Sitting in a prison cell in the mid-1980s, I hit rock bottom. During these years, I have moved away from previous thoughts of becoming a lawyer or a teacher. Instead, I had a religious experience in my senior year of college and headed to the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., To immerse myself in what I hoped was a spiritual journey into the world. ‘love of God. This is indeed what happened, albeit in a way that I couldn’t foresee at the time.
Through countless twists and turns and with the help of many others along the way, I have discovered that the great pilgrimage of our time is the nonviolent life pursued in our daily existence, our relationships, our communities and our societies. I gradually learned that active non-violence is the way God calls us to live: resist violence without resorting to violence; love our enemies and everyone else; lay down our sword; dismantle racism, white supremacy and any structure that dominates or separates; to respond to evil with an excess of love; and creatively build a world of mercy and justice.
Yet I also learned that I couldn’t just affirm this teaching – I had to do something about it.
At that time, the American wars were raging in Central America. I joined others in organizing the Pledge of Resistance, a national movement mobilizing nonviolent direct action. Many people of faith and conscience took part in this effort, often inspired by the living witness and the martyrdom of our sisters and brothers in this region.
In the midst of this effort, I made the decision to join two friends in a nonviolent civil disobedience action to resist this violence. We were ultimately tried, convicted, sentenced to six weeks in prison, shackled and sent to prisons across California.
I was transferred from prison to prison, eventually arriving at the Terminal Island facility in Long Beach. Until then, I was fine, but after two weeks on the road in custody, I suddenly found myself tormented by a flood of anguish as I sat on my top bunk. Why the hell did I do this? What difference did it make? Did anyone care? Was that what I signed up for? I felt lonely, lost and uncertain.
Then, at my lowest ebb, everything changed.
A calm, soothing voice came out of nowhere. âYou are exactly where you are supposed to be,â he said tenderly. “I will always be with you.”
The effect was as immediate as it was unexpected. My anxiety evaporated. I found tears of relief streaming down my face. I felt whole, centered and loved – a state that led me through the rest of this journey, including through a powerful encounter with a prison guard who taught us both something about the power of nonviolence.
Over the decades that followed, I have learned in countless contexts, encounters and campaigns that non-violence is at the heart of our vocation and our identity as human beings. Others have faced much greater risks than I (a privileged white, cisgender male) in answering that call, especially in the midst of the criminal justice system.
For my part, I have come to recognize that nonviolent living is supported and deepened by our God who takes nonviolent action in our lives and in our wounded world to unleash the transformative power of hope and healing. .
This gift can sometimes be seen in the experiences of our lives, including when we are at rock bottom.
This article also appears in the November 2021 issue of US Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 11, pages 10-12). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash / Heidi Benyounes