I heard two items of news last week that started me recollecting about events in my life when I was a young man.
The first item of news was that the members of the South Deerfield Congregational Church voted last Sunday to close the church by the end of the year. The second item of news was that peace activist Fr. Daniel Berrigan had died at the age of 94.
I will try to tell a story that connects these seemingly unrelated news items. To tell it right I have to go back a few years.
The Lead-Up Years: Coe College
I graduated from Coe College, a small liberal arts college in Cedar Rapids, IA, in 1971, and went to Andover Newton Theological School in Newton MA to start seminary that fall.
My last couple of years at Coe, during the height of the Vietnam War, I had become very involved in the peace movement. I had previously been in the Air Force ROTC program my first two years. In my sophomore year I had traveled to SAC headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, NE, for a multi-day physical, which I passed, qualifying for pilot or bombardier training.
Then I went to New York for spring term of 1969, to participate in the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) New York Fine Arts program.
That spring was a life-changing time for me, and I began to reassess my views about the war in Vietnam. While I was there in May the New York Times reported a story on the covert bombing of Cambodia, news which increased opposition to the war in Southeast Asia, and led to a great deal of soul-searching on my part.
By the time I returned to Coe in September of 1969 I had resigned from ROTC and became very involved in the anti-war movement.
What were some of the influences for this change of heart? This may sound comical, but the previous year I was waiting to get my hair cut and the barbershop had a copy of the current issue of Playboy, which was a big thing in those days. They always featured an interview with an important American and in this issue the interview was with the Reverend William Sloan Coffin, the chaplain at Yale, and an important anti-war figure. Years later, when I was chaplain at Bangor Theological Seminary, I worked with Bill Coffin on some anti-nuclear events, and I shared with him about reading his Playboy interview. He chuckled and said, “I thought long and hard about whether to do that interview, but I decided Playboy was the best forum to reach young (draft-age) men, and you are confirming that I was right.”
When I returned to Coe it was a different place. By the fall of 1969 the winds of change were sweeping college campuses, even in Cedar Rapids, IA. On October 15th 1969 hundreds, maybe thousands, of citizens gathered one night in a park in Cedar Rapids and lit candles in support of the Moratorium to End the Vietnam War, a huge national movement that marked the end of widespread support for the war.
Then in November the news of the My Lai Massacre of Vietnam civilians by American troops further eroded support for the war. It seemed like the tide was turning and the war might end.
I left Coe for a term and moved to New York City and got a job as a mail-clerk at the Time/Life Building. I lived on Abington Square in the West Village and became involved in many anti-war activities. I was befriended by a wonderful Quaker couple, Rufus and Gladys Rorem, who influenced me in their peaceful ways.
I went back to Coe in the spring of 1970 just as President Richard Nixon announced an escalation of the war with an incursion into Cambodia. More protests sprang up all over college campuses. On May 4 National Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed students demonstrating at Kent State University, killing four students and wounding nine others. More demonstrations broke out at virtually every college and university in the country.
I was one of several student leaders who organized an impromptu march from Coe to downtown Cedar Rapids, with the intent of peacefully sitting in at the local draft board, which was housed in the upstairs of the Guarantee Bank Building. When the hundred or so of us arrived the bank doors were closed and police were looking at us through the glass. We decided to sit down on the sidewalk and there we stayed for 36 hours. Members of the community, and from churches and synagogues, brought us blankets and food.
Like many schools, Coe closed after Kent State and sent everybody home. By my senior year I was reading Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and, especially, the priest and poet Daniel Berrigan.
When I got to Andover Newton in the fall of 1971 the fellow in the room next to mine was a big guy name Michael John Maguire. Mike had been an anti-war activist at Bridgewater State College. We hit it off immediately. He was a former Roman Catholic and we were both influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and writers such as Merton, Day, and William Stringfellow. And like many young Christians in our time we were inspired by the witness of the Berrigan brothers, Frs. Philip and Daniel. Mike and I went to a poetry reading by Dan Berrigan at a private home in Newton, and heard him speak at Boston University. We also went to hear Bill Coffin give a talk. To us Daniel Berrigan was not only a priest and a poet, but a prophet speaking truth to power regardless of the personal cost to himself.
Holy Week in Harrisburg, 1972
In the lead-up to Easter of 1972 Mike had seen a flier for an anti-war demonstration in Harrisburg, PA, sponsored by an organization called The National Union of Theological Students (with a dubious acronym).
The non-violent demonstration was in response to the arrest for conspiracy of seven religious anti-war activists for an alleged plot against the government. President Richard Nixon and his attorney General John Mitchell were intent on punishing some of the most visible anti-war activists. (They were eventually acquitted by a hung jury)
They came to be known as “The Harrisburg Seven.” Most of them were Roman Catholic priests or nuns. The “Seven” were Reverend Philip Berrigan, Sister Elizabeth McAlister, Reverend Neil McLaughlin, Reverend Joseph Wenderoth, Eqbal Ahmad, Anthony Scoblick, and Mary Cain Scoblick.
They were tried in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, located in the Federal Building at Harrisburg.
The plan of several anti-war groups was to put a giant chain, held by protesters, completely around the Federal Building in the days leading up to Easter. Mike and I, and three other seminarians shared a car-ride down to Harrisburg.
We demonstrators arrived from all over, seminarians, clergy, nuns, Quakers, people of all ages.
The day we arrived we were given training in non-violent protest techniques. That night many of us slept in the pews of the Augustana Lutheran Church in Harrisburg. There were several from Boston; I met an Episcopal seminarian from ETS named Dan Weir.
The next morning it was cold when we arrived at the Federal Building. I stood next to Mike Maguire. I remember I kept having to let go of the chain to wipe a drip off my nose. We expected to be arrested in an act of civil disobedience, and we had alerted the Harrisburg Police that we were coming. We also were told by our lawyers to stay below the steps so that our “crime” would be a local civil offense and not a federal misdemeanor.
While we waited to be arrested we sang songs: “This Little Light of Mine,” “We Shall Overcome” and “Down by the Riverside.”
The Harrisburg Police showed up and were very professional as they started arresting us, using bolt cutters to break the chain. We were processed and fingerprinted and taken to an agricultural show auditorium set up as a court-room, because there were so many of us. Most of us “stood mute” in protest, and were sentenced to five days in jail or to pay a small fine ($25 I think), which most of us refused to pay and took the jail time. My Andover Newton colleagues were all student pastors, whereas I was an intern, so I became the designated jailbird while they returned home without me.
The police took us in a big yellow school bus to the Camp Hill Correctional Institution, 3 miles out of Harrisburg. We started singing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,” but as we entered the gate of the prison someone said wistfully, “I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore!”
There were about 160 of us and they separated the men and the women, and sent us to a maximum-security cell-block of single cells (to keep us from the general population of inmates.)
The cell had a sink and a toilet, and food was put under the barred door on a tray.
We decided to fast until Easter. We met for every morning on the cell-block floor for worship and we could have a shower every day.
On Good Friday afternoon, someone yelled up, “Is there anybody here from Boston?” and I yelled back, “Here!” A bearded man appeared at my cell door and introduced himself as Harvard theologian Harvey Cox. “Are you from Harvard?” he asked me. “No, I’m from Andover Newton! There’s no one here from Harvard.”
The night of my trial I had written a letter to my church back in Newton Highlands explaining what I was doing and why, and why I wouldn’t be with them on Easter, and I asked Harvey Cox if he could take it back to Boston and get it to my church. He said he would, and right after he left I remembered that one of the charges again “the Seven” was smuggling letters out of prison.
When Harvey Cox got back to Boston, he called his former colleague Jerry Handspicker, who was the associate pastor at our church, and dictated the letter to him. Jerry got up during announcements on Easter and read my letter to the congregation. Later the letter came back to me and I still have it somewhere.
At midnight on Easter, the electronic doors on our cells all opened and we were free. You’ve got to credit the Department of Corrections for a dramatic sense of Easter liturgy. We all went to a party where we broke fast and Daniel Berrigan was there.
Then we all went to a Easter sunrise service on a big island in the Susquehanna River. Since my ride had left me I made a sign that said “New Jersey” and held it up as people left the service.
Some very nice Quaker ladies from Long Island said they would take me to my Dad’s house in NJ, but first they had to go back to check out of their hotel. They bought me breakfast in the hotel restaurant, and then I got in the elevator with them and there was Dan Berrigan. I blurted out “I just got out of jail, and he smiled and asked me, “What did you learn?”
Mike Maguire was a big man, tall and weighing well over 300 pounds. His personality was big as well. He loved a good discussion, and if there was something he could strongly disagree about, all the better. Sometimes he would even admit he had been wrong during an argument, but not usually until a few days later. He liked to talk and smoke his pipe, which had some foul-smelling Latakia tobacco in it. He also liked to eat, which was his downfall.
Mike was also a prophet, speaking passionately against any injustice that he saw. He was way ahead of the church on gay rights.
I’ll never forget the night of the 1972 presidential election. Mike and our friends were all for the Democratic candidate George McGovern, and we had worked ringing doorbells and getting out the vote all day. We were convinced he was going to win, since we didn’t know anyone who was voting for Nixon. I learned then never to judge the macrocosm by your own small microcosm! We had bought a case of beer to drink while watching the returns in front of the TV at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton. We hunkered down about 7:30 to enjoy the show, but the networks called the race for Nixon at a few minutes after 8. Nixon had carried every state but Massachusetts and there were lots of bumper stickers later that read, “Don’t Blame Me I’m From Massachusetts!”
But the thing I remember most about that night is that, after we had walked (with our beer) back to Farwell Hall, Mike went into his room, and came back out immediately and I heard him pounding on his door. I came out to see what he was up to and there was a new sticker that said, “Impeach Nixon!”
Mike was my best friend in seminary, and one of the best friends I have ever had. When we graduated in 1975 he was called to be the pastor of the South Deerfield Congregational Church. I went to his ordination that June and I remember the church being full of people.
I was called to be the pastor of two little churches in Maine, and Mike and I kept in touch and visited each other’s congregations. When I was married in 1976 Mike was an usher.
In the summer of 1978 Mike came to visit us at our parsonage in West Newfield, Maine, and he had put on even more weight. He had to sleep in a chair. His weight had always been a “hands off” subject, but I was so worried about his health that this time I broached it with him. We talked about it. He said he knew he had to address it, and then he headed back to South Deerfield. Two weeks later I learned that he had died at the age of 30 from a pulmonary embolism that had traveled from his leg. I went back to the South Deerfield Congregational Church again to preach a homily at his memorial service. And again, the meeting house was packed with people.
I often think of Mike and what he would say about some current event. He had so much conscience and conviction, and sometimes I ask myself WWMMD?, “What would Mike Maguire Do?” He never let you off the hook; he was a fine example of “telling the truth in love.” After he died I bought a number of his books, including some of the volumes of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics with a big MJM written in Sharpie in the flyleaf and his underlinings throughout. Sometimes when I see them I smile, and sometimes I cry.
Mike was a good pastor in the South Deerfield Congregational Church, although I am sure he rubbed some people the wrong way, because he didn’t sugarcoat his strong opinions. It was a vital, thriving congregation when he was there. The church was founded in 1818, and it is sad to see an old church close. But the members seem to have made a faithful decision; instead of spending down their assets, they plan to give them to other charitable organizations. Mike would have liked that.
So now you see how the story is all connected: when I heard that the South Deefield Church was closing and then later in the week saw that Dan Berrigan had died it brought back so many memories of Mike and me from years ago.
(Photos: 1976. Mike and me at my wedding; Dan Berrigan)
Thank you for this insightful essay/letter from our past history. Sometimes I wonder if we have made any advances at all and then I read something like this and realize we have miles to go but have taken small steps.
Sent from my iPad
This was beautiful. Thank you, Rick.
We never know how the threads of our lives connect and weave together to form the tapestry of who we are.
Thanks QC. I appreciate your comment.
I remember you, Mike, and Charlie — wild days at ANTS and CPE — Tommie and I have been out west since 1984, just retired after 17 years as Distirct Executive for Unitarian Universalists in Pacific Southest District — love to catch up sometime
Hi Ken. Yes, you were there in those olden days. Hope you and yours are thriving. Best, Rick
Hi Ken. Yes, a long time ago in a galaxy far far way. Commuting up 495 to Danvers CPE. I was at your ordination. And Michael gone so young. Hope you and Tommie are thriving.