Life in a Resistance Community
Editor’s Note: There are people all over the world, in and out of community, who work within ‘the system’ for political change. They keep up with issues important to them and write letters to the editors of their local papers; they attend city council, town planner, or county commissioner meetings; they work on political campaigns and lobby their elected representatives. Other activists prefer to work outside the system, engaging in civil disobedience and ‘direct action.’ By focusing on the latter type of activism in this article, the Directory publishers do not mean to imply that this is the only sort of political activism, or necessarily the best.
It’s a cold but sunny morning at Little Flower Catholic Worker community. I am washing the breakfast dishes when there’s a lull in the kids’ playful yells and I hear the radio reporter announce that US warplanes have fired again at an Iraqi site, killing and wounding civilians. We have a full day of farm work ahead, and yet the words of the newscast haunt me as I finish the dishes and change Gabriella’s diaper. ‘Scores of civilians injured.’ I feel the same anger and despair I’ve felt so often in these dozen years of life in an activist community: ‘Why is this happening? How can these lives seem expendable? What can I do?’
As other community members feed the animals and fold newsletters, I check in with them. In half an hour we’ve decided to spend the noon hour demonstrating at the Federal Building in Richmond to show our dismay over the continued bombing. We make a few phone calls, help the kids draw some posters, put together a quick leaflet and head out.
This is a scene that’s repeated many, many times in different forms in communities all over the country, from weekly morning demonstrations at the Pentagon to hammering on Trident submarines, from taking food to squatters to organizing boycotts, from sleeping in city parks in solidarity with the homeless to taking medicines to Iraq in violation of the sanctions. This is activism—actively seeking justice. There are many forms of activism. To me, as a Christian pacifist, activism means nonviolent action directed at creating a more just and peaceful world. For me, especially as a parent, community is essential for healthy activism.
Entering into intentional community—intentionally putting your life together with the lives of others who share a vision, letting go of your personal agenda, sharing resources—all of this is a bit counter-cultural and pulls us toward the margin of American society. Once there, it is hard to ignore those who also inhabit this space (not by their own choice)—the poor, the homeless, minorities É much of the world, in fact. Once we step out of mainstream America, we begin to see the injustice around us, to hear the violence of so much of our country’s politics.
Once we put our lives together in community, we become free to devote time and energy to the active pursuit of justice. When a group of people share one or more resources, such as income, childcare, or living quarters, the economic needs of an individual or family are not dependent on one person. Communal work and childcare can free up community members to spend time organizing, traveling to action sites, and doing support work. In addition, living with others who share a vision strengthens the activist’s resolve; when you’re discouraged, you can draw strength from others. When you cannot be as active, you can support the activism of other community members. In community, activists can process the outcome of their actions—successes, failures, physical or emotional injuries, jail time. Massive support or unexpected repercussions can be dealt with together, which helps prevent burnout and blind spots.
Activist communities, or resistance communities, as we call them (since acting for justice inevitably involves resisting the current systems) take many forms and are active on many fronts. The history of resistance communities may go back to the first organized societies; certainly the existence of such communities was recorded in Biblical times. The Israelites organized themselves to resist the oppression of the Egyptians. The disciples of Jesus lived together, held all things in common, proclaimed a different way of life, and were jailed and killed for their beliefs. Gandhi’s ashrams were certainly examples of activist communities, as were the ‘base communities’ started in many oppressed regions of Latin America as part of the praxis of liberation theology in the 1970s. There are many other historical examples of communities who shared a vision and acted on it—from the communes that supported World War II resisters in the United States to groups like the ‘White Rose,’ students in Nazi Germany who were beheaded for distributing leaflets against fascism.
In many countries, the penalty for activism is death, torture, or life in prison. In such circumstances, community is essential for activists’ survival. I once heard Constancio Pinto speak. He is an East Timorese activist who fled Indonesian death squads after organizing nonviolent demonstrations for East Timorese independence. He described how he had hidden in the homes of members of the community, how he later hid in a cave and was fed by other friends, and how he was eventually smuggled out of the country by still others. Without the support of many activists, he would surely be dead.
The communities I know from experience include Community for Creative Non-Violence and several Cath-olic Workers communities (all residential). I am also familiar with the Atlantic Life Community (ALC), an intentional community of folks who don’t live together, but who share a common activist vision and have challenged and supported one another in fulfilling that vision for over 20 years.
The ALC draws ‘resisters’ from Maine to North Carolina to organize, engage in, and support each other in direct, nonviolent action against militarism, and in exploring a life of active resistance. It is primarily a faith-based group, including Christians, Buddhists, and others whose religions inspire them to action, as well as nonreligious people.
The ALC formed in 1974, inspired the by Pacific Life Community, a group of nonviolent activists from the Bay area, Seattle, and British Columbia who were meeting on a regular basis to plan demonstrations against the then under-construction Trident submarine base in Puget Sound. Activists and supporters on the East Coast felt the need for a similar community to continue to act, reflect, and support each other.
When I joined the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker almost a dozen years ago, the biannual ALC gatherings were part of the calendar. I attended several, driving as far as New York or Massachusetts to spend three days meeting, talking, praying, planning actions, and discussing the life of resistance with up to 200 like-minded folks (including lots of children) from homes and intentional communities up and down the East Coast. I met many inspiring people, learned a lot, and participated in some powerful actions, but it wasn’t until after I, myself, took part in a serious nonviolent action and served some jail time that I realized the importance of the ALC.
On January 1, 1991, 15 days before the Gulf War, my (now) husband Bill, Ciaron O’Reilly, Moana Cole, and myself, calling ourselves the ANZUS Plowshares, entered Griffiss Air Force Base and hammered and poured blood on a B-52 warplane. We served two months in jail before our trial, and shortly after our release on personal recognizance, we showed up at the Mother’s Day ALC Retreat. I’ll never forget the feeling of homecoming I experienced as the four of us were welcomed and embraced by so many of the people who’d inspired us to act, by people we’d come to know through their steadfast jail support, by people I may have only met once or twice, but whose vision was so similar that we were already community.
It was these people from the ALC who continued to support us through our trial, sentencing, and year imprisonment. And it has been these people who have become family in the ensuing eight years, as community members, including ourselves, came and went from the Dorothy Day House, as we attempt to raise children in community, and as we continue to struggle with the meaning of the call to be an active seeker of peace and justice in our violent world. Though the members of the ALC don’t live together, they share a vision of a just, weapons-free world. Just knowing other members of the community exist gives us all strength. In winter 1999, when a few of us gathered again in front of the Richmond Federal Building to protest the bombing of Yugoslavia, it was a comfort to know that like-minded friends in Ithaca, New York; New York City; Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, DC; and Raleigh, North Carolina were doing the same thing.
During my years at the Dorothy Day House, I got to know several other Washington, DC-based activist communities whose activism came out of their love for the poor and homeless. One community we worked with in my early years at the Catholic Worker was the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), a massive 1400 bed shelter near the center of the city. For almost 30 years, CCNV has been a home for an eclectic collection of seekers who have sought creative, nonviolent solutions to the plague of homelessness that’s grown steadily worse in the District of Columbia.
My own activism has also been nurtured and challenged over the years by the example of Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and by countless Catholic Workers past and present. Whether serving soup to the poor or walking a picket line, Dorothy’s life was bound up with the deep quest to live out God’s love for all of humanity. There are over 150 Catholic Worker houses in the United States today; in each one a small group of people struggle to form community in solidarity with the poor, to live in voluntary poverty, to perform works of mercy, and to resist war and the causes of war. At the heart of the Catholic Worker philosophy is personalism—the belief that each person is sacred, and that each of us must take personal responsibility for what goes on around us. Personalism leads us into activism as we try to take seriously our responsibilities; it leads us into community as we look for ways to know each other as sacred. Personalism is really about love—love for humanity as a whole, love for the particular people who come into our lives, and especially love for those the world finds hardest to love.
Dorothy Day liked to quote Dostoyevski to define the life she attempted to lead: ‘Love in dreams is easy, love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing.’ It is only that harsh and dreadful love, in fact, that will sustain both community and activism, and it is perhaps this common root that keeps the two intertwined. When we bind together community and activism with love, the universe bends a little closer to justice.
- McAlister, Elizabeth and Phil Berrigan. The Times Discipline.
- Vanier, Jean. Community and Growth. Richmond Hill, Ontario: Daybreak Publications. Email [email protected]
Sue Frankel-Streit, her husband, and three children live at the Little Flower Catholic Worker farm in Goochland, Virginia, where they live in community; farm; organize and participate in actions for peace; and try to be of service to the poor. Before moving to Virginia, Sue and Bill spent over 10 years at the Catholic Worker in Washington, DC.