It was the left's version of the red carpet, but it was just a Park Avenue sidewalk at 83rd Street in Manhattan, in front of St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church.
Scores of friends and admirers were in town to celebrate the Rev. Daniel Berrigan's 85th birthday in the church basement, a huge room lined with tables staffed by various activists and booksellers. Art work by Tom Lewis, much of it chronicling Berrigan's life of resistance as a Jesuit priest, hung all around.
On the street, small groups gathered, people spotting old friends, yells and hugs exchanged. The VIPs were there, too. Kurt Vonnegut, Ramsey Clark, Howard Zinn, Amy Goodman, Pete Seeger, Natalie Merchant and Berrigan's sister-in-law, Elizabeth McAlister, joined more than 600 others for "A night of music and poetry to celebrate Priest, Poet & Peace Activist Daniel Berrigan."
Daniel Berrigan's name is still known to those who were in the trenches fighting against war and racism in the 1960s. He is perhaps better known as part of "the Berrigan brothers," the name used to describe him and his brother, Philip, a dynamic anti-war duo who graced a 1971 cover of Time for their resistance to the Vietnam War. Philip died of cancer in 2002.
The Berrigan brothers took nonviolent resistance to another level by inspiring and joining what became known as draft board raids. Small groups of activists would enter Selective Service System offices, remove files of conscripts likely headed for Vietnam, and destroy them, sometimes burning them with homemade napalm. The offenders, including the Berrigan brothers, would be tried and imprisoned for destroying government property.
In his comments, Clark, the former U.S. Attorney General who once prosecuted the Catholic left, recalled Daniel Berrigan's meditation on the actions of the Catonsville 9, the group of activists, including the Berrigan brothers, who burned draft file records in Catonsville, Md., on May 17, 1968.
"Our apologies good friends for the fracture of good order," Clark quoted Berrigan as saying, "the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not so help us God do otherwise. For we are sick at heart, our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children."
Unlike the masses, whose activism ended with the U.S. pullout from Vietnam, the Berrigan brothers just retooled their resistance for the nuclear age--and kept destroying government property. As Ronald Reagan fueled a nuclear buildup that imperiled humanity, the Berrigans founded the Plowshares movement. Based on a verse from the Book of Isaiah (2:4), "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not lift sword against another, nor shall they study war anymore," the Berrigans inspired a new wave of activists to use hammers to symbolically disarm weapons of mass destruction. Again, the government did not appreciate the symbolic nature of their protest, and the Berrigan brothers, and many others, were sent to prison.
The first Plowshares action, which included the Berrigan brothers, took place at a G.E. nuclear missile plant in King of Prussia, Pa., on Sept. 9, 1980. Since that first action, more than 50 similar actions have occurred all over the world. Today, two groups of activists inspired by the Berrigans, one in Ireland and one in North Dakota, await prison for plowshares actions against U.S. nuclear weapons.
Clark recalled Berrigan telling the judge in King of Prussia: "I could not not do it."
Berrigan, somewhat frail, greeted friends and read a poem. His book of poems, Time Without Number, won the 1957 Lamont Poetry Award. Because he once appeared in an ad for Ben & Jerry's ice cream, the company, as it did at Berrigan's 75th and 80th birthday bashes, supplied free ice cream for the party.
Postcards honoring Berrigan included his poem "Do you seek miracles?"
" ... [B]lessed is the one who walks the earth 5 years, 50 years, 80 years and deceives no one and curses no one And kills no one."
In his comments, Vonnegut, a former G.E. employee, summed up the feelings of all in attendance:
"We are so glad that you are still with us. Dear Father Dan, dear Dan, we love you."