For ten years, I had been a member of the Catholic peace and social justice organization, Pax Christi International. I did not belong because of a particularly energetic commitment to the organization's ideals. I belonged because a good friend, Phyllis, had helped start the state and local units. I wanted to give her the same support she had given me in my endeavors. So, I joined and I paid my dues.
And, that was pretty much that until she and Father Frank, another close friend of mine and, at that time, the pastor of a local parish, were asked by the State Department to go down to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to report on the Haitian refugee compound set up there. That was December 31, 1991.
No one asked me to go. Why should they? The local crew hardly knew I was alive. How could I expect my existence to be noted at higher levels? If death is the absence of activity, I qualified as dead. Nevertheless, I wanted to go. This was not a humanitarian urge.
My friends were going on what appeared to be an important adventure and I wanted to go with them. That time, I did not go. I did not say anything but I was not happy about it.
At a birthday party early the next year I took the next step in the journey of coincidences. It was there I found out who the speaker would be at the annual Pax Christi Florida spring retreat. I had never attended this retreat or even one of the fall conventions, but that changed when I heard that the scheduled speaker was Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J.—one of the famous Berrigan Brothers who, in the nineteen sixties, had been a part of the civil disobedience and anti-war demonstrations.
I wanted to see him. It had nothing to do with conversion or spirituality; it had to do with aesthetics. This man was history. I wanted to see him and this might be my only opportunity. I was prepared to observe him that weekend—from a distance. I had no intention of being interfered with, let alone touched. Even now, I recall only a couple of incidents from that encounter.
The first involved a friend, Ted, who lived in Washington, D.C. and was HIV-positive. Ted and I had grown up together and shared an interest in science and, despite time and distance, remained close friends. Back in 1987, Ted had asked me to assume his Power of Attorney and to be his executrix in case of incapacitating illness or death.
Over the years, Ted had become estranged from the Catholic Church but he wanted to find some way to reestablish his connection. Each person’s relationship with God is unique. I had no idea how to approach another’s passion. At one of the retreat sessions, Father Berrigan said he worked with AIDS patients. So, I decided to speak with him during one of the breaks. I thought he might know someone in the D.C. area who would visit Ted and help him through this faith crisis. What I had perceived as a slightly aloof, somewhat distant man focused in on me tightly and gave me specific and pointed assistance and a personal encouragement in what was still ahead of me.
A little more than a year later, it would be Father Berrigan who held Ted tenderly in his arms and prayed with him on the afternoon before his death. He was with Ted while I frantically fought my way through cancelled flights and closed airports to get to his bedside. Ted died peacefully at 3:20 a.m. the next morning. This priest was the piece of history I went to view that spring of 1992. This history became my history that weekend.
The other thing I recall was a seven word phrase—Father Berrigan stated: “Do the good in front of you.” I do not know exactly when he spoke it, but it provided a stay, a mooring that snagged my life, swung it about, and changed everything.
Until that time, as far as I could see, picket lines, letters to the editor, protests of one kind or another never seemed to accomplish much, simply wasted effort. If I could have seen balance between effort and result, my strained logic would have been mollified. My German background demanded that activity be justified—it was a basic element in my education. No one had ever released me from the burden of proven value.
Then, this Jesuit, every bit as smart and rigorous as I was, said: “Do the good in front of you.” He went on to explain it was not necessary to be concerned about results. They were not our responsibility. I heard echoes of T.S. Eliot: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” I knew I could live with that. Suddenly, I was free and the stage was set.