A Persistent Peace: One Man's Struggle for a Nonviolent World

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Praise for John Dear and A Persistent Peace

“John Dear understands that peacemaking is not a part-time job. . . . John has walked the talk for years, an inspiration to all of us to do more than we think we can.”
    —Jim Wallis, author of The Great Awakening and president, Sojourners

“John Dear has been arrested in the cause of peace and human decency more times than anyone else I know. I am honored to consider him a friend.”
    —Joan Baez, singer and peace activist

“John Dear is a great spiritual progressive leader whose wisdom, courage, and gentleness make him one of the most beloved teachers of nonviolence in America. . . . Reading this book will make you less lonely by knowing that you’re sharing your time on earth with John Dear.”
    —Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine

“Look, I know this guy. He’s real; and he shows that it’s possible for ordinary folks to really live Jesus’ call to be peacemakers. . . . Prepare your own heart as you open this book.”
    —Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, author of Dead Man Walking

“John Dear’s life story is inspiring and heartwarming.”
    —Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States

Praise for John Dear and A Persistent Peace

“John Dear understands that peacemaking is not a part-time job. . . . John has walked the talk for years, an inspiration to all of us to do more than we think we can.”
    —Jim Wallis, author of The Great Awakening and president, Sojourners

“John Dear has been arrested in the cause of peace and human decency more times than anyone else I know. I am honored to consider him a friend.”
    —Joan Baez, singer and peace activist

“John Dear is a great spiritual progressive leader whose wisdom, courage, and gentleness make him one of the most beloved teachers of nonviolence in America. . . . Reading this book will make you less lonely by knowing that you’re sharing your time on earth with John Dear.”
    —Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine

“Look, I know this guy. He’s real; and he shows that it’s possible for ordinary folks to really live Jesus’ call to be peacemakers. . . . Prepare your own heart as you open this book.”
    —Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, author of Dead Man Walking

“John Dear’s life story is inspiring and heartwarming.”
    —Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States

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Editorial Reviews

Colman McCarthy
[a] stirring and literate account of a conscience at work
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780829427202
  • Publisher: Loyola Press
  • Publication date: 8/1/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 456
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

John Dear, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, peace activist, organizer, lecturer, and retreat leader. He is also the author/editor of twenty books on peace and nonviolence. John was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. John lives in northern New Mexico. Visit his Web site at www.persistentpeace.com.

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Read an Excerpt

Foreword •

Although I was unable to attend my friend John Dear’s ordination to the priesthood (due to travel misconnections from South Africa), I did arrive in time to attend his first mass, celebrated on Sunday, June 13, 1993, in the packed basement of St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., just a few blocks from the Capitol.
Ordained only ­twenty-four hours earlier, this brilliant young Jesuit stood in front of the largely black and mostly poor congregation, which he had faithfully served during his Jesuit formation years, and gave his first blessing to begin his first mass: “May the grace and peace of God our Creator, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and the love of the nonviolent Jesus be with all of you.”


Normally a congregation would respond, “and also with you,” but there was nothing normal about this blessing or the priest who gave it. On the contrary, this astonishing reference to the Son of God as “the nonviolent Jesus” was greeted with wild enthusiastic cheering and sustained applause, and for good reason; this blessing was the “good news” preached to the poor: Our God is loving and nonviolent. What a revelation! Let’s celebrate!
By choosing such a concept to begin his priesthood, John Dear confirmed what all of us in that church, what his government prosecutors, and what his Jesuit superiors had come to expect from this fiercely independent, spiritually disarming young man. Despite the special occasion, today would be no different from all the ones preceding it, since John began his extremely difficult and often lonely journey on “the long road to peace.” And he would continue to confront every wretched form of violence and injustice with loving nonviolent resistance in every thought, word, and deed.
While this path is the chosen purpose of his life’s work and the major source of his joy, it is not possible to fully comprehend John Dear’s journey without comprehending the journey of his fellow Jesuit, mentor, and our mutual friend, Daniel Berrigan, SJ. There is no one John has admired more than Dan Berrigan, who has been a living example of everything John aspired to become: a committed Jesuit and a peace-and-­justice advocate willing to risk his life and freedom by confronting the institutionalized violence and corruption of the state as well as the complacency of the Church and his own Jesuit order.
With faithful adherence to the command of the prophet Isaiah to “beat swords into plowshares and make war no more” and the command of Christ to “love your enemies,” Dan’s entire life has been a witness for peace and justice. And while his courageous activism earned him the long promised blessing reserved for the peacemakers, it also flew in the face of America’s hot-and-cold war policies and the nuclear arms race and earned him, as well, a long stretch in a federal penitentiary and criticism from within the Church and from some of his fellow Jesuits.
Clearly John knew what lay in store for him if he chose to follow Dan’s path, yet he did not hesitate to do so. In fact, he embraced it wholeheartedly with his own personal vow of nonviolence taken long before he took the three standard Jesuit vows (poverty, chastity, and obedience). He, too, would suffer a similar fate of prison, sharp criticism, and the misunderstanding of others.
Since the mid 1980s I have been drawn to share a portion of John’s peace journey, which has led to sharing a few jail cells along the way. Public demonstrations with John have always been deeply personal and spiritually nourishing experiences that enriched my life immeasurably. Whenever I’ve appeared with him at any peace march, protest rally, or direct nonviolent confrontation where civil disobedience and arrest occurred, John always assumed a prayerful leadership role, was often among the first taken into custody, and always remained calm, nonviolent, and even joyful throughout the process.
Our first arrest together happened in New York City while protesting Reagan’s effort to place nuclear weapons in outer space, the “Missile Defense Shield.” This hare-­brained scheme was popularly referred to as “Star Wars” and never quite got off the ground—thank heaven!
Many more demonstrations and protests would follow through the years, including arrests in Washington, D.C. at the Pentagon, the Capitol, and the White House for opposing U.S. policy in Central America—such as Reagan’s “Contra War” in Nicaragua. There were arrests at Fort Benning, Georgia, protesting the presence there of the School of the Americas (S.O.A.), where many soldiers from Central and South America were trained by the U.S. Army and the C.I.A. to murder and oppress their own people throughout Central America and the Southern hemisphere.
John and I shared several arrests in downtown Los Angeles at the federal building, protesting U.S. involvement in El Salvador’s civil war, the assassination of Archbishop Romero, the murder of the four American church women, and the brutal massacre of the six Jesuits and their co­worker and her ­fifteen-year-old daughter, all in El Salvador.
There were numerous demonstrations and arrests with John at the nuclear test site in Mercury, Nevada, where nuclear weapons were stored and tested, and at Livermore Lab in Livermore, California, where enough nuclear weapons and their delivery systems are designed and built to destroy the world endlessly.
I came to know and love John Dear through these intense actions, and we developed a unique relationship. I traveled with him through El Salvador and Guatemala, visited him during his peacemaking service in Northern Ireland during the violent troubles there, supported him during his long prison stay in North Carolina, and despite being twenty years older than him, I came to regard him as a big brother.
All the while I was becoming known as a peace and justice activist, but my personal commitment proved only a shadow of John’s—this made clear by his courageous participation in a risky “Plowshares Action” with Philip Berrigan, which John describes in detail in this book. This action alone changed forever the direction of John’s life and proved to be a point of no return on his long road to peace.
Courage is often described as the first virtue from which so many other virtues flow. It is certainly the most admired virtue and the one most devoutly wished for, and while its source remains a mystery, courage is universally acknowledged as the very best part of the human character. Courage is breathtakingly abundant in John Dear.
How he arrived at such an enviable level of moral and physical courage—reflected in numerous acts of civil disobedience, carried out with disarming nonviolence and joy, and often met with harsh consequences—is simply astonishing. Even more astonishing is that his life’s commitment to peace and justice appears instinctive, springing from an unfathomable source. Surely it is a reflection of John’s deep spirituality. And while he credits the examples of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy as the chief inspirations for his own life, we all have these examples; yet, the vast majority of us remain dull by comparison.
I suspect that much of John’s character was formed, as it is for all of us, during adolescence, that critical period when every level of physical, emotional, physiological, sexual, and spiritual development begins to emerge. It is then that we glimpse the first real possibility of our independence with an equal measure of joy and dread; we are consumed by a mysterious energy. Then the reality of peer pressure emerges as a powerful common denominator, and while each of us is unique unto ourselves we are nevertheless instinctively drawn together for mutual recognition and acceptance. It is here (I believe) where we come to know ourselves in deeply revealing ways, which often set the course of our future. It is here where the first small conscious act of heroism often occurs, bringing us rejection from the crowd, and we decide to subtly “go it alone.” It is here where the ego befriends the truth and the first small step is taken, whether consciously or unconsciously, on a lifelong journey to unite the will of the spirit with the work of the flesh. It is here where I believe a very young John Dear began to identify himself independently of his peers so that for the rest of his life he would never quite be comfortable unless he was at the very least slightly uncomfortable. And it is here where (I believe) he began to slip out of the grip of fear and into the uncertain freedom of faith.
Mahatma Gandhi is frequently acknowledged by John Dear as a principle source of inspiration for his own life. What was said of Gandhi can perhaps be equally applied to John: “Future generations will scarce believe that such a one actually existed.”

Martin Sheen January 20, 2008



• Introduction •

I was born on the eve of the 1960s, on August 13, 1959, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, not far from where the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk. My earliest memories are happy: generous parents, three brothers, a brown pony named Lucky, a big white house with a long wide front lawn and the spectacular beaches nearby—wonder and beauty and a new adventure every day.
Everything went smoothly until my uncle died in early 1967, and my father, publisher of the local newspaper, was suddenly named head of the family newspaper chain. We moved to Bethesda, Maryland so he could work full-time at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. My mother, a nurse, began a doctorate in sociology and a teaching career at Johns Hopkins and George Mason universities.
 We became news junkies, watching every evening the grim newscasts about the war in Vietnam. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, I sat glued to the TV for days, watching footage of his life and mourning his loss. Two months later, I repeated the scenario, mourning for Robert F. Kennedy. I attended Catholic grade school and a Jesuit high school, studied hard, was involved in sports, and volunteered at our local parish church. But in order to get away from the Catholic church and set out on my own, I chose to attend Duke University, back in North Carolina. Little did I know what lay in store for me.
Over the years I’ve committed my story to paper in fits and starts—journals now stowed away in file cabinets, scattered notes in folders, half-­developed reflections lying about. Lately it seemed good to stitch the pieces together, to make of them a coherent memoir. It’s an exercise that leads to introspection like nothing else. The mystery of life unfolds. The meaning of events draws near. I’ve enjoyed the process, returning to events and smelling the bloom of significance.
Along the way I pondered the question: Which event ranks highest? Perhaps the day I renounced all my plans, including my dream of becoming a rock star, to serve God as a Jesuit. Perhaps that day in Israel, camped by the Sea of Galilee, pondering the Beatitudes, pledging to make them mine if only I were given a sign—and then ducking as Israeli jets appeared out of nowhere, thundered overhead, and unleashed their bombs in Lebanon. That was surely a sign of something.
Maybe the key moment was when I entered the Jesuits and professed a vow of nonviolence. Or when I journeyed to the Pentagon to protest war, ended up in handcuffs, and received word from my superior that he had dismissed me from the Jesuits—a dismissal later overturned.
My most significant season could easily be one turbulent summer in El Salvador. There I made my home in a makeshift camp with long-­suffering Salvadoran refugees and witnessed daily U.S. bombing raids. In El Salvador, I met the visionary Jesuits at the University of Central America who were assassinated a few years after.
Or perhaps my most important days were still to come—days in Iraq, India, Haiti, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Colombia, Northern Ireland, and Palestine. Or my years of banishment to a Jesuit high school in Scranton for challenging Jesuit authority. Or my stretch at a homeless shelter blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Or later at Berkeley, ostensibly studying theology, but spending more time organizing demonstrations against U.S. military actions.
Certainly, one would think my ordination to the priesthood ranks high—ordained at last despite Jesuit annoyance with me. But so did my 1993 Plowshares action, during which I entered an Air Force base in North Carolina and hammered on an F15—in biblical terms, to “beat swords into plowshares,” the most notorious of some ­seventy-five arrests for peace. Or my years as director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest interfaith peace group in the U.S. Or perhaps when I paddled a canoe down Connecticut’s Thames River to block a Trident submarine. Or my work for the New York Red Cross consoling grieving family members and rescue workers at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Or the morning National Guard Battalion 515 arrayed itself outside my rectory door in the high desert of New Mexico and chanted, “One bullet, one kill!”
I’ve asked myself, How do these events line up in terms of importance? And it dawned on me: discrete events aren’t important; the journey itself is the real story. Meaning in life is found on the long road to peace. Though I’m nobody, I’ve tried to undertake a lifelong journey into Gospel nonviolence, and I have discovered a taste of life’s meaning: love, compassion, service, resistance, and peace.
Mahatma Gandhi titled his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments in Truth. I find that helpful. I’ve conducted experiments in the truth of nonviolence. Early on, I decided I wanted to do what the rich young man of the Gospel couldn’t do—give away my wealth to the poor and follow Jesus—with disregard for the consequences. To “lose my life in order to save it.” To “seek first God’s reign and God’s justice” and let everything be provided for me. I’ve discovered that the Gospel works. The promises come true. Jesus’ promise to his disciples has been fulfilled in my life: “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions” (Mark 10:29–30).
Living this way thrust me into the midst of the world’s suffering—refugees, prisoners, the homeless, the poorest, and death row inmates. And it has allowed me to be among the privileged and influential—presidents, a pope, a queen, Nobel peace prize winners, and more, the saints of our time: Mother Teresa, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dom Hélder Câmara, Coretta Scott King, Desmond Tutu, Mairead Maguire, César Chávez, and Daniel and Philip Berrigan.
This journey toward peace creates a life of deep contrasts. I’ve observed protocol in palaces and moldered in prisons. I’ve stalked the halls of power and lived months at a time in a refugee camp. I want to follow the nonviolent Jesus, and so I try in a modest way to enter the Gospel story and proclaim the gospel of peace, even to a world of war.
Over the years I’ve crisscrossed the continent and spoken to hundreds of thousands of people. I urge them to oppose war. I invite them to embrace Jesus’ way of peace and nonviolent love. My authority, I believe, springs from my story.
I share this story in the hope that others will undertake their own experiments in Gospel nonviolence, in pursuit of a new world without war, poverty, or nuclear weapons. I can promise difficulties beyond number, but blessings beyond your wildest dreams. In the end, the blessings are all that matter.
John Dear




• 1 •
Frat Boy

If you had stopped in Durham, North Carolina, on a Friday night in 1979 and walked across the green lawns of Duke University, past the gothic buildings and the towering cathedral, under the stone arches, across the quad, and through Kappa Sigma’s wooden door into the din of the never-­ending fraternity party, you would have found me—the life of the party, in the center of the throng of men and women drinking, eating, singing, and dancing—getting the beer-­chugging contest under way and tossing pints down the hatch. My record: ­thirty-two in one night.
At the time, it seemed like fun. But the hangovers! They lasted for days. Such was the life of the best and the brightest, the cream of the crop, the spoiled, wealthy frat boy. I arrived at Duke, in January 1978, much more temperate. I spent my first semester learning the ropes and finding my way around campus. People at Duke were friendly but serious, focused, and smart. I decided early on to sign up with the professors who had the best reputations, and whatever subject I ended up having the most credits in would be the subject I would declare as my major. I ended up majoring in African-American history.
Duke didn’t allow juniors and seniors to live in campus dorms. To stay on campus, you had to move into a fraternity house; otherwise, you had to move off campus and rent an apartment in Durham. The autumn of my sophomore year, my roommate Doug and I made the rounds of the frat houses and attended the weekend rush parties. We decided on Kappa Sigma. In January 1979, we moved in as pledges, and the partying began in earnest.
Kappa Sigma made John Belushi’s Animal House seem like kindergarten. I studied all day, spent hours at the piano, and stayed up late into the next morning doing more than my share of drinking. I don’t know when I ever slept.
The fraternity brothers treated us pledges as lackeys. We had to jump through hoops to get every fraternity brother’s signature in our pledge books, a process that lasted the whole semester. To earn a signature, we had to fulfill some demeaning task for the brothers: clean their rooms, wash their cars, type their papers, or fetch tennis balls during their matches. They ordered us around and called us names, and we obediently complied—up to a point. The pledges appointed me “Secretary of War,” and my job was to strategize battle against the brothers. Under my command we waged mischief and mayhem, risking demerits and at times expulsion. Still the brothers held the upper hand, gathering us pledges once a month for an evening of humiliation and abuse, lining us up against the wall for hours and calling us every name in the book. Our pledging ordeal ended with the infamous Hell Night, held in April. The following week, with the necessary signatures collected—and grateful to be alive—we were blindfolded, sworn to secrecy, and initiated.
I never did understand how my fraternity brothers managed to do so well in school. They partied all night, every night and still got straight As. Our fraternity had the highest grade point average on campus. We had a file cabinet full of stock term papers, available to anyone who wanted to copy them, but that doesn’t entirely explain why the brothers were so successful. They were hard partying, hard drinking, hard studying, hardworking, and brilliant. When I was still a pledge, a senior frat brother reproached me for being insouciant. Insouciant? What did that mean? Who were these guys? Today, most of them are CEOs, lawyers, bankers, and doctors, some of them millionaires. One uses a private jet.
The most fascinating of all was Paul Farmer. He came from a large family that lived on a houseboat in Florida. Paul was a flat-out genius. A premed student who also majored in anthropology, Paul wrote his mother every day, composed theater and book reviews every week for the Duke newspaper, The Chronicle, and produced displays for the main entrance to Perkins Library, one of the largest in the country. Each evening he hosted marathon parties in his rooms for dozens of students. It seemed that Paul never studied, yet he earned straight A’s. He went on to Harvard Medical School, became a leading researcher there, and founded a clinic for the poor in Haiti. His example inspires countless other doctors to serve the third world poor. His story was told in the best-­selling book, Mountains beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer. He has become our own Albert Schweitzer. But even back then in college, we were in awe of him.
• •
In those days, I pondered three possible careers. I could become a newspaper publisher like my father, his father, and his grandfather or a lawyer like my high school friends Chas and Mark. Mostly, though, I wanted to be a rock star.
My friends still laugh at my grandiose ambition, but I was serious. I wanted to compose my own songs, record as a solo artist, and move to Los Angeles and live like Jackson Browne or James Taylor. I had been playing the piano seriously since I was six and had taken up the guitar at ten. At Duke, I spent a lot of time in their new music building, with its more than forty music studios, two performance spaces, recording studio, and extensive music library. Years earlier, one of my brothers and I had built a primitive recording studio in our basement by connecting tape players and attaching microphones to them. He played drums and bass guitar; I played piano and acoustic guitar and sang.
At Duke I studied classical piano, learning my way around Beethoven, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, and Brahms. I spent four hours a day practicing. I also played pop music and wrote my own songs. I loved the Beatles and the Beach Boys and all the ­singer-­songwriters of the 1970s—Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Elton John, James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg, and Graham Nash—and I tried to write like them. After a few months, I had several dozen good songs, and in the midst of my busy class schedule and crazy fraternity life, I drove off one night to a recording studio about two hours west of Raleigh. It was an unimpressive building, its interior walls lined with orange shag carpeting. But it was filled with the latest musical recording equipment, and there in the center of the studio was a magnificent grand piano. I recorded seven or eight songs, handling all the parts myself. Afterward, my friend Margaret and I bought a bottle of wine, and stayed up late in my fraternity room listening to the tapes. The experience of recording my own music was one of the most exciting of my life. That night, I dreamt of becoming a successful ­singer-­songwriter.
It was through my love of music that I befriended one of the most influential people in my life, the legendary jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. During my time at Duke, she was artist in residence, and her jazz classes were the most popular on campus. I signed up, and on the first day of class, nearly a hundred of us crowded nervously in the seashell auditorium where the orchestra rehearsed. Down below in the center was a gleaming black grand piano. Mary Lou was late. When she finally walked in, the room became quiet. She was a big woman with dark skin and black hair. She was dressed in black, and pinned to her dress was a large black ­papier-­mâché rose. Without saying a word, she ambled toward the piano, looked around the room, and threw us a smile. Then she sat down and started to play. We were instantly mesmerized.
Her story is just as extraordinary as her music. She started playing piano at the age of three and joined a jazz tour at twelve. She played with Duke Ellington when she was sixteen. She joined Andy Kirk’s band, Twelve Clouds of Joy, in the 1930s, leaving in the 1940s to settle in Harlem, where she played at every well-known jazz club. She counted Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie among her best friends and appeared with Dizzy at the Newport Jazz Festival. Plus, she composed and arranged music. She wrote for Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman, compiling a body of work that included more than 350 pieces. At the height of her career, she performed three movements of her classic Zodiac Suite with the New York Pops Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
Then, in the mid-1950s, she converted to Catholicism and gave up music. She decided not to have a family but to spend the rest of her life in contemplative prayer and humble service to the poor. Her musician friends were stunned. But at St. Ignatius Loyola Church on Park Avenue, where she attended daily Mass, she met an astute Jesuit who convinced her to return to music as a way to serve people and inspire them to love one another. So she scored a Catholic Mass with jazz music that became the first jazz Mass performed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Every year she performed for Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker farm in New Jersey. All the while, she continued to pray for several hours each day.
“Jazz is love,” she told us that first day of class. “You have to feel the love in the music. It will make you into a more loving person and bring joy into your life.” We were beguiled. Through her music, Mary Lou taught us jaded Duke students about the spiritual life. She imparted love through boogie-woogie.
I wanted to learn from Mary Lou, so I went up to her after class one day, introduced myself, and asked if she would give me private lessons. She agreed on the spot.
For several months, I took the bus each week to her house, on the outskirts of Durham, where we sat on a small bench before her modest upright and together played jazz. Her hands stretched well over an octave. She taught me the finer points of syncopation and the emotion behind the diminished seventh chord. She showed me how to make my left hand lope along on bass while my right jingled some kind of melody. She tried to teach me improvisation. She would play a riff and then ask me to repeat it. I would try but never quite get it right.
I treasured those hours with Mary Lou, who became a true friend to me. One day, she presented me with a jazz piece she’d written for me. Her love, joy, and sense of wonder touched me deeply. Even then, early in my own spiritual formation, I recognized that this woman was filled with the Holy Spirit. And although it was her music that drew me, it was her holiness that captured me and set me spinning.
• •
Each May as the school year came to an end, all the Duke fraternities and sororities spent a wild week at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. When finals ended in the spring of 1979, I headed off to the party. I remember only parts of it. We drank all night and slept all day on the beach. On one of those nights, my friend Digger and I drank ourselves sick on Schnapps. Later, the temperature dropped, and chilly strong winds blew in from the ocean. By the time I returned home to Bethesda, Maryland, for the summer, I had developed a bad case of bronchitis, and the doctor ordered prolonged bed rest. I ended up in bed for over a month. My brothers were off at camp or at work, my father downtown at the National Press Club. My mother was in Baltimore teaching at Johns Hopkins. Alone at home, I faced a long summer.
I also faced myself. Lying around gave me the space to reflect on my life. In searching the house for something to read, I came upon my father’s copy of Arthur Schlesinger’s massive biography of Bobby Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and His Times. Once I opened it, I couldn’t put it down. As I read about the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the emotions I felt as a boy when those events occurred rushed over me like a tidal wave.
To be honest, I was much more interested in Bobby than in John Kennedy, because after his brother’s death, Bobby Kennedy clearly changed. As Jack Newfield wrote in Robert Kennedy: A Memoir, Bobby Kennedy underwent an inner transformation that began with searing grief and soul-­searching prayer and led to an unusual sense of compassion for the poor. He took up poetry, pondered the eternal questions, and began to expand his horizons. Eventually, he stood with César Chávez and the United Farm Workers, attended Dr. King’s funeral, and spoke out vehemently against the Vietnam War. He talked about the need for justice in a way that few politicians had ever done before, or have since.
On the night of Dr. King’s assassination, April 4, 1968, Bobby Kennedy spoke to a crowd of African-Americans in inner-city Indianapolis. After he told the stunned crowd that Dr. King had been killed, he spoke extemporaneously about the need for compassion:

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort. . . .
In this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black . . . you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. . . .
Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with . . . compassion and love. . . .
What we need in the United States is not division . . . not hatred . . . not violence . . . but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black. . . .
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

The next day, in Cleveland, Kennedy gave a clear denunciation of violence. “What has violence ever accomplished?” he asked. “What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by an assassin’s bullet. . . . Violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”
As I lay there with a bad case of bronchitis blues, Kennedy’s words flowered within me. He awakened in me a passion for life and peace. I could identify with him because we both came from white, upper-class, well-­educated, ambitious Catholic families. But now we had something else in common: I aspired to reach the same sort of inner transformation that he had experienced between his brother’s assassination and his own death. Now, a decade later, Bobby Kennedy was drawing me to a larger vision of life, to a wider compassion for humanity that he had edged toward by 1968.
And all of a sudden, I could see. I could see not only the immorality of violence, but also its impracticality. I could see the precariousness of life. I could see again how precious life is. And there in bed I made a clear decision to reject violence as best I could.
What most disturbed me was the injustice of it all. Bobby Kennedy, the nation’s best and brightest, had died for declaring ideals of justice and peace, as had Dr. King. What chance did anyone have to make this country more just? How would anyone ever again offer honest political leadership? Why even go to law school? Or seek a career in politics, the media, or law? Why try to make a difference at all?
These questions only deepened with each biography I read of Kennedy and Dr. King. The stories of their lives rocked my presuppositions about life, work, purpose, and death. They turned my life plans upside down and set me on an entirely new path.




• 2 •
The Day of Conversion


By the end of June I had recovered from bronchitis. To earn some money for my junior year, I took the first job I could find, on a construction crew. I got the grunt work: picking up trash, digging ditches, pouring cement, raking yards, and chopping down trees.
As the school year approached, I decided that I would not apply to law school. Nor would I go into the family publishing business. My heart and mind were restless, and I needed to set out on a new search. This was hard, and it made my return to classes unsettling. I continued composing and recording, but I didn’t know where I was headed.
Even my musical hopes were in jeopardy. I joined the student association that organized concerts on campus, and the first concert that year featured Livingston Taylor, who was James Taylor’s younger brother and had a hit song on the radio that year. After the show, I found him alone in his dressing room and introduced myself as an aspiring ­singer-­songwriter. Then I asked, “What advice do you have for me about going professional?”
He sat down, looked me in the eye, and said, “Don’t do it. The music industry is totally corrupt. It isn’t at all what people think. It’s very difficult to make it. You have to travel endlessly and sell yourself out. Don’t do it unless you absolutely have to, unless you have no other choice.” I mumbled my thanks and walked out in shocked silence. That Christmas, a musician friend, Bob, and I went to New York City and left some cassettes of our music with Elektra/Asylum Records. As I recall, they wrote us with interest, but neither of us pursued it.
Meanwhile, my class work grew more demanding. I was working hard for several extraordinary history professors. One of them, Anne Firor Scott, was a leading feminist historian. She taught American social history and spent years studying the diaries of ordinary Americans from the late 1700s. She copied dozens of them, had them bound, and assigned them as our readings instead of textbooks. The ordinary voices on those pages, written during the American Revolution, sounded like those of any struggling person today, and I was deeply moved by their humanity. But as I had during my bed rest over the summer, I was struck by the mystery of death. Those voices were long ago silenced. Where were they now? Were they alive in some distant heaven? Had they vanished forever?
The diaries drew me into further reflection, about the brevity of life and my place in the flow of history. Where would I be in two hundred years? Those writings stirred in me a desire not only to read history, but also to make it; I wanted my life to count, as had the lives of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. When I declared history as my major, I asked Professor Scott to be my adviser. Over time, I began sharing with her my intense questions and ponderings. She did not blink but encouraged me to pursue them.
When I realized how hard my classes would be, I looked to round out my schedule with something easier. Someone had told me that the easiest class on campus was Abnormal Psychology, taught by Harold Schiffman, an absentminded professor who looked like Albert Einstein. I signed up. On the first day of class, I sat in the packed auditorium with my fellow students. Class was to start at 2:00; he walked in finally at 2:20 and seemed taken aback. “When does our class meet?” he asked. According to the course catalog, it met from 2:00 to 3:45 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. But a rogue frat student raised his hand and said, “Mondays and Wednesdays from 2:00 to 3:00.” Professor Schiffman replied, “Fine,” and with that the class was cut in half. He made some introductory remarks, and one caught my attention. He would raise the grade by one letter for any student who performed a few hours of volunteer work for him each week. I knew an easy A when I saw one, so I volunteered.
Schiffman wanted us to help out in psychiatric clinics and homeless shelters around Durham. I was free only on Fridays, and the only Friday opportunity was in nearby Butner at the state hospital, also known as the North Carolina State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. When Friday morning came, a group of us drove out into the countryside. The mammoth facility was a former military barracks that looked more like a prison than a hospital. The institution had only recently stopped performing frontal lobotomies. The officials gave us a brief orientation and assigned each of us to a section where we would spend the day with the patients. They sent me to the Continued Treatment Unit. A guard escorted me through endless hallways that reeked of disinfectant. Along the way, we passed a woman running up and down the hallway screaming at the top of her lungs.
After passing through two sets of locked doors, we arrived at a large white room right out of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. On every one of the some fifty cots sat a man dressed in white, his head shaved, staring off into space. Each had been found guilty of some crime and diagnosed insane. Each was drugged and more or less catatonic. They owned nothing. They had no friends. They had no life. No one cared for them. They had been left to rot in this stinking prison. The underpaid, undertrained, uneducated yet well-­armed staff watched them ­twenty-four hours a day from a glass booth.
It was ten in the morning. The guard, who must have taken me to be a psychiatrist, looked at his watch and said, “I’ll be back for you at four.” He left, locking the doors behind him. There I was, alone with fifty Charles Mansons. They all turned as one and looked at me; I expected to be killed at any moment. Then one of them spoke, in a whisper, as they all did—a side effect of the drugs. His words sounded friendly, so I walked over and asked his name. He started to talk, and I sat down to listen. For the rest of the day, I listened to dozens of these forsaken men.
I sat in silence on the way back to Duke. My complacency had been shattered. How could these people be left to rot? Didn’t anyone care for them? What should happen to them, and what does the state owe them given their violence and crimes? Where was God in the midst of their suffering? What did their lives mean? Or was there any meaning to life when this situation could exist?
When I arrived back at the fraternity house, the party was well under way. I stood among the country’s first and best, having just left the least and worst, and the contrast hit me hard: how could humanity be so divided?
How does one respond to this great divide? What can a person do? I suddenly felt homeless myself, even in my insular world of privilege. Yet I wasn’t sure I had the wherewithal to reject the selfishness around me and within me and find a home somewhere else. For the next twelve weeks, the contrast weighed on me and plunged me deeper into despair. I went to class, played music, hung out at the fraternity, and spent Fridays locked up with North Carolina’s criminally insane.
One day, I led four patients outside for a walk. They were fairly “functional,” I was told, and so were allowed to wander the grounds. One woman liked to chat and went on and on about how good Jesus was to her. The others clamored for my attention, too, and I tried to make myself available to them all. But when I turned back to the woman, she was gone. I panicked and looked everywhere. Finally I notified the guards. They began a search of the grounds. An hour later, I found her alone in the gym, playing basketball. She called me over to join the fun and started telling me again about Jesus.
No matter how much I pondered the divide of humanity, new questions kept coming, and lingering. Where was God? Wasn’t God aware of this sea of suffering? Why wasn’t God helping? The rift in my heart widened, and my turmoil grew.
Then I came upon an answer: maybe there wasn’t a God.
It almost felt good to acknowledge this. It made things easier. I could discard the church’s catechism—I had been raised Catholic and had attended a Jesuit high school—and live from now on by society’s anticatechism: Life has no moral purpose. I have no obligations. There is no higher justice. There is no ultimate meaning. I could do whatever the hell I wanted—live for myself, pursue big money, get ahead, turn my back on the poor, and join the wild crowd. I could put an end, too, to my ruminations about the brevity of life and the mystery of death. When I died, I would vanish into oblivion—finis. It was time to stop worrying and just live for myself.
This was the logic of despair, and I accepted it, hoping it would resolve my crisis. But instead it caused my inner darkness and despair to deepen. It led me to conclude that violence, starvation, execution, and war made perfect sense. Nothing matters, so by all means kill people. Send missiles against civilians. Let populations starve. From the halls of power, plot crimes against humanity. Destroy the planet. Unleash a nuclear winter. To hell with everything.
But I couldn’t bear the scope of such meaninglessness. I couldn’t bear meaninglessness at all. Deep down, more than anything, I craved meaning. I wanted meaning to lend dignity to the deaths of my cousin Mark Blackman and my grandfather John Regan, who both died while I was in high school. I wanted to see meaning in the suffering of the patients at the psychiatric hospital. I wanted to find meaning in the senseless assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. I wanted my own existence to have meaning.
In the coming months, I befriended Diana, a psychiatric patient who smiled often and liked to talk. She seemed to be the only sane person in the institution. She welcomed me, toured me around, and facilitated my interactions with others.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I couldn’t find her and asked one of the guards if she’d been discharged. Apparently, she had suffered a severe breakdown. I asked to see her, and the guard led me to the ­suicide-watch chamber. I peered into her cell through a small window. There she was, lying on the floor, drugged, naked, and crying. She didn’t recognize me.
I walked through the fraternity door that night, the party in full swing: kegs full of beer, stereo blasting, couples necking on the benches outside. Suddenly all of it— the way we lived as if nothing mattered— revolted and grieved me.
• •
My questions just grew heavier. I walked about abstracted and touchy, with the attention span of a five-year-old. I forgot things and had trouble sleeping. I looked forward to nothing and felt a pit of emptiness inside me. When the new semester began, I decided to give God one last chance.
In January 1980, I enrolled in a religion class called The History of Christianity in America, taught by one of the most popular teachers on campus, Barney Jones, a Methodist minister. The class reviewed the lives of the great American preachers and Christian movements. We would be asked to write a lengthy biographical paper on a significant American Christian. The syllabus lacked any reference to Catholics, a prejudice that caught my attention, and I decided to rectify it in my paper.
My mother had taught at St. Joseph’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where Elizabeth Ann Seton had lived, worked, and died. We had often visited her burial place on Sundays. Mother Seton had recently been canonized, so I picked her. A classmate decided on Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. My godfather, my cousin Daniel Marshall, had lived at the Catholic Worker house in Brooklyn and knew Dorothy Day. So I was interested in my peer’s impressions of her. We began to talk about these great Catholic women and what it meant to be Catholic.
Still, my depression lingered. I needed a diversion, so I signed up for a seminar called The Art of Biography. It was there that I met Joe Markwordt, a sophomore from Dundalk, Maryland, who had won a full scholarship to Duke. He was wise and funny and fiercely independent. During our first class, Joe told me that his Catholic faith was the reason he had refused to join a fraternity. He lived off campus in an apartment with a few other students, and he hung out with a small group of Catholic students at the Newman Catholic Student Center, in the basement of the Duke Chapel.
At the next week’s class, Joe was wearing a bright yellow button that said, “God Don’t Make No Junk.” I asked him about it, and he launched into a sermon, preaching that God loves everyone, that each one of us is great because we were made by a loving God, and that none of us is junk.
I was intrigued by his button and his outspokenness. No one I knew at Duke behaved this way. Joe explained his interest in Catholicism, his devotion to Jesus, and the values he tried to live by. He was unlike any of my friends in the Greek system. He had a conscience. He was appalled by the arrogance of most Duke students. He hated our classism, racism, and prejudices and thought that most of us were selfish snobs who didn’t care about anything except money and careers.
I looked at Joe’s button and thought of the people in Butner. They were junk, thrown away like trash. I, too, felt like a piece of junk, without meaning or purpose. But Joe, speaking with an authority and a conviction I had never before encountered in anyone my age, insisted that God exists, that God is good, that we are loved, and that every human being deserves to be treated as a priceless image of the infinitely loving God.
One cold morning in late January, I ran into Joe on campus in front of the student center. I started to complain about all the papers I had to write, the tests I had to take, and the craziness of fraternity life. I expected a sympathetic response from this self-­proclaimed Christian. But he looked me in the eye and said, “You know, John, if you really believe in Jesus, then nothing else really matters that much.”
His words struck me like a bolt of lightning. He walked on, but I stood there on the quad, electrified. I knew immediately that he was right. Something in me responded to the essential truth Joe had spoken, but at the time I couldn’t come up with a response. Even now I look back at that moment and know that Joe’s simple statement was probably the most important thing anyone had ever said to me.
I couldn’t pay attention to anything for weeks afterward. My mind raced with questions. Could I believe as fearlessly as Joe? Could I make the same moral choices? Petty problems, he said, would fall into the background, and meaning and direction would become clear. Might Jesus be the answer to my despair? Could I walk Jesus’ way, against the tide of culture? This last question challenged me profoundly. More, it gave me a glimmer of hope for myself—and for the world.
• •
A few days after the encounter with Joe, I attended the daily noon Mass in the basement of Duke Chapel. I had rarely entered the enormous cathedral, much less the basement below. The room was a mess, furnished with a few threadbare couches, a cross on the wall, and a coffee table for the bread and wine. Four or five other students gathered around the table. Father Joe Burke, a Jesuit priest, was the Catholic chaplain. Short, bald, and garrulous, he had a lively, enthusiastic, contagious spirit. At that time, it didn’t seem to me that Father Joe did anything—he never organized a single retreat, guest lecture, student group, service trip, or student dinner. He sat in that room every day, all day long, listening to students. And because of his complete availability to any student at any hour, he was greatly loved. He knew everyone and, I came to realize, was the heart and soul of Duke. As far as I was concerned this lively little Jesuit was the only nonjudgmental, compassionate, attentive presence available on campus.
I sat through his simple Mass, said nothing, and left quickly.
In preparation for my paper for religion class, I was reading Mrs. Seton, the definitive biography of Elizabeth Ann Seton. I was impressed by the story of this successful housewife, Manhattan socialite, and busy mother who lost her husband, became an impoverished widow, converted to Catholicism, and embarked upon an extraordinary spiritual journey. In the process, she founded a religious order of nuns, started a school for the poor, and set up her community in the woods of Maryland. Seton was a contemplative, an educator, a servant of the poor, and a disciple of Jesus. As I studied her life, I felt peaceful for the first time in a long while.
One February afternoon, beams of sunlight drenched my basement room in the fraternity house while I studied in solitude. I could feel myself being drawn into this story of Elizabeth Seton—her conversion and pursuit of poverty, her selfless service to the poor, her deep contemplative prayer and most of all, her devout love of Jesus. I remember looking up from my reading, as the gears in my mind began to turn. Mother Seton had helped hundreds, had influenced thousands, and through her life with Jesus and her service to suffering humanity had found purpose and meaning. That must mean that I could, too. In the midst of a busy, difficult life, she had found personal peace; there was no reason I couldn’t as well. I could take the risk, as she did, and surrender myself.
Finally I saw it: God existed. Not only because Joe said it and Mother Seton lived it; God’s existence was made plain through the life of Jesus. I finally understood that the universe has purpose, the human race has value, and my own life has meaning. When I die, I won’t vanish. I will stand before the God of the universe to be welcomed into the house of love and peace. I won’t be junk; I will be loved.
Because I knew that all of this was true, I couldn’t waste my life any longer on selfish pursuits. I couldn’t throw my life away or hurt others or offend God. No, instead I must prepare myself and others for eternal life with God and, like Mother Seton, embrace the highest calling in life—selfless service to the human race, in the footsteps of Jesus.
It was an all-or-­nothing choice. If God exists, I should renounce my life, surrender it to God, reach out in universal love, and take off in the footsteps of Jesus. If God does not exist, Joe was wrong, Elizabeth Ann Seton was misguided, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King had wasted their time, and Jesus was a liar.
This moment has the aura of my own personal myth, with all the mystery and wonder of St. Paul’s fall from the horse, St. Ignatius’s revelation on his sickbed, St. Francis’s realization upon kissing the leper, and Thomas Merton’s discovery at Columbia University that he wanted to be a priest. My heart filled with desire to give my whole life to God. I suddenly realized that, yes, God does exist. Jesus is right, Joe is right, and Elizabeth Ann Seton is right. There is meaning and purpose to life. I am loved by God, my life has meaning, and everyone is being led to live in love with one another. As these thoughts raced through my mind, I wondered, How does one give oneself to God? What great gesture can I make?
All of a sudden, the Jesuits I had known from high school, and now Father Joe Burke, rushed to mind. And I knew. I would become a priest. I would become a Jesuit. I would spend my life following Jesus in loving service of humanity in the Society of Jesus. I jumped up from my rocking chair, terrified and exhilarated all at once.
It was Ash Wednesday, February 20, 1980.
Father Burke had planned a service of repentance for four o’clock. I suddenly remembered it and trotted over to the chapel to join the service just as it was beginning. After reading the Gospel, he spoke about the Lenten themes of repentance and conversion, of changing our lives and following Jesus.
Then he invited us to come forward. I walked up the imposing center aisle of the gothic cathedral to the stone altar. Father Burke dipped his thumb in a bowl of ashes, traced a cross on my forehead, and said, “Repent and believe the good news of Jesus.”
When I stepped outside into the sunlight, everything had changed. From now on, I would be a follower of Jesus.




• 3 •
The Journey Begins

For the next six months, everything sparkled. It was as if I had been blind and then miraculously gained sight. I noticed colors for the first time. The flowers in the Duke gardens, the green grass, the blue sky, the clouds, the sun and moon—it was as if I had never seen them before. I walked in a daze, delighted at the beauty around me, grateful to be alive, and overwhelmed by the consolation, the peace and joy I now felt.
I told no one but Father Burke, deciding to keep quiet for a while, perhaps even a year. My decision to become a Jesuit had come about suddenly, and I thought it should be put to the test. If it came from God, it would happen; otherwise, it would evaporate. Deep down, though, I knew my path was set. The anxieties that had plagued me for weeks had vanished, and I was left with this great secret. I read the Gospels and began attending daily Mass. During my occasional meetings with Father Burke, I gratefully accepted his encouragement, enthusiasm, and friendship.
My happiness crested at Easter. Joe Markwordt invited me to picnic with other Newman Center students in the Duke gardens. We sat on the grass, ate sandwiches, threw the Frisbee, told jokes, and said a few prayers; it couldn’t have been plainer. But compared to the selfishness, arrogance, and violence of the fraternity, it was beautiful, refreshing, and even holy, as Easter should be. Father Burke was there, along with another student, Anne Mallory, a devout Catholic, smart and sincere, whose kindness and guidance would help me through the next years.
My elation over deciding to join the Jesuits elbowed aside everything else, even my love of music. And so, I shortly decided to stop composing and recording. But I had one more recording session scheduled and went ahead with it, knowing it would be my last. This time, I brought along a fraternity friend named Lou, a New Yorker studying to be a doctor, who played a mean drum solo.
We had a fabulous session, recording ten songs. Lou enjoyed himself so much that on the way home he practically glowed. I glowed, too, but for a different reason. During the long drive I just couldn’t keep my secret any longer.
“Lou, from now on, I won’t be doing any more recording. I’ve decided to become a priest.”
“You’ve decided to become a what?”
“A Jesuit priest.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No, I’m not. About a month ago, I—”
“What a waste!” His anger startled me. “You are so talented, and now you’re throwing it all away.” He smoldered the whole way home. He got out of the car, slammed the door, and never spoke to me again.
• •
That was my first taste of what my decision would cost me. Giving my life away to Jesus was bound to anger some people. Plus, there were the personal sacrifices: I would not get to do some of the things I enjoyed. I would never marry, never know intimate love, never have my own family, never pursue my own interests, never do things for my own sake. From now on, there would be no music, no riches, no success. I would pray, follow Jesus, and spend my life serving the human family.
On March 24, 1980, I heard the news that the outspoken archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Romero, had been assassinated, fatally shot while presiding at Mass. I was devastated and yet strangely inspired. Here was another public disciple of Jesus who had walked with the poor and defended them and been killed, like Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, like the early saints and martyrs. Romero’s martyrdom evoked in me a desire to risk my life for the gospel of Jesus.
During the previous weeks I had written to the Jesuits, and the vocation director sent me a package of official materials about the Society of Jesus. What I read caught my interest immediately and summed up my deepest desires and hopes. The statements of the Thirty-­second General Congregation of the Society, the 1974–75 international gathering of Jesuit leaders from around the world, described the Jesuit mission as solidarity with the world’s poor, discipleship to the crucified Jesus, and “faith that does justice.”
What is it to be a Jesuit? It is to know that one is a sinner, yet called to be a companion of Jesus as Ignatius was: Ignatius, who begged the Blessed Virgin “to place him with her Son,” who then saw the Father himself ask Jesus, carrying his cross, to take this pilgrim into his company. What is it to be a companion of Jesus today? It is to engage, under the standard of the cross, in the crucial struggle of our time: the struggle for faith and that struggle for justice which it includes. . . . We seek to preach the Gospel in a personal love for the person of Jesus Christ, asking daily for an ever more inward knowledge of him, that we may better love him and follow him; Jesus whom we seek, as St. Ignatius sought, to experience; Jesus, Son of God, sent to serve, sent to set free, put to death, and risen from the dead. This love is the deepest wellspring of our action and our life.
Those words confirmed my decision to become a “companion of Jesus.”
• •
That summer turned out to be one of the most creative times of my life, though none of the creativity was visible. I looked for a menial job and found one as a janitor at a nearby Arby’s fast-food restaurant. I wanted work that went against everything Duke stood for—riches, success, comfort, and fame. It was a humbling experience, and in that humility I discovered a new inner freedom and compassion.
When I wasn’t at work, I read. I absorbed everything: the four Gospels, the lives of the saints, and biographies of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian Catholic farmer who was beheaded for refusing to fight for the Nazis. The autobiography of Thérèse of Lisieux touched me powerfully, inviting me deeper into the life of contemplative prayer, suffering love, and inner trust in God. I felt close to her, asked for her intercession, and prayed to her every day.
I tried to practice Thérèse’s “little way” of self-­denial, unconditional love, and selfless service toward those around me. That meant first of all trying to be kinder, more loving, and more generous toward my parents and brothers. For starters, I would help out around the house. I cleaned up, did my chores, mowed the lawn, even cooked an occasional dinner. At the same time, I tried not to do everything I wanted to do; rather, I tried to do what others needed of me. This was a difficult experiment. I expected a great deal of pain and stress, but afterward I felt inner peace, even joy. I began to understand the spiritual life. Through selfless service, ­loving-­kindness, and genuine generosity, one could experience God’s love. God gives an inner sense of consolation and peace to encourage the good choices we make and the good deeds we do.
That summer, knowing of my admiration for Bobby Kennedy, my father arranged for me to meet his friend Warren Rogers, who had also been one of Kennedy’s closest friends. As a journalist for Life magazine, he had covered Bobby Kennedy’s campaign, and he was with Kennedy when he was shot. Rogers now worked on the board of the National Press Club with my father.
I drove to Georgetown and spent an afternoon with Rogers. I learned that long ago, he had entered the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. I described to him the effect that Bobby Kennedy’s death had had on me, my struggle to locate meaning, and my questions about God. He in turn regaled me with Kennedy stories and told me of his time at the novitiate before leaving to become a journalist. Here was a new friend, someone who shared my passion and my struggle.
As summer neared its end, I spent a week on Cape Cod with my parents and one of my brothers. It was magnificent—the salty breezes, the boat, the beautiful ponds, the blue ocean, the lobster bisque. Our last day, on the island of Nantucket, was magical. And so that night, emboldened by the good feeling, I took a deep breath and divulged my secret. I told my parents I had decided to enter the Jesuits.
Their faces fell, and they exchanged uneasy glances. They didn’t want to hear this. It was especially hard for my mother, for reasons dear to her heart. Her two brothers had left home as teenagers to enter the Vincentians and become priests. But they left the priesthood twenty years later, much disillusioned and disappointed, and my mother didn’t want to see that happen to me. She pleaded with me to wait a few years before entering.
I hadn’t anticipated this, but I chose to honor their concerns. I told them I would wait a year after graduation before entering the Jesuits.
I returned to Duke chastened and disheartened. It felt bad to step back from a decision that seemed so right. But then I learned about the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a service program that sends young people to work for a year among the poor and to live in community under the supervision of local Jesuits. Volunteering seemed like a good way to stick close to the Jesuits and fill out that idle year, so I applied.
• •
I would spend my senior year taking classes, bringing communion to the dying at the Duke Medical Center, and continuing the application process to the Jesuits.
Some of my classes that year sharpened and informed the convictions I was already committed to living out. The Insurgent South was taught by one of the most popular and controversial professors on campus, the leading historian on the subject, Lawrence Goodwyn. He accepted only twenty students at a time; I’d been on the waiting list for over a year. On the first day of class, he gathered us around a large wooden table and sat there silently until we became quiet. We expected a welcome, but instead he started off with “You are all racists. Each one of you is a product of institutionalized racism.” Here was a professor who dared speak the truth even to the point of criticizing the privilege of the students on whom his livelihood depended. My education was under way.
For the next four months, Goodwyn taught us the history of slavery, the abolitionist movement, Reconstruction, the Populist movement, segregation in America, and the civil rights movement embodied in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Each class disturbed, exhilarated, and mesmerized me. He explained history to us in ways none of us had ever heard, making connections between the social reformers and injustices of the late 1800s and the ­present-day struggles for racial and economic justice. I gained a new vision of equality and justice as well as a new understanding of the inequalities and injustices around me. This provocative class opened my mind to humanity’s yearning for civil and human rights and laid the groundwork for my commitment to Dr. King’s active nonviolence.
That course led to another, the following semester, with Professor William Chafe, one of the foremost historians of the civil rights movement and its strategy of nonviolence. Nonviolence, he taught, operates by a power all its own. It insists on making the truth known and on suffering the consequences with love. And, he said, it never fails. In the end, steadfast, organized suffering love will melt opponents’ hearts, inspire mutual respect, and create social justice. Nonviolence alone has the power to confront institutionalized injustice, disarm our violence, and redeem everyone—the oppressor as well as the oppressed.
Consider the Birmingham campaign of 1963, Dr. Chafe said one memorable day. Dr. King led a protest to combat segregation that grew to include hundreds of children and teenagers. They were attacked with fire hoses and police dogs, all of it caught on film and shown on television. The nation was shocked by the sheer brutality of the white authorities. Then one climactic day, the policemen balked and the firemen dramatically refused to turn the water on the marching youth. Scales fell from their eyes, they realized the immorality of their violence, and they disobeyed orders. That very occasion, Dr. Chafe said, marked the end of legalized segregation.
I remember the moment that spring day, sitting in the classroom, when I looked up from my notes and suddenly understood the methodology of nonviolence. Suffering love for the sake of the truth of our common humanity disarms and redeems, Dr. Chafe explained. In their willingness to suffer with love, insist on the truth, yet refuse to run away or retaliate, the nonviolent resisters melt the hearts of their opponents. Scales fall from their eyes, they stop their violence, they recognize new sisters and brothers, and are converted to justice and peace. A light went on as Dr. Chafe explained this new way of acting in the world, and I felt a surge of promise and hope. Here was another revelation.
• •
On November 29, 1980, Dorothy Day died. She stood head and shoulders above every North American Catholic of the century, living among the homeless and fearlessly, faithfully denouncing every war and injustice no matter what others thought, no matter what the cost. I had hoped to meet her. Now I felt compelled to take up where she had left off. On December 8, John Lennon was assassinated. That same week, four churchwomen—Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan—were raped and assassinated in El Salvador.
Day’s peaceful death moved me, and I cried at the news of John Lennon, not just because of the loss of music and joy he had brought to the world but because of the loss of his outspoken stand for truth, justice, and peace.
But the deaths of the four churchwomen brought me face-to-face with the gravity of my call. When I picked up the Durham Morning Herald the next day, I gaped at the headline. The women died at the hands of El Salvador’s National Guard, a militia trained and funded by the United States. Their bodies were discovered beside a dirt road in a makeshift grave about an hour and a half from the airport. Ita, Maura, Dorothy, and Jean—theirs was a sobering witness. They had persisted in their work despite the mounting danger they faced, and I recognized them immediately as heroes. Their courageous lives and sacrificial deaths further energized my plans to enter the Jesuit life.
• •
I had accepted the invitation of Father Ralph Monk, the Catholic chaplain at the Duke Medical Center, to spend a few hours every afternoon visiting patients, bringing them communion, listening to their stories, and praying for their healing. .
Through that work, I met scores of sick people, some of whom had flown across the country for Duke’s chemotherapy program. Father Monk would give me a list of Catholic patients, and I would knock on their hospital room doors and introduce myself. I offered to sit with them and give them communion. Everyone wanted communion. And most were desperate for friendship, company, and prayer. Over time, I developed relationships with many of the patients, some of them still memorable to me. One young man had attempted suicide by shooting himself in the face. Somehow, he survived, but his face was gone: no nose, no chin, no teeth, no cheekbones. He breathed through a network of tubes. I especially remember the born-again Catholic thrown into doubt and confusion after open-heart surgery, and a young Rhodes Scholar from Australia who was on vacation in North Carolina with his parents when he was badly injured in a car crash and spent three painful months in a body cast.
Then my visits became more personal. One day, I was shocked to see Mary Lou Williams on my list; she had been diagnosed with cancer. For the next eight months, as she endured chemotherapy treatments and various setbacks, I visited her, prayed with her, sought her advice, and let her entertain me with the story of her life. She told me about her Harlem clothing center, her great friends Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie, and her prayer life. She said that during the 1950s, various saints had appeared to her daily in mystical visions. I just listened and nodded as she told me, for example, about St. Martin de Porres standing at the foot of her bed one morning. After a while, she went to see her priest, a Jesuit, and told him about the visions. He told her that it was all fine and good, but she should tell the saints to stop bothering her so she could get back to her music and start serving people. She did not understand his guidance—nor did I!—but she accepted it, told the saints not to appear to her anymore, and returned to composing, recording, and performing jazz as a ministry in the church.
One day, she leaned across her hospital bed and whispered to me, “The secret of life is to love everyone.” I went home and wrote that down. Eventually, she grew too weak to have visitors, and she died in May 1981, a week after my graduation from Duke.
Through all of this, I continued to explore my call to the Jesuits and the priesthood. In January 1981, I drove to the village of Wernersville, Pennsylvania, about ten miles west of Reading. A handful of Jesuit candidates gathered for the weekend for conferences and prayer.
I had lunch with Harry Geib, another Jesuit candidate, and Walter Ciszek, a legendary priest who had spent many years in Soviet prison camps. A few years after his death, proceedings began for his canonization. As it turned out, Harry hailed from Philadelphia and was attending Duke as a doctoral student. We spent time together back at Duke, he entered the Jesuits that summer, and we remain close friends today.
The Jesuits welcomed us and invited us to spend a few hours each day in silent prayer to reflect on the call we had received. I sat alone in the novitiate chapel, a simple room on the second floor with windows overlooking the green countryside. Behind the altar was a four-­hundred-year-old crucifix that portrayed Christ dying in agony. The Jesuits told us to meditate on a verse from the Psalms: “Be still and know that I am God.” I sat there in the silence, and slowly the silt within me began to settle, and my soul became clear and peaceful as a pool of clear water. I offered myself to God and felt my decision confirmed by a sense of profound peace.
As I wandered through the old library, I noticed a book titled The Voice of Blood, which told the story of five Jesuits recently martyred in Latin America and Africa. Their heroic deaths, particularly that of the extraordinary Salvadoran Jesuit Rutilio Grande, shocked and inspired me. He had dedicated his life to the poor, denounced the injustice that oppressed them, and died on March 12, 1977, at the hands of a United States–backed death squad. It was Grande’s example that inspired Archbishop Romero to speak out for peace and justice. Such stories increased my desire to take up the cross for the gospel. I returned to Duke more determined than ever to enter the Society of Jesus.

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Table of Contents

• Contents •
        Foreword by Martin Sheen    ix
        Introduction    xv

    1    Frat Boy (1978–79) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1
    2    The Day of Conversion (1979–80)    10
    3    The Journey Begins (1980–81)    21
    4    Under Arrest at the Vatican (1981)    32
    5    Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (1982)    38
    6    A Second Calling, in Galilee (1982)    47
    7    Jesuit Boot Camp (1982)    53
    8    Learning the Life of Peace (1982)    62
    9    Thirty Days of Silence (1983)    71
    10    The Experiment, Phase One (1983)    81
    11    The Experiment, Phase Two (1983)    86
    12    First Blood (1983–84)    96
    13    Lenten Wednesdays at the Pentagon (1984)    106
    14    Peacemaking in New York City (1984–85)    117
    15    In the Land of the Savior (1985)    127
    16    Taking a Stand in Nicaragua, at the Pentagon,
             and at West Point (1985)    140
    17    Disturbing the Peace in Scranton (1986–87)    148
    18    Community and Jail in New York (1987–88)    156
    19    With the Homeless in Washington, D.C. (1988–89)    165
    20    Theology and Vision at Berkeley (1989)    176
    21    November 16, the Kairos Moment (1989)    186
    22    The Fast (1990)    191
    23    Zones of Peace (1990)    196
    24    Death Row and Mother Teresa (1990)    201
    25    War in Iraq, Resistance in the Streets (1991–92)    210
    26    Ordained to Make Peace (1992–93)    222
    27    Down by the Riverside (1993)    235
    28    They Shall Beat Their Swords into Plowshares (1993–94)    239
    29    In Jail, on Trial (1994)    247
    30    Waiting in My Cell (1994)    256
    31    From House Arrest to Rome (1994–95)    262
    32    Trouble at the Smithsonian (1994–95)    273
    33    In Richmond, at the Sacred Heart Center (1995–96)    280
    34    Peace in Northern Ireland (1997–98)    286
    35    The Fellowship of Reconciliation (1998–2000)    302
    36    Peace Mission to Iraq (1999)    311
    37    Return to Palestine (1999)    324 

    38    The Great Forty Days for Peace (2000)    331
    39    Death and the Tombs of New York (2000–1)    335
    40    Life and Death at Ground Zero (2001)    342
    41    Kicked out of New York (2002)    362
    42    Pastor in New Mexico (2002–4)    369
    43    A Voice in the Desert (2002–4)    383
    44    Disturber of the Peace (2002–5)    392
    45    Sackcloth and Ashes in Los Alamos (2002–5)    406
    46    Soldiers at My Front Door (2003)    416
        Epilogue    421
        Acknowledgments    427
        Index    431





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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2011


    A long time reader of John dears books and views. He talks about peace and end to all wars but denounces Israel for attacks on Palestinians and not denouncing terrorist attacks on Israelis. The author condems the Jewish state and seems to have very anti semetic views towards Jews in all of his books. The author has socialist views, denounces right wingers and claims to be a man of GOD and church while never mentions the abortion issue. HYPOCORISY at its worst.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2009

    Incredible read for those wanted to stand up for justice issues.

    AN extreme in being a fighter for justice (all the arrests) but an eye opener of the realities in our world. I teach a social justice class and this is perfect.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    True advocate of Peace

    I had marched against the Vietnam War, for equal rights and I am a 14 year volunteer at a shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. I found this book to be inspirational. John Dear is a true advocate of Peace. <BR/>I have learned so much more about nonviolence and ways to work toward a more peaceful world and inner self from John Dear. I was also surprised to learn more about Bishop Emeritis Walter Sullivan from Richmond VA and his work at Pax Christi. I am inspired by John Dear and his work toward Peace an important part of Catholic Social teaching.<BR/>I highly recomend this book to all that seek a more peaceful world.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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