March 6, 2017
By Molly Rush
In 1970, the horrors of the Vietnam War and the Vatican II Council had inspired many Catholics to work for civil rights and peace. CEASE, Catholics for an End to Slaughter and Exploitation, was formed to protest the war.
It soon became evident that there was a need for a full-time organization to support these and other issues: the grape boycott by the United Farmworkers Union, poverty, human and welfare rights, Vibrations II, a prisoner visitation group, Earth Day events and actions regarding housing, education, and health care.
In a statement entitled We Resist, “We the undersigned publicly declare we will withhold [federal] taxes of 10% on phone bills and, for some, to resist war taxes on income.”
We set about raising funds for an office and staff. Among the donors were 44 priests who pledged monthly donations of $5 to $20. Thirty priests trained as military draft counselors.
We chose our name after the Trappist monk and celebrated writer, Thomas Merton. He was a strong opponent of war, nuclear weapons and racism. His spirituality and writings inspired millions. “Then share your peace with everyone so everyone will be in peace.”
On March 12, 1972, thanks to the brilliant organizing of the first Director, Larry Kessler, we opened our office at 1213 East Carson St., Southside. Soon sisters from three religious communities joined as full-time staff members. The Urban League provided a receptionist.
The front of the remodeled building housed a third-world gift shop with a display window. There was new office furniture and a meeting table and chairs, all provided by our landlord, Charlie Samaha. There was also a private office that was also used for counseling sessions. Downstairs was space large enough to accommodate training sessions and larger meetings and a copy machine..
Larry Kessler wrote: “Our hope is that this center, its programs and services and above all the community it sponsors, will help in some way to build a world that many have dreamed about and many have died for.”
In February, The NewPeople, our monthly newsletter, quoted Isaiah, “…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares.” The lead story in April was the mistrial of the Harrisburg 8, which included Fr. Philip Berrigan, Sister Elizabeth McAlister and Eqbal Ahmad. The FBI and its Director J. Edgar Hoover ludicrously accused the eight of a conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up the heating pipes beneath Washington DC. Ahmad declared, “We shall be out on the streets as fast as we can to continue our anti-war demonstrations.”
A number of TMC members went to Harrisburg during the trial and we returned with the same determination.
Remember that just before the 1968 election, fearing Lyndon B. Johnson would be re-elected, Richard Nixon had ordered that a “monkey wrench” be used to undermine the peace talks then underway.[New York Times 2-2-17]. He won the election and escalated the war. In 1972 Nixon was re-elected President, promising “peace with honor.” The war finally ended disastrously in 1975.
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese died from napalm dropped from U.S. planes, and up to three million civilians died from Agent Orange, which continues to sicken and kill U.S. veterans. (My husband Bill’s cousin John, a draftee, just died, a victim of this terrible weapon.)
Larry Kessler was in Washington for the 1973 Counter-Inaugural protest. He wrote, “No man, certainly, can strip me of my freedom and humanity. Resistance is the one way, perhaps the only way, to keep a grasp on one’s humanity. Resistance for me means continuing to work for the kind of society and world I dream of….and seeing things that never were and continue to say why not.” Good words for the situation we now find ourselves in.
Many CEASE members were among the millions who protested the war. In January 1972, along with students from Pgh. Theological Seminary, they were among 600 delegates who attended the Ecumenical Witness in Kansas City.
Civil rights veteran Andrew Young spoke on “Racism and the War.” Dom Helder Camara, bishop of Recife Brazil, and later a Merton awardee, said, “A small minority in every country are concerned with justice.”
Throughout our forty-five years, the Center has addressed and supported many of these issues and others, such as labor struggles, minimum wage [which Nixon opposed], third world poverty, U.S. military interventions.
Throughout, it has been the members, their financial support and volunteering that has sustained the Center through good times and bad.
The challenges we now face require that our membership grow and donations increase. My own hope is that we’ll be able to increase our staffing, outreach and energetic volunteers, who will build that resistance in concert with the many thousands who have actively responded to today’s crises.
Molly Rush is co-founder and board member of the Thomas Merton Center