John Dear’s personal journey as a peace activist has taken him to a refugee camp in El Salvador, to Groton, Conn., where he paddled a canoe down the Thames River to protest the launching of a Trident nuclear submarine and to an Air Force base in North Carolina where he was arrested for hammering on a fighter-bomber in the middle of full-scale war games.
In 2002, his journey brought him to northeastern New Mexico, where he served as pastor to several churches and spoke out against the production of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos.
Last week, Dear’s quest took him to Columbus, Ga., to the School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, a U.S. Army training facility for Latin American military personnel. He’s participated in the annual protest there four times and been arrested twice.
Dear is schedule to speak today to some 15,000 people who are converging on Fort Benning to try to close what they call the School of Assassins.
Dear said he is speaking in remembrance of six Jesuits who were killed 15 years ago this week in El Salvador. Among the 26 soldiers implicated in their murders were 19 trained at the School of the Americas, Dear said.
The martyred Jesuits, whom Dear met in 1985 when he helped the Archdiocese of San Salvador establish a refugee camp there, are always with him. “They are why I am willing to work for justice and peace. They are why I am speaking out against nuclear war in New Mexico. Their example pushes me to speak out,” Dear said.
On the anniversary of their deaths, Dear hit the road. In an interview just before leaving, he said he planned to give a speech in Mobile, Ala., and use the long hours of driving to think, pray and listen to music (Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles).
Since relinquishing his parish responsibilities to work full time for peace, Dear is almost always on the road–or in the air. Prior to his cross-country trip to Georgia, he was in Milwaukee and in Ontario, Canada, for appearances. So far this year, he’s made speeches in new two dozen cities in Canada and the United States from Bangor, Penn., to Boise, Idaho.
Dear said he’s met many people who are angry and depressed about the direction of the country. But he said he believes “life is much bigger than America or the election or George W. Bush. Life is short and precious. The whole point is that we’re on a journey to the God of peace.”
This week he has two new books out, “The Questions of Jesus,” where Dear ruminates on 125 unanswered questions from the Gospels, and “Living Peace” (in paperback) which offers guidance on the spiritual path to inner tranquility and the outward journey for global peace. Both are published by Doubleday.
In his books and in conversation, Dear emphasizes the need for a spiritual foundation in the pursuit of peace. Everyone who is working for peace needs to carve our quality time “every day, no matter what,” for prayer. “I would not be speaking out against war and nuclear weapons in these difficult times without a spiritual practice, without a deep grounding in the God of peace and quiet meditation,” he said.
“I want to help get rid of war, but I don’t want to be doing it as an angry, violent person,” Dear emphasized.
People on this quest should not wait until they are perfect, he advised. “You’ve got to work on your own inner nonviolence, but you have to be involved in the global struggle for disarmament and justice as well,” he said.
From his home in New Mexico, Dear said he is trying to help build a movement to get the country to demand the “disarmament of Los Alamos.” The quest is similar to the goal of closing the School of the Americas. “There is a connection,” Dear said. “Both works are unjust and immoral.”
At a recent dinner with Gov. Bill Richardson, former president Bill Clinton, and actor Martin Sheen, Dear said, he asked the governor to meet with him to discuss ending the manufacture of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos and the governor agreed to the meeting.
Dear, a Jesuit priest, retreat leader and activist who has written 20 books, served parishes in Cimarron, Springer, Maxwell and Eagle Nest.
Last November, about 75 soldiers from a National Guard unit bound for Iraq woke Dear as they shouted slogans in front of the rectory at St. Joseph church in Springer.
Dear said he ran into the street and ordered them to disobey orders to kill. “God does not want you to kill so Bush and Cheney can get more soil. Stop all this and go home,” he told them.
Dear, who has received hate mail and death threats, said Archbishop Michael Sheehan ordered him not to attend Hiroshima Day events in Los Alamos two years ago. Although their relationship today is cordial–and he participated this year–Dear said, “the demands of the peace movement, the war in Iraq, made me think I should travel and speak to a much wider audience.”
Since last summer, Dear, who reports to the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, has lived “off the grid” in a rural high desert area near Santa Fe. In addition to speaking and traveling, he works on building Pax Christi, a Catholic peace movement that now has 10 chapters in New Mexico and about 400 members.
In December, he is joining 20 scholars and church activists on a study tour of India organized by the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.
“Gandhi was not an angry, bitter activist. He was full of life and joy–and brought down the British empire,” Dear said, adding that his goal is to “live a life of peace and joy–and close Los Alamos and end the war in Iraq.”