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A peace and justice crossroads

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

When the Thomas Merton Center opened on Pittsburgh’s South Side in 1973, Molly Rush thought, “The [Vietnam] War will be over in a year or two. Surely I can do this job for a while.” Twenty-five years later, Rush is still on board, and the center has become the heart of peace and justice ministries in Western Pennsylvania.

In a real sense, the Merton Center is a microcosm of the creativity and passion that can be unleashed when people bond together to do good. It is a living example of what “social justice ministry” -- deeply Catholic but just as deeply ecumenical -- is at its best.

The idea for a peace center came in the 1970s in the context of local activism against the war in Vietnam. Suzanne Polen, one of the founders, recalls, “I had been reading Merton since 1955. When someone said there should be a peace center here and that we should name it after Merton, I lit up like a light bulb.”

Expense money and a small stipend for the staff came from groups such as the Pittsburgh Conference of Laity and the Catholic Interracial Council. Fr. Jack O’Malley persuaded 30 priests from the Association of Pittsburgh Priests to pledge $10 a month. Members of religious orders staffed the center along with Rush.

“When we opened our doors, we were an ecumenical center with strong Catholic underpinnings,” Rush said, “striving for inclusivity.” The religious community has remained integral to the center, in alliance with people from other churches or from no church. The common bond is a love of peace and justice.

The center became a gathering place for those who felt that the Catholic church was dragging its feet on justice work.

“We had to prod the church along. Dr. King was challenging us on the national level,” O’Malley said. “You never asked anyone about their faith, but you looked around and saw people so proud to stand up because they were finally acting on their faith.”

The names of some who have received the center’s Merton Award, given annually to a national or internationally known activist, speak to the center’s diversity: James Carroll, Dorothy Day, Dick Gregory, Joan Baez, Dom Helder Camara, Dick Hughes, Helen Caldicott, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, Fr. Henry Nouwen, Allan Boesak, Miguel D’Escoto, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, Marian Wright Edelman, Howard Zinn and Fr. Richard Rohr. The 1998 award went to Studs Terkel.

Central America focus

One focus for the center over the years has been the struggle for justice in Central America. In 1981, for example, Art and Melanie McDonald set out from New York City to find a place to begin their life together and ended up at the center. “Merton Center folks were having a picnic, and it just seemed right,” Art said.

Art, who had studied liberation theology in Peru, took a staff position focusing on Central American issues. He helped form a Religious Task Force on Central America to take part in the Sanctuary Movement.

“There was great clarity with this issue,” Melanie McDonald said. Art agreed. “Seventy thousand people had been killed in the Civil War in El Salvador. We realized our government was not listening to us and we had to do people-to-people democracy.”

When Art escorted a couple to Pittsburgh to give them sanctuary, he was deeply touched. “It was a profound moment, to realize what these people had gone through, and they were placing themselves in our hands.”

Polen remembers the center’s religious services surrounding the Sanctuary Movement. “Our activities were always ‘catholic,’ meaning inclusive, and drew together Christians, Jews, atheists and agnostics in a spirituality of compassion for the poor of Central America.”

By the end of 1984, the group had adopted San Isidro, Nicaragua, as a sister city, another people-to-people effort. With the aid of Global Links, tons of medical aid reached the people of San Isidro. Through Pastors for Peace, truckloads of clothing, pencils, paper and computers moved in a steady stream across the border. People from San Isidro came here, including the mayor, and many Pittsburghers used their vacation time to go to San Isidro.

Other ripples of hope sent out by the center have created some pretty big waves. In the fall of 1986, Michael Drohan -- an Irish priest of the Holy Ghost Order -- hooked up with the Merton Center to protest an appearance by Robert Duemling, a Reagan official responsible for aid to the Nicaraguan contras, at Duquesne University. Drohan was at the time research director of Duquesne’s Institute of World Concerns, dealing with worldwide hunger and poverty.

“The institute was inviting a representative of our government that had declared war on a poor country because they wanted to establish a socialist government. This contradicted the purpose of the institute. I objected and informed the president of the university, Rev. Donald Nesti, that I could not be a part of such a thing and would resign if the ambassador came.”

People from the Merton Center demonstrated, fasted and petitioned the university, but Duemling came, and Drohan resigned.

“When Duemling spoke, there were all these people from the Merton Center at the back of the hall, lined up with crosses bearing names of people who had been killed in Nicaragua. They asked questions that embarrassed Duemling greatly,” Drohan recalled.

Jules Lobel, a New Yorker who came to teach at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, brought a history of legal work on behalf of Nicaragua to his work at the center in the mid-1980s.

The Nicaraguan government had sued the United States in the World Court for mining its harbors. The U.S. government was censured by the court but chose to disregard the decision. Lobel then challenged the United States government in federal court for failing to comply with a World Court judgment.

One of Lobel’s plaintiffs in the challenge to the U.S. government was Ben Linder, a young man who worked at bringing hydroelectric power to small villages in Nicaragua. Linder was killed by the U.S.-backed contras, and Linder’s parents became Lobel’s clients in a suit against the American government for the murder of their son. Lobel worked on the lawsuit from his base at the Merton center.

Faith-based response

Lobel had more than a legal experience. “I was interested in the faith-based response to U.S. intervention in Central America, intellectually and personally. I had interacted with religious people there and thought the morality of the issue was an important question.”

Although Lobel has moved on to other activities, he looks back on the years at the center as the high point of his time in Pittsburgh. Lobel said, “The sense of community was really powerful!”

Fr. Don Fisher, who was a pastor at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Homewood, Pa., made his Central American and nuclear arms actions at the Merton Center a part of his ministry. “It was in the early days of my new pastorate,” Fisher said. “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.’ ”

Fisher thought he had a sense of balance about the issues, but at times he wondered. “I guess if you were a parishioner, you would be tired of hearing about it. There was an Irish lady who was hard of hearing, and she spoke very loudly. She sat in the fourth pew from the front. One Sunday, I started out on Nicaragua and she said, ‘Oh Chr-r-rist, not Nicar-r-ragua again!’ I heard her, and so did everyone else, so I stopped and said, ‘Yes, Margaret, Nicaragua again.’ ”

Another memory caused Fisher to grow serious. “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. It was powerful and made me cry. 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 [aerospace company], 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 ghostlike 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 and sentenced to five days in jail if we refused to pay the fine, and of course we refused. The time in jail was very liturgical and ritualistic in the broader sense,” he said.

Pittsburgh’s bishop at the time never said a word about these priests being carted off to jail. “I think down deep he 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,” Fisher said.

Music for the movement

Anne Feeney, folk-singer, balladeer and president of Pittsburgh Musicians Union Local 60-471, brought music to the movement. Feeney remembers when she produced a recording that made thousands of dollars for the Merton Center.

“It was during the Great Peace March in 1985. Someone called me and asked me if I would host a group of lesbian vocalists called Wild Women for Peace. I thought they were rank amateurs but when I heard them, they were wonderful! So I went around and borrowed $1,500, enough money up front to hire an engineer, record them and get the first 500 tapes made.”

“This engineer took his studio apart and went out to their campsite in Somerset. He was used to doing commercials for a radio station and now here he is with 28 lesbians in a collective who won’t make any decision until everyone has arrived at consensus! He thought it would be a 45-minute project, and it turned into several days work.”

Rush, a Merton Center founder, and Feeney went to Washington for the final days of the Peace March and thought they might sell a few tapes. Feeney was in awe of Rush. “I felt like I was with Mother Teresa,” she said. “We had all these people running through the crowd selling copies of the tapes. We sold 500 copies at $10. People were running up to us with T-shirts full of money. I was opening my trunk, and they were dumping handfuls of money into it. When Molly and I stopped to eat on the way home I said, ‘Maybe we ought to organize this money.’ I opened the trunk, and slammed the lid down again -- there was $5,000 in small bills!”

Helping the workers

Charlie McCollester, a professor of labor history and director of the National Education and Training Center at Indiana University, brought labor issues to the table at the Merton Center. “I first got involved around antinuclear issues, but Molly’s interest in, sacrifices for and cultivation of the Pittsburgh Labor movement let the Merton Center become a channel for many causes that helped workers, particularly in plant closings.”

McCollester remembered being with Rush at a historic event in Youngstown, Pa. “This was right after the opening shot of the whole Mon Valley disaster. The industry had closed down 11 mills in one day. Molly and I went to Youngstown in January 1980, at a request from Staughton Lynd, an activist and lawyer for steelworkers.”

“There was an extraordinary meeting in the union hall, 1000 people there, shoulder to shoulder. The crowd listened to those congressmen blathering on, and then Ed Mann, a union president, gave an incredible speech, quoting Frederick Douglas and saying, ‘We’re gonna show America that steelworkers got guts.’ The whole room stood up as one, the doors flew open and people started running down the hill. They left the politicians sitting there picking their noses.

“Molly and I went with them, down to the office building of U.S. Steel. The group burst through the office doors and told the secretaries politely that it would be better if they left. We went upstairs in this building, into the recreation room, -- the whole upper floor was a putting green, pool table and table tennis -- where the executives spent their afternoons or whatever. None of these workers knew that this existed. In the middle of all this was Ed Mann’s daughter breast-feeding her baby. We were so full of joy and happiness, and here was this beautiful scene, like a Madonna and child in the midst of the blue-collar folks, that struck a blow for their way of life. It was an amazing experience.”

Aiding the grape boycott

O’Malley’s most vivid memories are of the grape boycott, in the early ’70s. “Pittsburgh was solid in the grape boycott. The Merton Center was a base for financial support and provided the picket lines. Cesar Chavez would come into town and bring some of his workers. Luckily, St. Joe’s [in Manchester] had the space. Al and Elena Rojas, grape pickers, came to live with us, educate us and worship with us in the ’70s. We went to different grocery stores and the produce yards at the strip for vigils at 5 a.m. Al and Elena explained, from the pulpit, that the people who picked the food could not feed their families and had to move all over the country. They won the hearts and minds of people, and stayed with us for years.”

Joyce Rothermel, director of the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, found her life’s work -- hunger advocacy -- at the Merton Center. She came to Pittsburgh in the early 1970s to teach at a Catholic school as a member of the Order of Humility. She found the center through the Pittsburgh Sisters’ Council. By 1977, Rothermel had asked permission of her order to leave teaching and work as a staff person at the center.

She gravitated toward issues of funding human needs. “One of our board members, Norm Connors, was living with homeless men on the North Side, at the Duncan Porter House of Hospitality. They were concerned with where the homeless men were going to eat lunch. We pulled in some people from the Pittsburgh Sisters’ Council, and from Norm’s vision we created Jubilee Kitchen in 1978.”

Rothermel left her religious order in 1979 and continued to work on hunger issues as a staff person until 1985 when she became director of the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, an outgrowth of Jubilee Kitchen.

In addition to all the rest, the center provided a place to work on racial issues in the 1970s and 1980s. Jeff Richardson remembers those times.

“The center was one of the few places where there were meetings between blacks and whites in a focused way. The issue of apartheid was a unifying call. We held rallies, protests and marches and vigils, organized as Pittsburghers Against Apartheid. We demonstrated at foreign exchange shops downtown to protest the selling of South African coins. The police arrested a lot of people, a city councilman included, and threw them into trucks.”

The center has moved to the Garfield area of Pittsburgh. Rothermel thinks both times and people have changed.

“What is missing is a perceived major threat. There is no clarion call going out that says, ‘Whoa! This is bad!’ We’re lulled into having our own lives go along, with negative feelings about government, wanting less government, fewer programs. We’ve gotten into blaming the poor for their own problems, and we live in isolation from people around the globe, people paid low wages so that we can have cheap clothing.”

Commitment to being informed

Her hope still lies with the center. “Continuity lies in places like the center and people who make a commitment to being informed, though they don’t have time to be involved. They share their resources by sending checks to organizations working on advocacy.”

Don Fisher has another take on it. “I don’t want to return to the ‘good old days’ -- that speaks of getting older -- but one does want to see some waves of enthusiasm, coming over the beach, to give ourselves to something bigger than ourselves.

“I believe Vatican II was a great wave, washing clean everything, uprooting, like every other wave, and going back again into the sea. But it has not receded forever. It has been so long in coming back, but it will come back with greater force than ever. I’d be afraid what it might wash away.”

Rush looks toward the future. “My wish for the center, as we struggle once again to focus our energies on organizing to fight race and class injustices, is that we keep in mind that organizations and campaigns may come and go, but the most important aspect of peace and justice work is the building of relationships among issues, and, most important, among people.”

“The center has sometimes lost friends to misunderstanding, hurt feelings or disagreement. That, to me, is worse than losing on an issue, because it’s hard to recover that relationship and sense of trust, once broken.”

Then she smiled and said, “For me personally? I think I’ve been in the most interesting place in Pittsburgh. If anyone is working on real change, they are bound to come through that door.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999