Applications for a troubled time
What happens when two men who knew Daniel Berrigan, William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne are invited to speak about their experiences with and reminiscences of those authors and activists?
You get Jim Reale and Methodist pastor Bill Wylie-Kellermann in the Island Free Library’s meeting room, sharing their lives and journeys with a room full of island folk, including some who knew the trio and many others who were old enough to remember the times they lived and wrote on Block Island.
Library Director Kristin Baumann joked, “It’s great that we filled this room; it’s a terrible problem to have.” The talk on Sept. 12 was part of the library’s series of public programs accompanying the exhibition of “Seeking Shelter from the Storm: Daniel Berrigan, William Stringfellow and Block Island,” which runs until Tuesday, Oct. 9 at the Island Free Library.
Reale began by noting that the day before the event was the sixteenth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. He called those attacks “a national scar” on America, carried out by terrorists “who had a plan, who had a rationale” for their actions, but who “had no regard for the lives” they destroyed. He asked for a moment of silence.
Then Reale applied the the same language, the same litany, to the United States’ war in Iraq that followed the 2001 attacks. “Our military leaders had a plan, they had a rationale … [they killed civilians] because the lives of the innocent were irrelevant to their plan.” And he asked again for a moment of silence, for the people of Iraq.
That correspondence between the past and the present was indicative of the tone and content of the evening, as the speakers reflected on the time they shared with Berrigan and Stringfellow, and sought to apply the spirit of their activism to the current state of the world.
Reale told the audience that he first came to Block Island in 1970; he moved to the island year-round in 1979. In 1984, he agreed to move in with William Stringfellow as his caregiver. Stringfellow died in the spring of 1985.
On how his friendship with Berrigan began, Reale quoted a letter the theologian Thomas Merton wrote to activist Jim Forest in 1966: “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
“I’m a 25-year old laborer,” Reale said. “For some reason, this man (Daniel Berrigan) would take an interest in me. It was really my radical formation of the gospel as more than reading (scripture) in church. Each one of these men had a relationship with the scripture, with Jesus.”
That spiritual formation took Reale to a Catholic intentional community in Baltimore from 1988 to 1992, and then to El Salvador doing what he called “accompaniment work”: A white North American person going around with a Salvadoran person who is under a threat of death. The idea was that the enemies of the person the American was accompanying would be less likely to act with a witness present.
The theme of witnesses came up again, when Reale told the audience that he had asked Daniel Berrigan why he had come to Block Island, when he had created a network of safe houses around the country, allowing him to move around, eluding capture for failing to submit to imprisonment. Was it intentional, to get caught on Block Island?
“He came here, knowing there aren’t that many exits, it was easy to block,” Reale said. “Dan was also picking the witnesses for his arrest, choosing where and whom” he would be around when the FBI came for him. They came on Aug. 11, 1970.
In 1993, Reale went to Bosnia on another peace mission. In 1995 he started studying yoga and meditation in India, and later returned to Block Island as a yoga instructor. He currently lives in Arizona.
Wylie-Kellermann is a Methodist minister and community activist, now serving an Episcopal congregation in Detroit. “I’m a pastor; I teach and I write, mostly in service of non-violence.” He edited “William Stringfellow: Essential Writings”, and has drafted chapters of a biography of Stringfellow. His most recent book is “Where the Water Goes Round: Beloved Detroit.”
For his part, Wylie-Kellermann said, “I first read Stringfellow 50 years ago, in a pamphlet he wrote for high school students. I met him the following year (1968), as he was speaking to a college audience.” Wylie-Kellermann met Dan Berrigan in 1992. “He really knocked me off my horse,” he said, leading him to question his faith and showing him that “most of what I believed was sociology.”
Reale responded that Dan’s brother “Phil Berrigan knocked me off my horse.” From Phil, Jim learned “the Biblical imperative to protect the poor.”
Speaking of both Stringfellow and Dan Berrigan, Wylie-Kellerman said, “I was really under the sway of both their mentorships.” Of Stringfellow, he added, “He mentored consciously. In his will, he left me his Bible.” Of Towne: “Anthony, I only knew as a voice. I didn’t meet him, but I certainly read him.” He quoted Towne: “Life is a series of disasters, only the last of which is fatal.”
The speakers linked their reflections on the past to the present, to current events. Noting that when President Donald Trump said to North Korea that the United States would respond to their provocations with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” Reale says that people outside the U.S. “are asking what Americans are going to do?”
“We may not know the answers,” he continued, “but we have to ask the question, does he [Trump] speak for all of us?”
Asked how to be activists in the current climate, Reale said, “I feel that smaller witnesses are more effective in promoting social change.” He and Wylie-Kellermann both referred to the peace vigil a group of islanders had held on Water Street that morning to show their concern about the current international tensions.
“Relationship is the main theme of the gospels,” Reale added, saying Jesus worked with “a small group of people. I don’t see large marches as being as effective as small actions.”