He walked into the housing unit of a federal prison. Over 200 men in the barracks-like setting; all convicted felons, ethnically divided, cynical and some dangerous. He was greeted like a rock star. In mates rushed to greet and touch him. Black, white, Hispanic, they all flocked to him. Awkwardly they said, "welcome back", knowing how strange it sounded in this context. Offers of assistance were fast and furious. " Got soap? Need shower shoes? Want a soup? What ever you need you tell us." The object of all this attention wasn’t a returning drug lord or gang leader or master criminal; it is an 80-year-old Franciscan priest. Yes a priest. This priest is living proof of the power of witness and one person's ability to change others.
Fr. Louis Vitale OFM is back for a return engagement at Lompoc federal prison. He spent 6 months here and was released in July of 2010. He was sent here by a federal judge for trespassing onto a federal institution, to protest the continual development of nuclear weapons. His current 6-month sentence is for trespassing at Ft. Benning, Georgia to protest and try to close the School of the Americas, a training place for Latin American and other dictators interested in learning how to crush political dissent in their country. In all, Fr. Vitale has been in jail or prison hundreds of times because of his commitment to civil disobedience and his conscience driven mandate to witness for peace and justice.
Since his release in July, a debate started among guards and inmates. Why was he doing this? At his age, why doesn't he stop? Is he trying to die in prison? The question causing the most vigorous reaction was, "...what difference does he make?” This last question made people angry. They point out the School of the Americas is still open. America is still building and modernizing its nuclear arsenal. We are not beating swords into ploughshares. IN fact, just the opposite is occurring. We are involved in two wars and the military budget continues to increase while homelessness, hunger, poverty and violence increase on a parallel track. Fr. Louie should stop and retire to a parish and end all of this idiocy.
None of this is new to him. He has been at the forefront of the social justice movement for more than 50 years. He was friends with Caesar Chavez and Dorothy Huerta as they marched and organized for better wages and working conditions for farm workers. He has been involved with the peace movement and the likes of the Berrigan brothers and other luminaries and has been a voice against homelessness and for non-violence along with leading figures like Mitch Snyder. He is known and knows every Bay Area politician from Nancy Pelosi to Diane Feinstein. His message to them has been constant. The richest nation on earth has a moral obligation to fight injustice, attack poverty and hunger rather than cause them.
In San Francisco, Fr. Louie called attention to the plight of the homeless and dispossessed. He lived in the Tenderloin and was pastor of St. Boniface Church. He helped to raise funds for St. Anthony's Dining Room and the St. Anthony Foundation, which has served over 35 million meals since its inception in 1951. He opened the doors of St. Boniface, at a time when most SF churches are locked during the day, to allow the homeless to sleep inside. He called it "sacred sleep" and faced withering criticism for letting "them" in and was warned about the damage "they" would do to his church. It still goes on to this day.
In a federal prison, however, the debate about his sanity and the waste of all this time and talent was most focused. Guards, many former military, resented his message and would get visibly upset when referring to his attempts to stop war and reduce nuclear weapons. "We need these weapons...what is he some kind of commie?...if we don’t fight, our enemies will destroy us...people like him weaken our nation...if he doesn't like it here why doesn't he live somewhere else?" Inmates echoed many of the same positions with many accusing him of being naive and silly and ineffective. Yet, they all wanted information on how he was doing and when his next court date would happen. Many hoped he would just stop. Others, grudgingly would admit you had to admire his principals if nothing else.
When the news broke he had been arrested again and was on his way back, the debate intensified. Shortly after Christmas, he was back and the reaction was extraordinary. Inmates want to talk to him. They walk with him in the yard. They sit with him at meals. He walks around under the protection of so many. No one would dare bother or harass him. He chooses to be in prison. He doesn't have to be here. As much as they dismiss his actions as foolish, useless, crazy, delusional or worse, they want to be near him and talk to him and worship with him. They are quiet when he speaks and his words carry power.
He is frail and his hearing is iffy and he is 80 years old and he knows it possible his life could end inside, yet he is happy and upbeat and joyful and his is ministering to many who are here for far different reasons. Despite the anger and frustration and criticism he engenders, this friar is a living witness to the gospel command to do for the least of your brothers and sisters and his witness has evangelized a federal prison and made it a sacred space. He hasn’t changed the world or stopped rocket launches or reduced the resources devoted to war, but his witness, the actions of one man, have affected this unlikely place in ways no one could have predicted. I leave it up to you to decide if it's worth it or not. I already know what Louie would say.