Remembering J. Edward Guinan, Passionate Advocate for D.C.’s Most Vulnerable | Sojourners

Remembering J. Edward Guinan, Passionate Advocate for D.C.’s Most Vulnerable

Ed and Kathleen Guinan. Photo courtesy the family of Ed Guinan.
Ed and Kathleen Guinan. Photo courtesy the family of Ed Guinan.

Kathleen Thorsby was living a comfortable life in Fairfield County, Conn. in 1972 when she got word of a summer-long gathering of activists preaching a life philosophy of nonviolence. Dubbed "Oakridge" — an intentional parallel to "atomic city" Oakridge, Tenn., where the atomic bomb was built — the summer peace gathering drew hundreds from around the world and featured prominent voices from the Catholic left, among them Dorothy Day. It was Kathleen’s first real exposure to the Catholic left. It was also the summer she met J. Edward Guinan, a fiery advocate for peace and justice who spoke of intentional community and holistic nonviolence in Washington, D.C.

"I looked at two paths ahead of me — a predictable life in Fairfield County or a life with its core rooted in the works of mercy. I move[d] to D.C.," Thorsby — now Kathleen Guinan — said.

Just two years later, Ed Guinan — an ordained priest in the Catholic Church — left the Paulist order to marry Kathleen. They continued their life’s work together until Ed passed away on December 26, 2014. He was 78.

Back in 1972, Guinan — the principal organizer for Oakridge — was an emerging voice in Catholic and social justice circles in D.C., laying out a practical theology of nonviolence. In a time when the homeless were referred to as "bums" and poverty was widely cast as a consequence of weak morals or resolve, Guinan urged the dignity and rational choice inherent in each human being, while strongly condemning the systems of oppression that perpetuate injustice.

Guinan founded the Community for Creative Nonviolence in 1970. Joined by students at George Washington University, he organized "peace study houses" — intentional communities interested in practicing nonviolence — and helped produce publications, host teach-ins and lectures, and distribute pamphlets on the importance of nonviolence as a holistic and spiritual practice. As waves of social demonstrations began coming to D.C. in earnest, Guinan’s communities of peace became a hub for nonviolence activity at the national and global scale.

But Guinan was also preoccupied with loving and advocating for one’s neighbor at the individual and community level. He ended Oakridge by summoning attendees to bring peace and justice to their own communities. Together, Ed and Kathleen converted a barbershop into a community kitchen to serve the city’s poor, just six blocks from the White House.

"Ed was committed to reframing the conversation to the dignity of people who didn’t have social or political capital," said Kathleen Guinan. "So we spent a lot of time listening to what families and individuals said their needs were. It was really just an iterative process."

In listening, they discovered racial tensions, income inequality, and no infrastructure to support disenfranchised community. CCNV soon expanded into a medical clinic, a hospitality house — one of the first in the city — and soup kitchens. Later came Rachael’s Women’s Center, the first daytime shelter for homeless women.

"At the time there was no Teach For America, nothing like that. Doing hard work, meeting people where they were, and then reflecting on that became our philosophy of nonviolence," said Kathleen.

Ed’s work for peace and justice often complemented and supported Sojourners’, whose community moved to D.C. soon after.

"I knew Ed Guinan and CCNV before Sojourners came to Washington in 1975," said Jim Wallis, president and founder of Sojourners.

"But soon after we arrived we became quick allies on work around homelessness and other social justice issues. I remember we sent out a joint letter to most of the churches in Washington D.C., asking them for use of their parish halls or basements for overnight shelters — which Sojourners and CCNV promised to staff. Only two congregations replied but the work with them grew into powerful ministries that those churches themselves took over and greatly expanded."

Kathleen Guinan also speaks fondly of the overlapping work between social justice-minded groups in the city.

"We were always very close. There were so few people doing that work at that time in the city — it’s a small community really," said Guinan.

Kathleen mentions several former volunteers who went on to start their own hospitality houses, federations for organic farmers, prison rehabilitation initiatives, and food and poverty programs worldwide. 

She calls Ed’s lifework — which also includes authoring the 1979 D.C. statehood constitutional convention initiative and acting as Pax Christi USA’s first General Secretary beginning in 1972 — "a tiny seed that really sparked a lot of transformational education."

"Ed was really a catalyst for creating that framework where regardless of who you were, there was something you could do to contribute to social justice," said Kathleen.

"There were so many who had never had this experience of encountering people who were different from them. [CCNV’s programs] provided a way for them to really come together and meet."

The impact of Guinan’s work lives on in the city today. In 2008, Ed and Kathleen received the WETA Hometown Hero Award for residents working for "positive change for underprivileged people." The CCNV’s medical clinic has since grown into one of D.C.’s most recognizable service groups, Bread for the City. And according to the Washington Post, the CCNV’s Federal City Shelter still houses 1,350 beds — the country’s largest shelter for the homeless.

Indeed, the Post places Guinan firmly in the tradition of the Catholic left.

"Throughout his life, he earned a place on the Catholic left defined by the pacifism of Dorothy Day, the civil disobedience of Daniel and Philip Berrigan and the faith-driven calls of former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver to replace peace through strength with strength through peace," says Coleman McCarthy, who penned the Post's piece.

Wallis agrees.

"Ed Guinan was a prophetic Christian willing to speak out on fundamental issues of peace and justice. But I also loved his warm and inviting spirit, his fresh ideas, and the smile that came quickly to his face. Ed was a leader that I not only admired but also liked. His legacy continues on in his children and in the lives of so many people who came through the projects he began," said Wallis.

"Thank God for Ed Guinan."

He will be missed dearly by the Sojourners community.​

Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners. Find her on Twitter at @chwoodiwiss.

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