The Common Good
March-April 2003

Fearless and full of hope

by Frida Berrigan, Kate Berrigan | March-April 2003

In prison and out, Philip Berrigan lived for freedom.

We did an anointing of Dad last Saturday and joked with him that he was one of the few people who had now received all seven sacraments. That made us think about what a gift it is to have a father who had been a priest. (It should have followed that we would all ace Latin in high school—but only Kate did.)

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One of the thoughts that resonated the most with us in the last days of Dad's life was that he showed us all what it means to be free.

We visited our dad in many prisons—Danbury, Allentown, Elkton, Lorton, Peterson, Hagerstown, Cumberland County, Baltimore County. We spent time with him in all these dead spaces meant to intimidate and beat down; spaces that repel and resist children, laughter, loving, and family; spaces meant to communicate a clear message of who is in charge; spaces with stupid rules about how, when, and for how long to touch and hold; spaces where you talk into a phone and look through smudged plastic.

Some families would sit silently in the visiting rooms, some would play cards, some would fight. Those families (and those they were visiting) seemed burdened by the thought and the experience that in jail everything is different; life does not go on as usual. You are not free to do as you please or be who you are.

But our dad never seemed touched by that weight. Even in prison, even in those awful spaces, he was free. In prison, as in the outside world, his work and life were to resist violence and oppression, to understand and try to live by God's Word, to build community and help people learn to love one another.

When we visited our dad in prison we paid no heed to the spoken and unspoken rules. We filled those places with love, with family, with stories and laughter and strategizing. Dad showed us that freedom has nothing to do with where your body is and who holds the keys and makes the rules. It has everything to do with where your heart is and being fearless and full of hope.

WHEN DAD DIED, after a long week of struggle, pain, and silence, he was completely free from discomfort and pain, free from a body that no longer worked, and free to live on in us, in all of you. He is still very present to us, and the work we do (all of us)—today, tomorrow, and for the rest of our lives—will keep our dad close to us.

He is here with us every time a hammer strikes on killing metal, transforming it from a tool of death to a productive, life-giving, life-affirming implement.

He is here every time a member of the church communicates the central message of the gospel (thou shalt not kill) and acts to oppose killing, rather than providing the church seal of approval on war.

He is here whenever joy, irreverent laughter, kindness, and hard work are present.

He is here every time we reach across color and class lines and embrace each other as brother and sister.

He is here every time we risk our freedom in an effort to secure justice and peace for all.

He is here whenever children are loved, respected, and listened to, but not idolized, sheltered from truth, or used as an excuse for not doing what is right.

He is here when we challenge comfort, silence, complicity, the easy way out.

He is here when we believe in every person's potential for good, regardless of background or labels.

He is here when we unlearn the violence and greed we are inculcated with as Americans, and practice peacemaking and reconciliation.

He is here when we engage in serious study of the gospels, mining their wisdom for tools to dismantle injustice.

He is here when we live in community, live simply, and share.

Thanks, Dad, for lessons in freedom, inside and outside of prison. And thanks to all of you for struggling towards freedom and working to build a just and peaceful world. Our dad lives on in you.

Frida and Kate Berrigan are the daughters of Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister. Frida was a senior research associate at the Arms Trade Resource Center, a project of the World Policy Institute, and Kate was a senior at Oberlin College majoring in peace studies, when this article appeared.

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