by Terry Messman
Recently, I returned to the Pacific School of Religion (PSR) to attend the inaugural ceremony for the seminary’s new president, Rev. David Vásquez-Levy, and to receive a Distinguished Alumni award. I hadn’t returned to PSR since I graduated 30 years ago, and as the memories suddenly came flooding came back, I realized that the course of my life was changed dramatically in those intense years in the Berkeley seminary.
I’ve never told the story of Street Spirit’s origins before, but looking back now, I can clearly see that its birthplace was in the Protestant and Catholic seminaries of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) where I studied systematic theology, liberation theology, and the peacemakers and prophets of diverse spiritual traditions.
I entered Pacific School of Religion in 1981 on a fellowship from the North American Theological Fund that I was awarded while serving two six-month sentences in federal prison in the Mojave Desert for acts of anti-nuclear resistance. I had been arrested with a Lutheran minister, Rev. John Lemnitzer, at Malmstrom Air Force Base, and arrested again at Bangor Naval Base with Catholic theologian and peace activist James Douglass.
Now, 30 years later, on Jan. 29, 2015, at the inauguration of the seminary’s new president, I found that the spirit of justice lives on at PSR. Rev. David Vásquez- Levy is one of only four persons of Latino descent serving as president of an accredited seminary in the United States.
Rev. Vásquez-Levy helped to provide food, housing and legal assistance to the victims of the Postville Raid in 2008, the largest single raid of a U.S. workplace where Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested nearly 400 immigrant workers at the meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. Rev. Vásquez-Levy became a leading voice in advocating for more humane immigration polices.
In another sign of justice at PSR, many seminary students were arrested in Berkeley on Dec. 8, 2014, after joining a die-in and march in protest of the grand jury decisions in the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
They issued “an open letter to communities of faith” and declared that “disruptive action” is needed to “dismantle the systems of racial injustice that create the world in which Michael Brown, Eric Garner and countless others are killed with impunity.” Several clergy and professors at PSR and GTU spoke out in favor of their nonviolent resistance.
Controversial Arrests of Seminarians
This faculty support of their protest reminded me how important that kind of support had been to Spirit affinity group when we organized acts of civil disobedience that resulted in the multiple arrests of seminarians at Livermore Lab in the 1980s.
At first, the arrests of scores of priests and ministers-in-training were controversial. Yet, after three years of resistance that saw large numbers of seminarians arrested at the nuclear weapons lab, Father Michael Blecker, O.S.B., the president of the GTU from 1982-1987, spoke out in the Daily Californian, saying that he was proud of all the seminarians who had been arrested for taking a stand for peace.
Spirit affinity group had been formed during a nonviolence training Darla Rucker and I held at the Dominican seminary on Holy Hill, and quickly grew into a community of activists who lived, breathed, dreamed and prayed nonviolent resistance to the war machine. Spirit members Darla Rucker, Ken Butigan, Patti Runo, Bruce Turner, Rick Cotton, Jim Bridges and I were arrested many times at Livermore Laboratory, Concord Naval Weapons Station, the Federal Building and the Salvadoran consulate in San Francisco.
The Path to Peacemaking
I had started out on the path to peacemaking when I was arrested repeatedly as a journalism student for acts of trespass at Malmstrom Air Force Base in protest of nuclear missiles; followed by arrests at Rocky Flats in Colorado where all the nation’s plutonium triggers were made; and a risk-filled trespass into the high-security zone of the Bangor Naval Base in Washington where Marines were authorized to use lethal force as they guarded the bunkers that stored nuclear warheads.
After I was tried and sentenced to two six-month sentences in federal prison, Rev. Lynne Fitch, a Disciples of Christ minister and university professor, changed my entire life by encouraging me to attend seminary to build a foundation to support a lifetime of peace activism.
After spending several months in prison, I came to Pacific School of Religion in 1981. When asked what kind of ministry I was pursuing, I replied, “working for peace and justice.” Some reacted in disbelief at this career path, as if I had said I was going to spend my life chasing unicorns.
Yet, the PSR administration offered genuine support for my seemingly quixotic path. One of PSR’s strengths is that, even as it prepares hundreds of students for the ordained ministry in several mainline denominations, it also supports students who follow their conscience and develop alternative forms of ministry. I found that both Methodist ministers-in-training and impractical dreamers battling windmills can find support at PSR.
Many theologians I studied in seminary changed my life immeasurably. Their insights flashed like lightning in my mind and remain engraved in my soul to this day.
I studied The Cost of Discipleship by the great Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a student of Gandhian nonviolence who was executed in a concentration camp for his resistance to Nazi Germany. I was greatly inspired by Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution by Andre Trocme, a courageous French pastor who provided safe haven for thousands of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.
I became immersed in the works of Thomas Merton, a contemplative monk who became one of the most prophetic voices against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons. Merton wrote: “A theology of love may also conceivably turn out to be a theology of revolution. In any case, it is a theology of RESISTANCE, a refusal of the evil that reduces a brother or sister to homicidal desperation.”
After all these years, Daniel Berrigan, a priest, poet and “peace criminal,” is still one of the most important role models in my life. I named my son Daniel after him. Berrigan wrote: “We have chosen to be powerless criminals in a time of criminal power. We have chosen to be branded as peace criminals by war criminals.”
Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered after telling the armed forces of El Salvador to stop slaughtering their own people, declared: “The cry for liberation of this people is a shout that rises up to God and that nothing and no one can now stop.”
Gustavo Gutierrez, a Dominican priest and founder of liberation theology, devoted his life to overcoming the oppression of the poor. He wrote: “It used to be called mercy, then charity, then commitment; today it is called solidarity. To give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, shelter to the homeless, and to welcome the stranger are actions so basic that at the end of time we shall have to render an account of them.”
I endlessly read the works of Rev. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders. I came to believe that the Freedom Movement is the most courageous and visionary campaign in our nation’s history. It is also the most important model of how a human life should be lived. It continues to give me so much hope and light.
Turning Words into Action
In the light of those words, Spirit affinity group acted. We journeyed to Puget Sound and boarded small sailboats to block the launching of the first Trident submarine armed with enough first-strike nuclear warheads to obliterate hundreds of cities. As we began sailing into the path of the Trident sub, our fleet was attacked by nearly 100 U.S. Navy ships that rammed and battered our small boats, assaulted us with high-powered water cannons, boarded our boats and pointed machine guns at us as they arrested us.
Members of Spirit journeyed to Nicaragua on Witness for Peace delegations to stand in solidarity with the impoverished people of that embattled land who were targeted by the U.S.-backed Contras.
In 1982 and 1983, Spirit affinity group founded the Good Friday protests at Livermore Laboratory. We carried a huge model of an MX Missile weighing several hundred pounds to the busy intersection leading into Livermore Lab, dropped it in the center of the road, chained our bodies to the missile, and threw the keys away.
We blocked the roads into the holocaust laboratory for hours until the police pulled up with giant earth-moving machinery. They directed the driver of the machine to slam into the rear of the MX while we were still chained to it. Father Bill O’Donnell of St. Joseph the Worker in Berkeley, a priest who had joined with Spirit on many acts of resistance, warned the driver, “We are chained to this missile. If you use that machine, you will crush us.”
After a long stand-off while countless cars carrying nuclear lab workers were prevented from entering Livermore Lab, the police cut us loose from the missile with bolt-cutters, and violently arrested us. The police slammed my head into the pavement until I vomited blood and bile from the concussion they caused.
We served one-month jail sentences in Santa Rita Jail for our Good Friday protest. For theology students, a jail cell seemed the right place to be on Good Friday.
Spirit members were arrested nearly every month during the four years I attended seminary. When I graduated with a Master of Divinity degree from PSR in June 1985, I was not able to attend my own graduation, because I had just been shipped off to Lompoc Federal Prison after Ken Butigan, Marie Pastrick and I were arrested at the Federal Building in San Francisco for protesting the Reagan administration’s war on Nicaragua.
After release from Lompoc, I began work with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) where I created the Homeless Organizing Project under the supervision of AFSC staff David Hartsough. I spent my first decade at AFSC organizing dozens of takeovers of abandoned houses in Oakland and protesting San Francisco’s Matrix program.
In 1995, Sally Hindman, a fellow PSR graduate who was working with the homeless community, asked me to create a street newspaper to be sold by homeless people. Sally organized and directed the first Street Spirit vendor team and I became the editor and publisher.
It seemed fitting that this new direction of “justice journalism” should have originated from a fellow graduate of the Pacific School of Religion. After taking classes at PSR about prophets who cried out for justice for the oppressed, we co-founded a publication whose purpose is to give a voice to the poor and dispossessed.
I had entered seminary seeking a foundation for a lifetime of peace activism, but my entire life was turned upside down at the Pacific School of Religion. After being immersed for years in liberation theology, Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement and Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, I knew I had to seek justice for poor and oppressed people. After graduating from PSR, I got involved in the homeless movement and never looked back.
As Gustavo Gutierrez wrote: “It used to be called mercy, then charity, then commitment; today it is called solidarity.”
Terry Messman has been the editor of Street Spirit for 20 years. This is the first time in those two decades he has written a personal story or described the origins of Street Spirit.