Don Fisher’s Reflections on Civil Disobedience

by Bette McDevitt

Father Don Fisher, a founding member of the Merton Center, had a habit of taking long walks along Braddock Avenue in East Hills to prepare the sermons for his congregation at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament. As he did that one day after the Plowshares Eight, including Molly Rush, hammered on the nose cones of two warheads, poured blood on documents and prayed for peace at a General Electric facility in King of Prussia, he felt that he was being called to participate in civil disobedience. “Not everyone feels they need to do it, but I did.” Fisher remembers that he was frightened before the first time, at the White House. “I had a long time admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day. They influenced me and taught me much about nonviolence and civil disobedience.

“Personally doing non-violent civil-disobedience acts, however, was another matter altogether. Fear held me back- fear of being in jail, fear of being confined in a cell, even fear of being handcuffed. The fear of handcuffs went back to early childhood when, in the midst of ordinary ‘rough-housing’ with siblings and friends, I always experienced a special disdain for being held down and not being able to move my arms.

“But after that first time, civil disobedience freed me to think about doing it again, and to think of the reasons we would be doing it.”

Fisher took part in civil disobedience several times in Pittsburgh.

“I remember a rally in Trinity Episcopal Church. There was a ‘die-in’ during the liturgy, to bring to mind the horrors of nuclear war. People were falling all over the aisles, writhing in pain, and yelling for their children. The church was packed. It was powerful and it made me cry. It touched me so much, that when I had the opportunity to be part of a ‘die-in’ to mark the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima, in August of 1985, at Rockwell, I did it. We got all dressed up in white faces and black outfits, and the police were marshaled in front of the door. It was during the week and there were plenty of people there. Everybody was watching from the windows above. There was somber music and people in ghost-like outfits dropped to the ground. We kept slithering toward the front door and the police line kept moving back. We just kept coming. All I could see was shoes and legs. We were on the ground crawling around like snakes. We managed to get in the front door. It was a powerful demonstration for which we were arrested. We were sentenced to five days in jail if we refused to pay the fine, and, of course, we refused to pay the fine. Women went to the East End, and the men went to the downtown county jail and then were transferred to Kittanning, where we spent five days. It was very liturgical and ritualistic in the broader sense.”

Fisher always told his congregation about the actions. “I welcomed those experiences as opportunities to preach and teach. I wanted to tell them what I was doing and why, saying, ‘This is who I am.’ You could talk about anything in that parish after a while.”

Fisher recalled that Bishop Leonard never said a word about these priests being carted off to jail.” I think down deeply they had a sense of pride that we were involved, and what were they going to do anyway? Clearly, we were on the right side of history.”

“It was, to a great extent,” Fisher said, “the example of Molly Rush, Phllip and Daniel Berrigan and The Plowshares Eight that encouraged me in the early 80’s to face some of these fears head-on. When I did they began to lose some of their power over me. That was a good lesson to me back then. I’m very grateful. I am grateful, too, that the lesson continues to teach me.”

Bette McDevitt is a member of the Merton Center editorial collective.

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