I’ve just returned from the national Catholic Worker gathering in Worcester, Massachusetts, which celebrated the Mustard Seed Catholic Worker’s fiftieth anniversary. For an old guy like me, I got to see people I have not seen in years, many of them faith mentors who have had a major influence on me and who I have become.
One of the most significant of these is Liz McAlister, wife of Phil Berrigan and mentor to several generations of peacemakers, who I actually saw before the gathering.
My first night out of Des Moines I spent with my brother Tom, who lives just outside of Chicago. My brother Joe graciously drove me. We picked up some folks I’ve known since the 1980s: Mike Miles, Barb Kass, and Al Zook, meeting them at their Anathoth Catholic Worker Farm in Luck, Wisconsin. My ride to the East Coast was a great little reunion!
The next day, Mike, Barb, Al, and I headed to New London, Connecticut to visit Liz McAlister. She was the wife of Phil Berrigan and mentor to several generations of peacemakers, and she made a particularly significant impact on my life. We spent two nights hosted by Frida and Kate, Liz’s daughters. Liz is living in a memory unit in a local nursing home. It’s a beautiful place right along the river. Ironically, finished nuclear-capable Trident submarines sail along the river from the nearby GE plant to the Navy base on the coast. Both the plant and base have been the site of numerous protests over the years, many of which Liz attended.
It’s never easy to see a loved one, especially a mentor like Liz, so diminished in her physical and mental capacities. Still, Liz has not lost her good and welcoming spirit. She’s getting the best of care. Her daughters make sure of that.
My best moment for the whole trip was with Liz, when we prayed together outdoors and considered the readings of the day with personal reflections. When Liz spoke she was clear and insightful, though she seemed to be talking to a different crowd from one thought to the next. It brought to mind the morning community prayer time at Jonah House. I remember once telling Bishop Dingman the most impressive thing I found at Jonah House was the community’s daily reading of scriptures and prayer.
After our visit with Liz we headed for Worcester and the National Gathering. As soon as we hit the parking lot of Blessed Sacrament Parish, I started connecting with Catholic Workers I had not seen for years. One of the first I saw was Phil Runkle, our beloved, retired Catholic Worker archivist from Marquette University in Milwaukee. We talked about our mothers, who had met and become friends at Sugar Creek retreat years back! I also connected with Vince Eirene from the Pittsburgh Worker. Last year I celebrated Vince’s seventieth birthday with his friends in Pittsburgh. He’s still kicking and still offering hospitality at this house.
We spent the first night at Blessed Sacrament with a banquet meal, followed by a night program and OPEN BAR!!! During the opening prayer led by Michael Boover, one of the founders of Mustard Seed, people were asked to remember our own Norman Searah. I had told Michael of Norman’s condition earlier.
Michael told the crowd that Norman was one of Mustard Seed’s first dishwashers fifty years ago!
Everywhere I turned that first night, there was someone I knew personally and with whom I could reconnect. When the program started, I sat down at a table with Steve Jacobs of the Colombia, Missouri Worker House. I turned to my left and there was John Schuchardt! John got arrested with Steve and me at the Pentagon on August 9, 1977, my first arrest! I also reconnected with Claire Lewandowski and Ma Wilson, recent volunteers at the Des Moines Worker who stayed a month with us. The whole night was like that.
Saturday was filled with plenary sessions and workshops. No way can I share all that happened. My only regret is that I could not attend all of the workshops. There were only two workshop sessions scheduled, which meant you can only attend two. Because I was presenting a workshop, I was ultimately only able to attend one.
I went to the “Catholic Worker and the Catholic Church’’ workshop led by Rosalie Riegle and Amanda Daloisio. There were about thirty people attending the workshop, and we had only enough time for everyone in the circle to say something. And just like the Catholic Worker movement and the larger United States Catholic Church, every point of view was represented.
I was the second to the last to share. I gave a brief overview of the Des Moines Worker evolving history with our local Bishops, Diocese, and larger Church. I shared that we are now an ecumenical, interfaith, non-denominational, anarchist Catholic Worker. I expanded that we are currently seeking ways to lift an official church ban on celebrating mass at the house, courtesy of the local Bishop and Priest Council. This ban is their reaction to the fact that we had a woman celebrate mass at our fortieth anniversary. Go figure!
My workshop was titled “Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya’s Witness against the Dakota Access Pipeline.” In it, I tried to place Jess and Ruby’s Witness in the context of the Catholic Worker and Plowshares movements by telling the story of how Jess and Ruby came to do their actions as members of the Des Moines Catholic Worker. I gave an overview of their five-year saga between witness and prison. I covered directly Ruby’s betrayal of Jess, plus the need to address the domestic terrorism enhancements in their sentencing.
The betrayal I mentioned is real. Ruby cooperated with the feds and also made up lies about Jess, the Des Moines Catholic Worker, and many other real and unreal people. That is the problem with Ruby’s defense and cooperation. It also did her no good. She got the same sentence if she had not cooperated and participated in the “rat system” with the feds.
Ruby is clearly a victim of the federal prosecutors and judges and a criminal legal system that is rotten to the core. Betrayal is built into the system. Ninety-five percent of the criminal cases in the federal system result in a guilty plea. You can’t get that rate of plea bargains without a lot of “rats!”
Talking to Jess on the phone regarding Ruby’s betrayal, I told her, “You know how I live for a good line and you’re no Jesus, but what Ruby did to you is a real betrayal.” I also told Jess she was going to need to forgive Ruby sooner or later. I told her she did not have to do it right away, “Take a month, take a year, take a couple years … sooner or later you will need to forgive Ruby.”
At the workshop I called for Catholic Workers to embrace Jess and Ruby’s case in two ways:
First, as Catholic Workers we should help bring about reconciliation between Jess and Ruby. Healing for Ruby. Strength for both of them to survive. It may help them to thrive in imprisonment. We also need to be welcoming communities when they are set free.
At the moment I have no idea how this is going to happen. For this reason, we need to pray. We will need some time. We will need to seek ways to reach out to Ruby and Jess and help set the stage for reconciliation. I call on any and all Catholic Worker who can to reach out to Jess and Ruby and help start the process.
Second, to join the larger campaign to get the domestic terrorism enhancements dropped from their sentence and federal records.
The best way to give a taste of the Catholic Workers in attendance is to name the workshops I wished I could have attended with their presenters:
- “How the Peacemaking Witness of Dorothy Day and the Berrigans’ Impact our Faith Response to the Omnipresent Nuclear Peril and War Today” with Martha Hennessy, Art Laffin and Chris Spicer.
- “What Could Trigger Nuclear War with Russia and China?” with Bruce Gagnon from the Global Network against Weapons and Nuclear Power.
- “The Catholic Worker Movement in Europe” with Frits ter Kuile from the Jennet Noel Huis Amsterdam.
- “Nonviolence and the Catholic Worker” with Fr. Joe Mattern, Casa Esther Catho- lic Worker in Omro, Wisconsin.
- “Sacramental Agriculture: Finding Our Way in the Circle of Life” with Mike Miles and Barb Kass, Anathoth Catholic Worker Farm, Luck, Wisconsin.
- “Where, Then, Shall We Go!?: Hospitality, Human Rights, and Resisting the Criminalization of the Homeless” with Mark Colville, Amistad Catholic Worker.
- “Cult, Culture and Cultivation” with Mike Boover, Worcester Catholic Worker.
- “Campaigning Toward Decolonization: Trying to Be a Faithful and Strategic Catholic Worker in the Struggle for Indigenous Justice” with Matt Harper, Los Angeles Catholic Worker.
- “Covid 19: A conversation among friends” with Clare Grady, Fr. Charles Emmanuel McCarthy and John Schchardt.
There was even a Catholic Worker Young People’s Caucus for people under 40! During the day there was a film crew interviewing people who know Tom Lewis, an artist and Draft Board Files activist who joined Holy Cross graduate Phil Berrigan for the Baltimore 4 and the Catonsville 9 Draft Board Raids! When I visited him a few years ago, he was living in a house right across the street from the Mustard Seed Catholic Worker. His house was filled with his paintings, old posters and painter’s tools. And I got to share with the film crew about the afternoon I spent with Tom in his house, talking about how he did his artwork and how he gave me one of the drawings he made for a book Fr. Dan Berrigan wrote on Ezekiel. The painting is hanging in the dining room of Dingman Catholic Worker House in Des Moines (see photo).
Saturday night was the talent show and dance. Former Des Moines Catholic Worker, now big-time New York Catholic Worker, Carmen Trotta, did his Elvis impersonation, and JoAnne Kennedy sang with Clare and Ellen Grady, Frida Berrigan, and others (JoAnn told me Carla Dawson had to stay in New York City to cover the houses.) Our own Austin Cook sang with a group!
The dance brought at least half the crowd to the floor, old and young alike! These folks know how to throw a party!
Sunday morning we had breakfast at Mustard Seed. We had to leave before the final closing mass. It was like leaving the wedding banquet right at the beginning. We also missed getting in the group photo (see photo).
On the way home, Austin and I gave Chris Clarke, a self-described roaming Catholic Worker and a delightful singer, a ride to Dayton, Ohio, and the Little Bear Creek Community. It is a small community just outside the city limits, raising and marketing veggies and fruits from their own highway store and running a shipping and marketing wholesale business for a collective of small and big Amish/Brethren farm communes in the Midwest. It was such a delightful visit, we stayed an extra day in Dayton. On the whole, it was a deeply meaningful and exciting trip!
This article first appeared in the March 2023 issue of via pacis, a publication of the Des Moines Catholic Worker.