Fr. Bill O’Donnell: Good Friend, Major Prophet

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, and protests.
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 signed.
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 America.
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 desert.
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 arms.
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 trying.
“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.”