The Island and Friendship That Changed My Life | Sojourners

The Island and Friendship That Changed My Life

It is early morning on Block Island – a time and place where I have often written over many years. My family, on our annual August vacation together here, is still asleep, liking to rise late on vacation days. Therefore, I always have several hours alone each day on Block Island, a special place introduced to me by one of my early mentors, William Stringfellow. He described the island, which is part of Rhode Island, as an hour “off the coast of America.”

Bill went from Harvard Law School to practice law in East Harlem during the 1950s where he helped to start the East Harlem Protestant Parish – an early Christian community committed to racial and economic justice – similar to our Sojourners community, but two decades earlier. In changing his location, as I did later in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan, Stringfellow too learned many things he never would have by staying in his white community and tribe in Northampton, Mass. What he learned in Harlem led to his first book, My People is the Enemy, which was one of the first things I ever read about racism in America and deeply touched me as a white teenager who was coming to realize that it was in fact white Americans who had the power and who were behind the brutal oppression of American racism. My people, my tribe, my friends, and my fellow white Christian believers were indeed the enemy when it came to racial injustice, which was a very hard realization to come to as a young man who was now moving outside of his traditional neighborhood to meet some new neighbors – a tough road to travel from white America.

Bill Stringfellow’s declining health eventually had him leave New York and took him to Block Island. At one of the first speaking events I did as part of the early Sojourners, we met together at a conference on “radical discipleship” at Princeton Seminary. His voice was soft, and you had to incline your ears to hear him, but his biblical radicalism so powerfully resonated with me. I asked if we could talk and he suggested a walk around the Princeton campus — a walk that I will never forget. After our long walk, Bill said, “You should come visit on Block Island,” a place I had never heard of. So, I did, and “the island” as people here call it, has literally changed my life. Block Island became for me an almost monastic place for regular retreat and vacation, where the Bible and the newspaper are always held hand and hand.

Seeking Shelter, a recently released film about Block Island, is a description of this place as a haven for radical Christian thinking and acting that Bill Stringfellow, Dan Berrigan, and their friends created. I am absolutely delighted to share this wonderful documentary with you all this week and hope that you will watch and share it. I am very grateful to filmmaker Sue Hagedorn, also an island resident, and many other dear friends who helped create this delightful and challenging piece of work. A wonderful community of Islanders have sprung up around this film and is showing it around the country – see their amazing story right below my article. Invite them to bring Seeking Shelter to your university or church.

The film shows how the stories remain on the Island about Berrigan’s arrest at the home of his friend William Stringfellow, after being sentenced to prison for the famous Catonsville action against the Vietnam War. At the time, it prompted a feature in a national magazine that said, “On an ominous morning in August, with a fierce nor’easter blowing up black clouds and spattering rain over the harbor, Daniel Berrigan lay asleep in a manger [a little shed outside the Stringfellow house] on Block Island, R.I.,” wrote Lee Lockwood in the May 21, 1971 edition of LIFE. “... Berrigan’s Block Island routine was to rise late and breakfast lightly on coffee and a piece of bread. Afterward, with books, paper and pen, and dressed ‘in some outlandish headgear,’ he would disappear below the crest of the Mohegan Bluffs until nightfall. Reappearing then for drinks, dinner and conversation ...”

On Aug. 11, 1970, FBI agents, unconvincingly posing as birdwatchers on the island as some still remember, found and apprehended Berrigan and took him off to a correctional facility in Danbury, Conn., where he had been sentenced for three years. When asked about his own potential prosecution for harboring a federal fugitive, Stringfellow said, “I don’t fear persecution. I know we are in jeopardy, but everyone in this country is in jeopardy.” When asked why he had taken in Berrigan, Stringfellow replied, “Where does a person in this situation turn, but to his friends?”

Bill Stringfellow, who became such a dear friend, elder, and mentor for me, decided to build the small cottage for his imprisoned companion on the back of his property overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the cliffs named after a local Indigenous tribe — to give Dan a place to rest, retreat, and write after he returned from jail. Bill eventually left me as a trustee of his estate, which meant the oversight of his last remaining piece of property — a little cottage for writing and reflection that Bill had built for Dan after his release from Danbury Prison. It’s situated on the dramatic Mohegan Bluffs, where Dan and many of us often stayed.

The Stringfellow Spring Street house and Berrigan cottage became my primary retreat and only vacation destination in the years to follow, and the place where Bill, Dan, and I, often with other friends, had our most personal conversations — on long walks along the beach or paths around the island, or at Bill’s dining room table overlooking the Atlantic. I still clearly remember many a long meal with Bill and Dan, at Bill’s house or at the cottage, for some of the best theological and political conversations of my life. Watching a presidential debate together, once, after food and drinks, became one of the most hilarious nights I can ever remember with likely the best moments of political and spiritual satire I’ve ever been part of. The one thing I have kept from Bill’s house is indeed his dining room table, where such conversations continue today in our home.

Dan, members of his family, and personal friends came to that cottage for years after Bill died, and it became a sacred space for many of us. On the cottage wall, Dan had inscribed this poem.

Where this house dares stand at Land’s End and the sea turns in sleep ponderous menacing and our spirit fails and runs landward seaward askelter we pray You protect from the Law’s clawed outreach from the second death from envy’s tooth from doom’s great knell All who dwell here.

Then he kindly listed some of our names at the end of the poem.

Block Island remains for me, and now my family, a very special and, might I say, a sacred place. I proposed to my wife Joy Carroll at the North Light House on Block Island, and we have taken our boys here for many years. It’s a place we all have come to love and find both rest and renewal. We have many friends who come to the island, some to join us, some who have been coming here themselves for many years, and some locals who live here year-round. It still is an island off the coast of America that I regularly need for reflection, retreat, renewal, and play; for writing like this morning, and for my next book written here in part last summer, which comes out on September 24, Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus. An appropriate message for our time, penned in an appropriate place, over what would have been subjects of deep theological and political conversations with William Stringfellow, Daniel Berrigan, and other friends who I loved and cherished.

For extra, non-required reading, here is a personal column about the island that I wrote back in 1992 that will give you a flavor of this beautiful place.