Bill O'Donnell: Good Friend, Major Prophet
BY JOHN DEAR
My friend Fr. Bill O’Donnell, for twenty five years the pastor
of St. Joseph’s Church in Berkeley, California, and one of the great
peace and justice activists in the nation, died suddenly on Monday morning,
December 8, 2003. He had been up early for morning Mass, had a cup of
coffee, read the sports page, then gone to his desk to write his weekly
bulletin announcement. Apparently, he had written three sentences about
the Gospel and the meaning of Advent when he fell over his desk, dead
from a massive heart attack. He was 73 years old.
Earlier last year, Bill spent six difficult months in a California prison
for crossing the line in protest at “the School of the Americas”
in Fort Benning, Georgia. I was with him when he was arrested that November,
2001. Bill had been arrested some 250 times in the last few decades, joining
every protest against war, nuclear weapons and injustice he could, but
this was his first time in prison. He had suffered from heart problems
and a stroke over the last ten years. His time in prison may have hastened
his end, but we were blessed to have him around as long as we did.
As his many friends mourn his sudden loss, I have spent weeks following
his death pondering our friendship, adventures, and the lessons he taught
me. I first met Bill in August 1988 in a small, poor church in the slums
of San Salvador, El Salvador. I had flown to El Salvador with Bishop Thomas
Gumbleton to offer solidarity to the struggling church workers there.
One evening, we were invited to a presentation about the grassroots base
community movement within the church. After the talk by the frail Salvadoran
priest who faced countless death threats, I was introduced to Bill. He
was a big man, wearing his trademark black leather jacket. From the start,
he was full of Irish wit and wisdom.
But it was not until I moved to Berkeley, California the following year
that we began to work together and became close. I arrived in California
on August 31, 1989 to begin four years at the Graduate Theological Union
in Berkeley. The next day, new friends took me to the annual vigil and
protest at the Concord Naval Weapons Station where Brian Willson had been
run over by a train carrying weapons bound for Central America two years
earlier. There, I met Bill again, and we talked about our mutual friends
and upcoming peace movement events that he wanted me to attend.
On November 16th 1989, we were stunned by the news that six Jesuits and
two women had been brutally assassinated in El Salvador. I had known and
loved those Jesuits. That evening, our Jesuit community in Berkeley held
an open, public forum to discuss how to respond to the horrific news from
El Salvador. Unexpectedly, five hundred people turned out for the event.
As I entered the room, the head of the Jesuit Community asked me to facilitate
the forum. With no time to prepare, I welcomed everyone, suggested we
break into small groups to discuss various actions we could take and then
come back together to strategize. An hour later, we came up with a plan
that including prayer services, press conferences, lobbying days, teach-ins,
But we decided that the main event would be a huge public prayer service
for an end to U.S. military aid to El Salvador to be held the following
Monday morning in front of the U.S. Federal Building in downtown San Francisco.
During a short break in our session, Bill O’Donnell walked up to
the podium, introduced himself again to me, and whispered to me, “The
prayer vigil is fine, but I just want you to know that some of us are
going to sit down in front of the Federal Building and get arrested, no
matter what you plan.”
I was shocked and amazed and delighted at Bill’s bold announcement.
He was calmly changing all our plans, and was going to engage in civil
disobedience with or without the support of the group and the Jesuits.
When we gathered again, I announced that some folks were considering civil
disobedience and that all those who were interested in risking arrest
should stay later and plan the action. The other Jesuits in the room were
shocked and appalled. Never before had a U.S. Jesuit community officially
planned an event with nonviolent civil disobedience.
On Monday November 20, 1989, over 1,500 people attended a moving, public
prayer service for peace in downtown San Francisco. As we concluded our
last hymn, six Jesuits and two women walked up to the entrance of the
Federal Building and knelt down, blocking the doorways. I expected only
Bill O’Donnell and two or three other friends to follow us. But
120 others came forward, including 15 other Jesuits. We were all arrested
and spent the day together in a cramped jail cell. It was the largest
arrest of U.S. Jesuits ever. Throughout the day, we sang and told stories.
It was like a chapter out of the “Acts of the Apostles.” Bill
later told me it was the best, most moving, most powerful demonstration
he ever attended. I agreed, and I knew that it was largely due to him.
In the years that followed, Bill and I were arrested countless times together.
We were constantly in the car, driving to protests throughout California
and Nevada. With our friend, Dr. Davida Coady, we were arrested a dozen
times at the Nevada Test Site protesting nuclear weapons testing near
Las Vegas. We spent over a dozen single days in jail together, usually
after crossing the line at the Concord Naval Weapons Station, where U.S.
bombs were shipped to Central America.
In late 1989, two Salvadoran women, two Jesuits and I decided to embark
on a twenty one day fast for an immediate end to U.S. military aid to
El Salvador. Bill called and said that he wanted to fast with us. Our
friends were concerned about his health, but he was determined. So for
three long weeks, we ate nothing, drank lots of water, and prayed for
a miracle of peace in El Salvador. We began the fast with a press conference
and prayer service once again in front of the San Francisco Federal Building.
We ended the fast with an early morning Mass at Bill’s parish in
Berkeley. Bill kept the fast as well as all his other parish work. In
the end, as we reflected on the fast, we were all surprised at what a
profound spiritual experience it became for each one of us. A month later,
U.S. military aid to El Salvador was cut. Eventually, a peace accord was
In 1992, I went to live and work in Guatemala for the summer. Bill called
to say that he was coming to visit me. For two weeks in July, we traveled
through Guatemala and El Salvador with our great friends, Martin Sheen,
Davida Coady, and Joe Cosgrove. In El Salvador, we prayed at the graves
of Archbishop Romero and the martyred Jesuits, traveled to remote, poor
villages, and met with church workers and local activists. On the last
day, Bill celebrated a memorable Mass for us in Guatemala, inspiring us
to continue to stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Central
In 1993, I was asked to coordinate the annual Good Friday peace demonstration
at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. I invited Martin Sheen and William
Sloane Coffin to speak. Usually, one thousand people gathered for the
rally, prayer vigil, march and civil disobedience at the Lab entrance.
During one of the weekly meetings at Bill’s parish, I made an off-hand,
smart-alecky comment that Bill needed to get more involved in the peace
movement and maybe he should make five hundred white crosses so that people
could carry them to the entrance of Livermore. Bill and I had a long-running
joke where we pretended to be serious and tell one another that we each
needed to do more for peace. I didn’t think anything of my jab at
Bill, until the following week, when Bill announced that he had constructed
one hundred, large wooded crosses and painted them white. He intended
to make all five hundred as his private project for Lent. On Good Friday,
a sea of white crosses walked to the entrance of Livermore Labs, where
Bill and I, and Martin and Bill Coffin were arrested with nearly one hundred
others, calling for nuclear disarmament.
In 1997, I went to live and work in Northern Ireland for a year. At the
end of the year, in the summer of 1998, my parents came to visit. Over
the years, Bill and my parents became good friends. He once bought roses
for my mother, saying that he felt sorry for her. We all laughed. As my
parents and I walked through crowded Dublin, just off St. Stephen’s
Green, who did we run into but Bill O’Donnell, walking toward us,
arm in arm with a woman! We were thrilled and delighted to meet him, but
a little shocked to see him with someone. Then, he laughed and introduced
us to his sister! We sat for hours drinking coffee, laughing and enjoying
Ireland. That is a happy memory.
Bill was always in my life throughout the 1990s, at protests, parties
and events. One of my brothers recalled meeting him at the big party after
my ordination, and saying Bill was the center of the whole day, “the
life of the party.” When I was imprisoned with Philip Berrigan for
our Plowshares disarmament action in a small North Carolina jail cell
for nearly a year, Bill wrote to me every week. His scrawled his letters
on his weekly church bulletins. His comments always pretended to be deadly
serious, usually urging me to be rehabilitated, to renounce the life of
crime, and to stop causing so much trouble and scandal as a priest. His
humor kept me sane. In the end, I dedicated my journal from jail, Peace
Behind Bars, to him and Martin Sheen.
That November 2001, Bill was still not sure he would cross the line at
the School of the Americas. After the Mass at the Jesuit teach-in, we
had a late dinner together. Back at the hotel, he weighed the pros and
cons of getting arrested. But that Sunday morning, as we prayed in front
of the SOA gates, Bill felt inspired and crossed the line. He knew that
he would get six months in prison for his simple action. Later, when he
appeared before the notorious Georgia judge in the summer of 2002, Bill
gave his now famous statement: “Your honor, you are just a pimp
for the great whore of the Pentagon.”
For almost fifteen years, Bill and I had a running joke. After telling
me his latest adventure--how he had denounced some nuclear weapons manufacturer,
cursed some judge, or told off a grape grower who oppressed the farm workers--he
would ask me, “How’m I doin’?” That was my cue
to say, “Bill, you’re so close. You’re almost there,
but not quite. Just a little bit more nonviolence and you’ll be
perfect.” He would break up laughing. After I was imprisoned with
Phil, he wrote me a hilarious letter saying that I had become a “major
prophet.” That became another long running joke. At every visit,
I would tell him that maybe someday, he too might make it into the major
leagues, but for the moment, he was still only a minor prophet. This would
crack Bill up.
In August, 2003, I flew out to California to spend my 44th birthday on
August 13th with Bill. He took me and our friends Sherry and Steve to
a wonderful restaurant on the Berkeley Marina overlooking the Golden Gate
Bridge at sunset. We talked and laughed for hours. He told me about his
experience in prison, how he taught scripture classes daily to the other
prisoners, how concerned he was about the new conservative bishop of Oakland,
and how inspired he was by my new work among the poor in the New Mexico
The week before he died, I wrote to tell him the news that on November
20th, the local National Guard had come marching to my house and stood
there shouting, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” Then, I announced that
someday, when he became a major prophet, he would no longer need to go
to demonstrations, that the soldiers would come to his house. I knew my
outrageous letter would make him laugh.
On December 8th, I was sitting in my truck outside the Albuquerque airport,
picking up Daniel Berrigan and two other Jesuit friends when Davida called
to tell that Bill had been found dead that morning. I was speechless and
in shock. Because of Dan’s visit to New Mexico, and the big public
retreat we had planned, I was not able to attend Bill’s funeral.
When I told Dan that Bill had been found dead at his desk, Dan said he
could imagine Bill writing about the Gospel, dying, then looking up from
his desk, seeing Jesus and saying, “Hey, what are you doing here?
I was just writing about you!” He would have made Jesus laugh. I
am consoled imagining Jesus welcoming Bill home into paradise with open
A few days later, a letter from Bill arrived. He must have mailed it a
day or two before he died. I shared it with Dan. “And it came to
pass that the U.S. military came to prophet John’s house to wake
him,” the letter began, “to sing his glories, to recruit him
into their chaplaincy. But in his ‘John Brown’ fury, the Dear
pastor turned on the singing recruiters to rebuke their siren call to
join them. Rebuff exacts a terrible retribution. You could be exiled back
to New York for your highly anti-patriotic behavior! We’ll have
to stop consorting with the military, John. They may fall in love with
us. Then what will we do? Your local military captain is right: you have
become a huge pain in the gluteous maximus. I’ve got to get out
to see you in a month or two, before they send you back to Georgetown
to tame you.”
Bill taught me many great lessons. Three come to mind as I continue to
grieve the loss of my friend. First, Bill modeled “holy irreverence.”
He was the most irreverent, anti-clerical, anti-pompous person I ever
met, and yet he was a Catholic priest. He constantly put himself down
and in the process, lifted everyone else up. It was a fine, subtle art,
that I used to watch with awe and admiration.
Once, while driving through the Nevada desert with him, I said to him,
“Why in the world, Bill, are you a priest? You are the most irreverent,
most provocative, most disruptive person in the whole church.” I
expected a wisecrack, but was surprised when he took my question seriously.
“I am a priest,” he said, “because it is the best way
for me to become a human being.” I never forget his powerful answer.
I think now that he had been pondering that question for decades. Bill
learned early on to dismiss the pomp and privilege of the priesthood and
spend his days in loving service of others, just like Jesus. In the process,
he became whole, holy, the human being he was meant to become. That is
the goal of the spiritual life, to become fully human. Bill challenges
me through his holy irreverence and his holy reverence of every human
being to someday become the person I am meant to be.
Second, Bill modeled “holy resistance.” Bill was irrepressible.
He never stopped protesting every form of violence, injustice and war.
He once told me that he tried to attend two or three vigils or protests
a week. Bill understood that following Jesus while living in the belly
of the beast, in the empire which our country has become, requires steadfast,
public, nonviolent resistance to war, the death penalty, the oppression
of the poor and workers, and our nuclear arsenal. Bill’s “holy
resistance” is a model not only for all church leaders, but for
all Christians. Bill shows us how to live in these dark times in this
awful empire. From now on, every one of us has to attend weekly vigils
and protests, to speak out against war and injustice, and cross the line
in acts of nonviolent resistance to U.S. warmaking.
Finally, Bill teaches me “holy humor.” He was constantly laughing
and making others laugh. As Daniel Berrigan says, if we are going to spend
our lives resisting death, we better learn to live life well along the
way. Laughter is a key element in the life of Christian resistance to
imperial violence. Bill did not take himself seriously. He had a wisecrack
for every occasion. He had good crack, as the Irish say.
Perhaps it is only in death, at the massive outpouring at his funeral,
that we his friends now realize his greatness. He would laugh at this
comment, but I see now that Bill was a great gift from God, not just to
the Bay Area, but to the whole nation. Bill was a major prophet for peace
and justice. I wish more priests and Christians could learn from Bill’s
example and take up where Bill left off by speaking out against war and
nuclear weapons and walking the path of holy irreverence to become the
people of peace we are meant to be. Thanks to Bill, I intend to keep on
“Dear God,” Bill once wrote, “in our loneliness, comfort
us. In our sorrows, strengthen us. Give us a deep faith in others, in
ourselves, and in You, a bright and firm hope which will ever increase
in the journey to You, who are the journey. Dare we thank you, God, for
our pain, if it leads to your open embrace? Amen.”
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