Have Faith: Courage and conviction

There are lessons to be learned from those who take action against injustice.

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Jerry Berrigan, right, is arrested on March 9, 2008, while protesting the Iraq war in Syracuse. —Mike Greenlar

Every other week, Connie Berry reports on the news, events, and people at Martha’s Vineyard’s various places of worship.

I got to thinking the other day about how much I’ve always enjoyed the company of older folks. It feels like I might be able to soak up some of their wisdom or their calm, which only seems to come with age and experience.

This led to me thinking about my friend Mary Maples, who died at age 87 a few months after we moved to Martha’s Vineyard in September 2012. Mary worked in the Head Start program for years, and by the time I met her, she was in her mid-70s and working as a consultant. I loved listening to her stories about Catholic activism and civil disobedience. Mary was a strong Roman Catholic social justice activist, and enjoyed telling stories about what it was like back in the 1960s and ’70s.

Syracuse was home to some hardcore Catholic activists, namely the Berrigans. Mary had great stories about how friends helped hide Father Daniel Berrigan when the police were looking for him after he and his brother Philip were convicted for burning those draft files in Catonsville, Md., in protest of the war in Vietnam. The idea that someone could act so willingly and so confidently on their beliefs was something I admired immensely.

I was fortunate to meet three Berrigan brothers, Jerry, Dan, and Phil. They were in their 70s and 80s when I met them through my work at the Catholic newspaper.

They’re all gone now; the last of them, Father Dan Berrigan, died in 2016. Philip died of cancer in 2002, and Jerry died in 2015 in Syracuse in the same house he had lived in with his wife for close to 60 years. He was 95.

The last time I interviewed Jerry was on the occasion of his 90th birthday. I had watched him get arrested probably a dozen times by then. Covering protests and watching activists who had become my friends get arrested and loaded into police wagons always made me feel a little uneasy, but proud of them at the same time. They lived out their convictions; they walked the walk. One time in particular stands out for me. I was covering a protest just outside Syracuse and having a lovely conversation with Jerry about my son, Danny. I turned away briefly, my attention drawn elsewhere for just a second. When I turned back to face Jerry, he wasn’t there. All I could see was his thin body shimmying under the fence at the Air National Guard Base.

That last time I wrote about him, Jerry was settled and at peace with himself. He’d lived a long and interesting life, and he knew it. Jerry would almost always cite his mother, Frieda Berrigan, as the person who showed him how to live out the Gospel. During the Depression, he said, his mother often fed strangers who came to their door looking for something to eat. Her hospitality and service weren’t lost on her sons.

Once Frieda was asked how she felt about her sons’ activism and their arrests. She responded by saying that they had not broken God’s laws.

I’ve been thinking about the Berrigan brothers a lot lately, especially considering all that is going on around us. I stood near Jerry at least a few times when he was arrested, under the auspices of being a reporter, but I was with him in solidarity too, because I felt the same way he did. That Jesus wouldn’t stand by while injustices were carried out, that he’d do something. For someone like Jerry, who lived his convictions, he couldn’t not do something.

The photograph that comes with this column was actually a postcard Jerry sent me in April 2011; he looks like he’s wearing a slight smile in those plastic handcuffs. The photo was taken in 2008 during a protest of the war in Iraq. Jerry was arrested for civil disobedience so many times that he’d lost count.

As Jerry got older, he seemed to get quieter. When I’d first met him, he sometimes performed an understated standup comedy routine at events like the Dorothy Day dinner or a fundraiser for Unity Acres, a homeless ministry.

He was always written about as the “lesser known” of the Berrigan brothers. For me, Jerry was the better known. He was an English composition professor in Syracuse for decades, and when I reread the cards and notes he sent me over the years, I’m in awe of the way he wrote. His brothers authored many books, while Jerry taught others how to write.

During that last interview, he told me he prayed all day long, to himself, throughout each day. Jerry said he had read someplace in the Gospels that “a wise man is a quiet man,” and he decided to take that advice.

The stories Jerry told me expressed his love for his brothers, his wife, his children, his mother, and his faith. “I take the promise of nonviolence seriously, as any contributor to turning the world to a Christian way would,” Jerry told me in that interview. “The lesson learned is the need to treat everyone lovingly and equally. Everyone deserves that by reason of their humanity, by reason of their being a child of God.”

Jerry believed doing nothing while injustice was going on meant you were OK with it. And he and his brothers were never OK with it. I can’t help but wonder what they would do today.

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The next meeting of the Neighborhood Convention is Tuesday, March 7, at 11 am at the Federated Church, 45 South Summer Street, in Edgartown. The Rev. Sharon Eckhardt will conduct the worship service, and the program, presented by Ann Smith and Nancy Blank, is titled “Featherstone for the Arts and for Fun.” Bring a bag lunch; dessert and beverages will be provided. For more information, call Mary-Jean Miner at 508-696-8589.

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The First Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven hosts its annual St. Patrick’s Day corned beef and cabbage dinner on Saturday, March 11, at 6 pm. It’s a full-on feast with corned beef, cabbage, Irish soda bread, potatoes, carrots, and your choice of desserts and beverages. Tickets and advance reservations can be made by calling 508-693-1539, or you can purchase a ticket at the door.

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Monday, March 6, the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center hosts “Climate Progress in an Alternative-Facts Era” at 7:15 pm. Phil Duffy, a senior advisor and policy analyst in the Obama administration, and State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, along with Richard Andre, president and founding director of Vineyard Power, will be presenting. The event is sponsored by the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) and the MVHC Social Action Committee.

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The Chilmark Church adult study group will read and discuss “Rebirthing God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings” by John Philip Newell

on the Sundays during Lent. The group meets for study and conversation at 10:15 am on Sunday mornings following worship, which occurs from 9 to 10 am.

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Beginning Sunday, March 5, Jim Norton will lead a six-week Lenten book discussion at 9 am at Grace Church in Vineyard Haven. The discussion falls between the two Sunday services, 8 am and 10 am. The three works Mr. Norton cites address the world today, engulfed in disorder, suffering, violence, and fear, he writes in a press release: “The selection of materials for this discussion program has also been informed by the recent, unexpected death of Father Brian Murdoch, who would describe himself as called home by God, which has left us disappointed, desolate, and confused.”

The readings he will explore for Lent are the Book of Job in the Bible and a modern commentary on Job by Carl Jung, his “Answer to Job.” To add to these, Mr. Norton has chosen an essay that brings the two together with illustrations of the Book of Job by the English artist William Blake. The article is titled “Jung, William Blake, and Our Answer to Job,” by David Hiles, a professor at De Montfort University.

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Don’t forget, during Lent, St. Augustine’s Church offers Stations of the Cross on Fridays at 6 pm.

If you have news for Have Faith, email it to connie@mvtimes.com.