The Street Spirit Interview with Shelley Douglass, Part 4
Interview by Terry Messman
Street Spirit: I just read the new biography of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, A Still and Quiet Conscience. He is such an inspiring man, but it was shocking to learn more about the horrible indignities he suffered for speaking out for peace.
Could you describe your impressions of the archbishop when he came to peace demonstrations at Ground Zero?
Shelley Douglass: Sure. He’s the kind of person you would never think was an archbishop, you know? You would never think of him as an archbishop or anybody with any power. I mean he’s just this guy, not particularly well-dressed. When we knew him, he just seemed like this old guy and he was bald and had kind of a kindly persona. He listened a lot, and didn’t do a lot of talking.
I think that the first time I met him, I was in jail. We had gotten arrested (for committing civil disobedience) and Jim and one other person in our group were both doing a fast. I don’t remember why the archbishop came to visit us in jail, but people were concerned about Jim’s safety, basically. I don’t know who got him to come, but he came, and even though he didn’t look or act like an archbishop, because he was the archbishop, the jail gave him a special visit. And they put Jim in a wheelchair and wheeled him down, and there was the archbishop!
Spirit: Why was Jim Douglass in a wheelchair in jail?
Douglass: Jim was fasting and noncooperating with the jail, and so he wouldn’t walk. Eventually he was taken to the hospital, and through his fast, we were able to get better food for everyone in the King County Jail. So Jim was doing this fast and they wheeled him in, and there was the archbishop who wanted to know if he was all right.
Then, the archbishop did not have to do this, but he came to the women’s jail to tell us that Jim and John were OK. It was a very pastoral kind of thing to do and he did wield his power because, you know, just Joe Blow wasn’t going to be able to come in and see us outside of visiting hours. But he was very low key about doing it, and it wasn’t like any big deal. He was just telling us what we needed to know.
He was always like that. He’s very thoughtful, very caring. And I don’t think I ever heard him say a word against any of the people who were against him.
When he came out with these kinds of controversial statements about not paying his taxes in resistance to nuclear weapons and “Trident is the Auschwitz of Puget Sound,” and when he came to our demonstrations, he always made a point of going both before and afterward to the parishes where people were most opposed to whatever it was he had done. And he would just let them talk to him and he would talk to them and listen. The people didn’t change their minds and start refusing to pay war taxes, but most of them wound up with a very soft spot for the archbishop, even though they didn’t agree with him.
Spirit: Why would even those who disagreed with him have a soft spot for him?
Douglass: Well, they felt respected and they had affection for him even though they thought he was kind of crazy.
Spirit: You’re describing the same person that I met when he came to speak on nuclear weapons in Berkeley at Pacific School of Religion in 1982. He was so modest and unassuming, but this kindly person somehow had this prophetic fire in him. Did it surprise you that this soft-spoken man who didn’t seem to want to offend anyone, would speak out so powerfully about nuclear weapons?
Douglass: Well, yes and no. He was someone who followed the gospel. I mean, that was basically why he visited us at Ground Zero, because he was the pastor and that was one of the things he was supposed to do. So it didn’t surprise me when he started speaking out against war and for peace. He knew exactly what he thought he should do and he wasn’t going to do any more to fulfill anybody’s expectations or make a big public thing, but he wasn’t going to do any less either. And that’s what got him in trouble, because the Vatican wanted him to do much less and he wasn’t willing to step back.
Spirit: The new biography gave me such a different picture of Hunthausen. This low-key, modest man was actually a star athlete in football, basketball and track. He rose to positions of leadership everywhere he worked, quickly becoming president of Carroll College, and was appointed bishop at a very young age. A talented whirlwind of a man was concealed under his kindly, soft-spoken exterior.
Douglass: He is pretty amazing, but I think that’s how he got there. He got put in those positions because he was a pastor and he cared about people.
A sense of the holy
Spirit: He protested nuclear weapons, and also spoke out for the rights of women in the church, the rights of gay people, and for economic justice. Jim Douglass told me that you can just look at the Beatitudes and that’s Raymond Hunthausen all the way down the line.
Douglass: Yeah, that’s true. Another thing that strikes me is that he’s so low key he doesn’t like to be called archbishop. He always wanted us to call him “Dutch” (his nickname). And we’re not big on clerical privilege, so if somebody calls me by my first name, I call them by their first name. But I could not bring myself to call him Dutch because he was the archbishop. So we compromised by calling him “The Arch.” [laughs]
But there was just a sense that he was a holy person — and is a holy person. And it wasn’t somehow fitting to start palling around and calling him by his first name, even though we had a good friendship and he came and had meals with us, and all that kind of stuff. So it wasn’t like we were kowtowing, but there is just a certain sense that this is a really special kind of person.
Spirit: Why did you feel he was special, other than being the archbishop of the Seattle diocese?
Douglass: Well, not because he was an archbishop, but because he was holy. He really stood for what he believed and he took a lot of flak for it. I didn’t know until I read the book how much flak he took. He was a person who had read the gospel and he tried to live it out, and succeeded. And he was in a position in the church where that meant a lot to a lot of people.
He stood for people who were disenfranchised, and he stood for people who were poor. He stood for an end to the arms race. He reached out to people. You know, he’s right in tune with Pope Francis, and it’s just sad that he’s not the bishop now.
But the thing that surfaced in the whole Vatican mess in Seattle, the thing that made it public, was over gay rights. There was an ordinance, an anti-discrimination ordinance, that was being proposed in Seattle, and at a staff meeting one day the archbishop said, “We’re going to support this ordinance for gay rights.” And the then-auxiliary bishop, Donald Wuerl, said, “No we’re not.”
Archbishop Hunthausen said, “Well, I’m the archbishop and this is my decision.” And Wuerl said, “No, that’s not right.” And they actually took the dispute to the Vatican and that’s where it became public, even to the archbishop, that there were certain places where he no longer had his authority.
And the thing that I respected him for about that was he didn’t allow it to be swept under the rug. He’s a very loyal person to the church and the Vatican, but he wasn’t going to let this just happen, so he did make a lot of it public. But not nearly as much of the very personal, painful stuff that we know now from the book.
Spirit: It is so incredibly sad to read how the Vatican mistreated him for speaking his conscience about nuclear weapons and gay rights. It was terribly cruel to him and he had to live with that for the rest of his life.
Douglass: I thought it was horrible. It’s definitely one of the absolute low points in the history of the church in the Northwest. And it’s an illustration of the way the Vatican had been handling its power by just crushing people, which is what they tried to do to him.
Spirit: Yes, they deliberately tried to crush his spirit and silence him.
Douglass: Yeah. I don’t think he ever totally recovered from that, no matter how much people loved him. It was just — it still is very painful.
Spirit: I don’t think it’s possible to fully recover from such a prolonged attack.
Douglass: But he was fully supported by the people and the priests. He gets standing ovations. As soon as his name is said, everybody’s on their feet, you know, because he was such a beloved figure.
Spirit: It was such a gift to the church that they had this incredible prophetic leader who was loved by his people. But look how the Vatican treated that gift.
Douglass: Yeah, look how they treated him. But what is really interesting to me is that (Donald) Wuerl was the guy initially sent to share power with Archbishop Hunthausen, and is the guy who we all couldn’t stand. I’ve always been prejudiced against him since then and probably would still not agree with him. But he is now the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and just after this new encyclical came out, he was on the news defending this new encyclical that talks about social justice and how it comes from decades of Catholic teaching. [laughs]
Spirit: Wuerl just talks out of both sides of his mouth, and he’s just a yes man to whoever the pope is. It was devastating for me to read in the book how much Hunthausen suffered because of the Vatican repression, and from people like Wuerl.
Douglass: The church was very tense in those days in Seattle. It was a very tense kind of situation. We were not heavily involved in all that because we were out doing Trident stuff, but people knew that Archbishop Hunthausen supported us, so if we went somewhere to give a talk in a parish or a Catholic school, people would show up with tape recorders and record every word we said and basically use it to get him.
Spirit: It’s very sad that this man who was so compassionate and so dedicated to peace would have to suffer all that.
The Peace Pagoda
Spirit: It was also tragic when Buddhist religious leaders were attacked simply for working for compassion and nonviolence at Ground Zero. Why did such a violent controversy erupt when they wanted to set up a Peace Pagoda at Ground Zero?
Douglass: When Jim and I first moved down to Ground Zero, we had a visit from a Japanese guy who was dressed in orange robes and had a drum that he beat all the time. He said his name was Suzuki and he was a monk in a Japanese Buddhist order called Nipponzan Myohoji.
Suzuki-shonin told us about his order which was founded by a monk named Nichidatsu Fujii who had actually lived with Gandhi and had made a vow during World War II that he would not fight and he would work for peace out of his Buddhist teaching.
Buddhist peacemakers at Ground Zero
Spirit: These are the Buddhist monks who march and pray for peace all over the country — at the Rocky Flats plant in Colorado, the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California, at anti-nuclear protests on the East Coast.
Douglass: They’re kind of Buddhist Franciscans in the sense that they own nothing and they walk all around the world, chanting this peace chant that’s supposed to be the sound that would be made if the world were in perfect harmony. When they come to a site of intense violence, they stay and pray and eventually they build peace pagodas there, which are sites for prayer and for intensifying the power of peace and nonviolence.
So Suzuki came to see us and he was very taken with our idea of a nonviolent center by the Trident base. He would come and chant, and then, in 1980, he called us a few days before the election of Ronald Reagan happened and said, “Fujii Guruji is in New York and I want to bring him to Ground Zero and he has 30 monks and nuns. Please be ready.” [laughs] [Editor: Nichidatsu Fujii, the founder of this Buddhist order, is also known as Guruji.]
So, you know, here’s Jim and me and at that point there weren’t a whole lot of people around, so we called a meeting and it just happened to be held on Election Day — that was a coincidence.
Spirit: A meeting about peace and nuclear disarmament on the day Reagan was elected as president.
Douglass: So Nichidatsu Fujii, who is sort of a Saint Francis, a modern saint, and these monks and nuns came to Ground Zero and there was a gathering of all kinds of people — Amish, Quaker, Catholic — just whoever we could pull together. We had a prayer meeting for peace and we told Guruji about Ground Zero and the struggles and the jail sentences people had been serving.
We showed him the land, and his response was that this should be the place where the first Peace Pagoda would be built in the United States because it was next to incomparable violence that hadn’t yet been done and it was the place of resistance and suffering. We were a little bit taken aback, you know, because when these guys get going, they’re kind of like a steamroller. They’re very focused and very intense in their energy.
But we decided that this was a good thing. We have a long, continuing relationship with the monks that began back when first Suzuki and then Guruji came to Ground Zero. So some supporters of the monks drew up plans for a pagoda that might be at Ground Zero. Then the monks came to start work and somebody donated to us the geodesic dome that we put up.
The Navy Spreads Misinformation
Spirit: How did the people who lived nearby respond to these plans?
Douglass: The neighborhood was very suspicious of this. First of all, a lot of the people in the neighborhood at that time in the 1980s were people who had served in the Second World War or had living memories of relatives and parents who had served, and these were Japanese monks coming. So that was a huge obstacle. And people didn’t really understand what the pagoda was. They formed an intense opposition against it.
One of their posters had school buses stacked up to the height they thought the pagoda would be, (and claimed) that we could spy into the base. That was the idea, that we could see over the trees from the top of the pagoda and watch what the base was doing. It was not very thoughtful, but very intense opposition.
We wound up having to apply for construction permits and had almost completed the process when it became a public issue. Then, after all the intense opposition, the county commissioners just denied the permits to build.
This was all happening at the same time as the first Trident was coming in, and I can’t remember what year that was.
Spirit: The USS Ohio came to the Bangor naval base in August 1982.
Douglass: OK, well it was all happening in that same sort of time frame. A lot of this happened within that year of 1982. And the most intense thing was that when we were getting ready to blockade the Trident submarine, there was huge hostility, and people were very suspicious and the Navy spread misinformation about what we were planning to do, which didn’t help. So people thought we were coming with weapons and that we were trying to blow it up and we were going to do all these very violent, scary things and the pagoda was seen as part of that.
Spirit: They actually thought violent, scary things would happen when a nonviolent group was protesting nuclear weapons and a Peace Pagoda was being planned by peaceful monks similar to St. Francis?
Douglass: Yeah, we had some public meetings and we were accused of everything from getting ready to blow up the Trident to urinating on peoples’ lawns. [laughs] You know, it’s just like throw everything — throw the kitchen sink. But the hostility was so huge that you could almost feel it in the air.
It was a very, very hostile situation. It was kind of like the Civil Rights Movement in the South. You knew that people were really hostile, and during this time the monks and the Ground Zero people were using the geodesic dome for worship. We had a beautiful golden Buddha that had been shipped from India to go on the pagoda when it was completed, and that was in our dome. And then we had a kind of modernistic metal crucifix that somebody had made and given to us and so that was in the dome.
We used the dome for prayer and meditation and the monks often slept there when the weather was bad. So in the middle of the night in May of 1982, somebody went into the dome with an ax and smashed up the Buddha and smashed up the crucifix and then poured gasoline and lit the thing on fire.
A Navy cover-up of arson
Spirit: Oh my God! They basically burned down a church.
Douglass: Yeah, and of course it was a total loss. The only thing left was the charred floor of the dome and some melted hunks of metal that were no longer recognizable, really. Luckily, nobody was sleeping in there so nobody was hurt, but of course the fire department came and the fire was put out.
We put out a statement “to those who burned our dome,” which talked about nonviolence and forgiveness, and said that we hoped we could come together and make peace. We leafleted that statement on the base and gave it to the papers. Their response was that we probably set the dome on fire ourselves to get publicity.
Long after this all happened, we found out through the Freedom of Information Act that it was two brothers who were Marines on the base, twin brothers, who had snuck into the Ground Zero dome and trashed it and burned it. And the base knew that. All the time they were saying we probably did it ourselves, they knew it! They shipped the guys back out to California two days later.
Spirit: Those two Marines were never even prosecuted for arson?
Douglass: Oh no, and never even admitted they did it until we got the Freedom of Information Act. I mean, the base obviously knew because they had it in these papers, but nobody else knew.
Spirit: That’s just incredible. We supposedly have freedom of speech and religion, but the Navy covered up for the arsonists who burned down the dome.
Douglass: Yeah, yeah. What happened, though, was I think that the action of theirs was kind of like lancing the boil. I think people began to realize what was the logical outcome of the way they were talking and acting, so it did kind of lessen the amount of violent rhetoric and hatred that was going around. And it may actually have been a help in the sense that the violence was kind of vented before the actual Trident demonstration happened.
A site of prayer
Spirit: So what did the Nipponzan Myohoji monks do at that point? Did they stay involved in the Trident campaign or give up on the Peace Pagoda?
Douglass: There was a big group of them there because they were doing construction. The rebar for the pagoda was all in place and they were actually ready to pour the concrete, if I’m remembering correctly. So once the permits were denied, all that had to stop and we decided that there wasn’t really any appeal at that point. We decided we would lay it to rest for the time being and just leave things where they were.
So we cleared off all the construction stuff, other than the form itself, and we took the remains of the Buddha and the crucifix and they were put into a rock base which is about 10 feet high, and on top of it, there is a stele (an upright memorial) that has the words, “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo,” put on it.
It’s a site of prayer the way a pagoda would be, but it’s much smaller and didn’t need any construction permits. So that was put up very soon, and it’s still there.
It’s still a site of prayer for people at Ground Zero and it’s always maintained by the Buddhists who still have a presence in the area. They have a temple on Bainbridge and a lot of people have come to pray and they do peace walks every August.
Spirit: What are the peace walks?
Douglass: They start out at various places, such as Austin and Hanford, and they walk across the state of Washington on foot, the whole way chanting for peace. And they stop and talk about the nuclear arms race and people will listen. So it’s a way of raising consciousness and a way of praying at the same time. They arrive at the base on whatever day has been picked, usually around Hiroshima and Nagasaki day as the action day. So that goes on every year.
[Editor: The 2015 Interfaith Peace Walk began on July 26, 2015, in Salem, Oregon, and finished several hundred miles later at Ground Zero on August 10. The peace walk was sponsored by the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist order, Veterans for Peace, the Catholic Workers of Tacoma and Seattle, the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, Indian People Organization for Change and the Interfaith Council of Bainbridge Island.]
Spirit: Jim told me that the Peace Pagoda was recently given the green light?
Douglass: We don’t know yet for sure and we have varying perspectives on how likely this is. Various people think differently about how likely this is to happen.
Spirit: What do we know for sure?
Douglass: Well, what has happened for sure is that there is a renewed proposal to try and build the Peace Pagoda at Ground Zero again, a much smaller one than the original proposal.
The Ground Zero community met and formed a committee and studied the issue and talked it through and decided that they did want to go through with building a pagoda at Ground Zero. But as far as I know, no one has yet applied for any kind of permit, which is, of course, where we ran into the problem before.
Read Part 3 of the Street Spirit Interview with Shelley Douglass in the October 2015 issue: Interweaving Peace and Women’s Rights
Read a profile of Shelley Douglass and the first two interview parts in Street Spirit, September 2015: Living for Peace in the Shadow of Death