Growing Up Berrigan: Portrait of a family of peacemakers
How could it have been otherwise? Frida Berrigan—the daughter of Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister and the niece of the peace activist Daniel J. Berrigan, S.J.—grew up in a community devoted to peacemaking and nonviolence. She, now 30-something, has followed in the family footsteps.
Frida’s family was unusual. Her father, a World War II veteran, had been deeply affected by the violence of war. On leaving the Army, Philip Berrigan entered a Josephite seminary, was ordained to the priesthood in 1955 and became active in the civil rights movement. Two decades later, he left the priesthood and married Elizabeth McAlister, a former nun. In Baltimore, the couple founded Jonah House, a live-in community of people committed to peace and nonviolence.
“The first Gulf War began when I was in high school,” Frida told me in a recent conversation. She explained that she, along with her younger brother and sister, often accompanied their parents on peace demonstrations in Washington. “At first I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable at the demonstrations as a youngster,” she said. That changed because everybody at Jonah House took part in the demonstrations. “So we went, too, although there were times when I wished I could go to Washington just as a tourist.”
As Frida grew up, she said she was “happy at some demonstrations simply to be part of something—not in stopping the war, but standing among people who felt they had a role and were not a number only.” Eventually she realized, “This is where I want my life to be”—in opposing war and working for peace at all levels. As a young adult, she became increasingly active in planning the demonstrations. “You realize you’ll never organize the one demonstration that will change the world, but it’s important to be part of a movement that will raise the issues involved and provide a space for outrage at the destructiveness of war.”
I asked Frida if she felt that her parents had passed on their values to her and her siblings. “My mother and father were very deliberately giving us a wisdom and a perspective and spending time with us as loving parents,” she said. “They never pretended that a life like theirs would be easy, but they made it clear that this was their life’s work and that even as children, it was our work too.” Yet there was never any sense of the children being forced into it. “At heart, my parents were happy, whole people who were always truthful with us. My sister and brother have tried to be happy too, without replicating our parents’ lives.”
Life at Jonah House
The Jonah House community of eight to 15 people was established on what Frida called “three pillars”: prayer, work and peaceful antiwar demonstrations. “There was a common purse and everyone contributed to it by painting houses—indoors in the winter, outdoors in the summer. We gleaned food from wholesale markets, finding leftovers that otherwise would have been thrown away. We also did some Dumpster diving. We shared the food with neighbors, because an element of service and sharing was part of what we were doing in the widest sense.”
How did she and her siblings respond to a lack of middle-class, material comforts? “At certain points, we wanted things like nice clothes, so we did go through a little acquisitiveness. But our school friends were as poor or poorer than we were, and in time we saw the culture for what it was, trying to get its claws into us.”
The Bible was an important part of community life and family life. “We had regular Bible study with Dad. And whenever we had to go somewhere in the car, even if it was only across town in Baltimore, he’d take a Bible from the glove compartment and say, ‘Pick out a reading.’” That helped Frida realize that he too, even as a former priest, was still learning. These days she admits that it is an effort to read the Bible on her own: “For a long time, I just didn’t do it but fell back instead on those early sessions with my father.” She finds it helpful to work through the texts with others, usually at the Maryhouse Catholic Worker in New York City, where she was living at the time of this interview. She has since moved to Connecticut.
As a youngster, Frida was influenced by the stories of other activists, like the labor organizer Mother Jones. “Mother Jones was so alive, such a resister,” Frida told me. She read about Oscar Romero, Gandhi and Martin Luther King—all strong influences—and understood that her own parents were already part of history because of their outspoken resistance to war, which resulted in periods of incarceration.
“When we were in elementary school, Dad handed us a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It seemed strange to come to the section that talked about our own parents.” Frida said schoolmates “thought it odd that we would be reading something besides what was assigned.” She recalled the compassion of her junior high school teachers, “especially when our mother was in prison for her antinuclear activities.”
As much as possible, Frida’s mother and father tried to ensure that one parent would be at home with the children if the other was behind bars. Only once—for two months—were both parents incarcerated. The children were very young then. But when the separations are taken as a whole, they add up; Frida’s parents were separated either from each other or from their children for 11 years.
Life at Jonah House was shared with people of various ages and from various backgrounds, some of them wealthy. “Many risked a lot in coming to stay with us, because it often meant breaking with their own family and rejecting their family’s values in terms of lifestyle and political views on war,” said Frida. “That was a positive affirmation for me of what Jonah House was doing.”
Frida said her mother helped the children “keep a sense of family life” within the Jonah House community. “We were always confident that she was our mom and never felt in competition for her attention with others in the community. It was only later that I realized what a scholar and teacher my mother was—as she was always very modest about her gifts.” As a Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, Elizabeth McAlister had taught art history at Marymount College in Manhattan.
Prayers and Vigils
“‘Make me an instrument of your peace’ is cycling through my head constantly,” said Frida, referring to the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, “especially when I feel scattered or nervous.” At the Maryhouse Catholic Worker in New York she found strength in praying evening prayer with the staff and residents. Those present sit around a table near the kitchen, pray the psalms together antiphonally and add petitions for people struggling with particular challenges. “That is a time of genuine communal prayer,” she said.
But one of the most traditional of Catholic prayers came to her late. “It was not until I went to Cuba in 2005, as part of the Witness Against Torture action, that I learned the rosary, which is strange in that my parents were a former priest and a former nun. Discovering the rosary is something I am grateful for.” Frida identifies with Mary, especially her Magnificat, with its theme of lifting up the lowly and bringing down the mighty. During the fasts and vigils in front of the military base at Guantánamo, Frida and the others present regularly recited the rosary.
In the last three years for 10 days in January, Frida and the group have fasted, prayed and made vigil near the White House as well, as a protest against the Obama administration’s going back on its promise to close Guantánamo. “The vigil each day begins with a Bible reading, and someone in the group offers a prayer.... We also read from a book of poems written by the Guantánamo prisoners themselves.” They stand in the cold for two hours at a time, wearing orange jumpsuits like those worn at Guantánamo. “I try to go within myself and be in dialogue with the prisoners, lifting up their story to God. We try to be receptive to the people passing by on the sidewalk, who occasionally stop to ask questions about the demonstration’s meaning.”
While living at Maryhouse, Frida has been working at the nearby War Resisters League. The two groups have similarities. “There’s an anarchical thread in both through their rejection of all war and violence, along with the simple lifestyle embraced by the two groups,” she said. “It shows a shared commitment to the concept of downward mobility, that represents living close to the margins.”
Frida’s current life marks a personal shift. Previously, she had held a full-time job at the World Policy Institute, an organization that focuses on arms issues. “There I got a valuable education on those issues,” she said. But she knew that a regular job of that sort was not for her. “I wanted time to work with my hands, doing the basic Maryhouse jobs of cleaning and washing dishes and just ‘being on the house’ for a six-hour daily shift”—to attend to the needs of the many older and often troubled people who stop by for clothes, food or just to talk.
Frida’s brother, Jerry, has followed in his parents’ footsteps, too. Married and living in East Kalamazoo, Mich., he and his wife started a Catholic Worker house three years ago, called Peace House. But the house does not focus on homeless people. “They see their mission as working with neighborhood children from poor families,” Frida said. Her youngest sibling, Kate, lives in Oakland, Calif., works with disabled people and organizes for the abolition of prisons. Kate is also studying to be a physical therapist.
As adults, all three Berrigan children show the influence of their parents’ values, which might be said to be in keeping with those of the Gospel. Each of the siblings lives them out in his or her own way.