The Wisdom from Long Lives of Nonviolent Struggle: Interviews with the National Council of Elders, part I, Fr. Paul Mayer
Part 1 of a series: Father Paul Mayer
Last year, veteran leaders of many nonviolent social change movements came together to form the National Council of Elders in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. These illustrious and august souls arrived at Occupy encampments nation-wide to share the energy and wisdom they have developed through decades of leadership in the civil rights, women’s, peace, environmental, LGBTQ, immigrant justice, and labor rights movements. This September in Greensboro, North Carolina, the National Council of Elders declared its formal and enduring existence in order to “share the torch of freedom, justice, peace, and non-violent action with those who have risen anew in the 21st century.”
In the interest of promoting the transmission of the National Council of Elders’ wisdom, experience, and savvy, I will be doing a blog series of short interviews with various individuals.
The first interviewee is Father Paul Mayer. I first had the privilege of spending good time with this spry octogenarian when we shared a jail cell together, along with other clergy and laity, after an Occupy Faith action protesting state cuts to homeless services. Fr. Paul keeps a blog, and writes regularly for the Huffington Post. The interview is in two parts, the second of which will be posted next month. [Photo: Byron Smith. Fr. Paul Mayer’s arrest during Occupy’s attempt to claim an empty lot managed by Trinity Church, Wall Street, December 17, 2011.]
Nathaniel: My hope with these interviews is to help as I can with the transmission of experience and spirit from one generation of social change leaders to the other. So if you could first say a bit about where you come from and how it ended up, as you said when we were in the 7th Precinct together, that you left the monastery and joined the revolution. Could say something about how you entered the religious life and how that led to a political life as well?
Fr. Paul: I’m very conscious of looking back at my life – I just finished writing my memoirs, which I titled Wrestling with Angels: A Spiritual Memoir of a Political Life. As a matter of fact I just rewrote the introduction to reflect my work with Occupy Wall Street. I’m hoping for this memoir to be, if not a handbook, at least a guide, an inspiration, a resource to young people so they could learn both from my achievements and from my mistakes, betrayals – my shadow side, if you will.
My life, without going into too much detail, has been a complex life. Right to the beginning, because that had a great impact: I’m Jewish, and I was born in Nazi Germany. Most of my relatives died in concentration camps, but my parents and my brother and I, by the grace of God, escaped just literally at the last moment, 1938, and we moved to New York.
At the age of 16 I drove them crazy, my poor parents, by becoming a Catholic. Then I made it even worse at the age of 18 by becoming a monk. Even while I was in the monastery I was always drawn to trying to relieve human suffering and had an instinctive drive for justice, to try to make things right in the world. In retrospect I see that it had a lot to do with my own childhood, the trauma – I was six years old, but even as a small child I remember. So when I was a monk, during my 18 years of monastic life, and when I was ordained as a priest (I’ve been a priest now for 53 years) I was always sort of on the cutting edge of different ideas. While I was there Dr. King sent out the call during the Selma voting rights campaign for white religious people to come down. Somehow by some miracle I was allowed to go, because my abbott didn’t approve of me in general – my political and theological and monastic views were probably a little too advanced – I made him nervous. But I and the only African American monk at the monastery went down together to Selma and spent some time with Dr. King and the march to Montgomery. That was a turning point in the movement, and it was a turning point in my life. It transformed me. I was there as a wet-behind-the-ears young priest, spending most of my times behind cloister walls, and suddenly I was transported to the midst of the civil rights movement. It was quite a shock and awakening. When I came back I was never the same. I felt that this was the gospel and this is what needed to be preached.
Also at that time I met Fr. Daniel Berrigan and we begame good friends. As far as I could I was drawn into the anti-war movement. And later, through a series of circumstances, I was invited down to Latin America. I was invited by a project named San Miguelito, one of the first Communidades de Base, you know, the Base Communities. It was not yet Liberation Theology, just before that really came together. This was an experiment in Christian community in Panama and somehow we helped sow the seeds. That was also a transformational experience being there. It was really a brilliant place, wonderful place. That had a great impact.
The next stage was that I met a nun while I was down there and we fell in love. We got married. I took the radical stance of telling my superiors that I didn’t think celibacy was the burning issue of the time. Justice for the poor, world peace: that was my calling. So I continued as a married priest within the Catholic Church, which of course they didn’t approve of.
N: They didn’t kick you out?
Fr. Paul: Not exactly … well it never was quite clear whether they were going to excommunicate me or not. But I had to do it on my own. So I’ve been doing that now for 30, 40 years.
When I came back it was just after the Catonsville 9 action, where they poured the blood over the 1A files at the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, and burnt them with homemade napalm. That happened while I was in Panama; otherwise I’d have been part of that. When I came back they asked to be the coordinator for the defense committee – there was going to be a big dramatic trial. So I joined the peace movement – unfamiliar territory. We planned other actions like that in a campaign of 100, 200 of such actions spread across the country. We considered them nonviolent actions. So I very much became part of the peace movement.
N: What all did those actions entail?
Fr. Paul: They were all different, but it was basically going into draft boards and destroying the files. At that time, before they got computerized, that was a way to clog up the wheels of the war machine in Indochina. Often, we found, they didn’t have replacements. There were actions like that all around the country – the Milwaukee 14, the DC 9 – all over. That was a whole movement largely of Catholics, but not exclusively so, largely of priests and nuns, but not exclusively so. All that was educating me and moving me forward – how to deal with the law, how to deal with the FBI, etc.
Father Daniel Berrigan went underground, and I played a large role in the underground activities. He didn’t turn himself in but still appeared at dramatic moments to proclaim the truth of the gospel and speak against the war. Then he would disappear again. We staged a lot of things like that. So I had been involved in the anti-war movement, as a leader you might say, for many years.
And then I became involved in the environmental movement because I decided the critical issue of the moment is really climate change. Most of the peace movement and the Left were really not addressing it. At first I helped found something called the Climate Crisis Coalition, which brought in different sectors. And most recently I’ve been involved in IMAC, the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate Change.
I always was attracted to working with young people. Even during the anti-war days there was something called Mayday, which was something that the more traditional people from the traditional peace groups considered a little too radical. But I always appreciated them. You know, it was the time of the Chicago 8 – Abby Hoffman, people like that. I felt they had a certain verve, a certain counter-cultural energy that was called for – not just the usual tired left politics. I always had that connection with young people.
Then, in one of the great experiences of my life, I got to be the founder of something called Children of War. We brought together teenage youth from war zones, about 40 different conflict zones, and we helped them to become leaders and role models for other youth. Young people from 14 to 19, all the way from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Cambodia, South Africa, Israel, Palestine, on and on. What happened there was that I really became impressed with the power of youth leadership. Young people are not just the problems, as they’re often regarded. They’re a great asset. It was a brilliant project, really wonderful. We took the country by storm. They came over; they broke up into small groups and traveled to schools, churches, synagogues. Tremendous media coverage. We began with a front-page story in The New York Times with Archbishop Tutu. It was just that these young people were irresistible when they told their stories.
All of this helped to enlighten me about the role of young people.
So when Occupy Wall Street came along I was immediately attracted to it. I’d just go down to Zuccotti Park and wander around. I felt there should be some sign of support from older people and I figured I’d put on my collar to let them know that people of faith were there to support. Of course I met some of the Occupy Chaplains there, like yourself, and then Occupy Faith came along and I became part of that.
So that’s probably enough of my checkered past.
Stay tuned for the the continuation of this interview with Father Paul Mayer, in which he shares the broad lessons he has learned from that checkered past, his three pillars of successful nonviolent social justice movements.