from one side of the third floor to the other in Wingate Hall. This being my first day, and I was frantically running from my first class in ZSR, I did not know this, so I was rather late. I actually ran into Bill Leonard in the hallway (though I didn’t know it was Bill Leonard at the time) and had to ask him for directions.
So here I am out of breath, finally making it to class and collapsing into a seat. Dr. Crow swivels to look at me. “We’ve all been explaining what we think the Christian position is on war. Go.” I stammered something about John 15.13, it was all I could think of under pressure for some reason, but I wasn’t prepared to defend it. And boy did he make me defend it. Rather, he tore me apart. In that class, you couldn’t just throw out something you had heard or learned, you needed to be ready to defend your argument. He made us think critically. It led me to start questioning. Over the next week, I began to realize that I was called to something else. I met with Dr. Crow to ask him what I should do.
He told me about his friend Dan. He gave me one of his books. He had me write a letter to Dan. He put me in contact with a man who understood the struggle I was going through and was able to speak to me and help me in a way no one else could at that point. I found myself discerning a call to ministry that’s brought me to Candler.
Though I never got the chance to actually meet him, I no less consider Dan Berrigan to be one of the most important influences in my life. Dr. Crow gave me the jolt that woke me up, but then he turned me to Dan. Dan gave me the guidance I needed to see where I was headed.
Whether you agree with his politics and stance on war or not, you cannot deny that Dan Berrigan stood by what he read to be Gospel truth. The man lived according to his principles, and wrote in support of those principles, until the day he died. This world is a better place because of the work of Daniel Berrigan.
So, here’s to you Father Dan.
I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from one of Dan’s poems:
“Peacemaking is hard, hard almost as war.”
But that didn’t stop him. And it shouldn’t stop us.