A Passionate Education

Kate Berrigan has a problem. She and a friend have moved into a new apartment and their phone isn’t working properly. She e-mails me apologetically. "We can reschedule the interview, or I can go wait by a pay phone for you to call me," she offers.

Phone troubles are pretty standard fare for college students. Berrigan’s offer to do a 40-minute interview from a public phone booth is less so. The child of social justice activists, she possesses one of the qualities that seems to distinguish this unique—and often unacknowledged—group: It takes a lot more to inconvenience an activist’s kid than it does for most of us.

So what was life like for those whose parents worked on the front lines for peace and justice? In addition to Berrigan, the 19-year-old daughter of Elizabeth McAlister and Philip Berrigan, I recently spoke with Tom Douglass, 30, son of Jim and Shelley Douglass; Marc Mealy, 36, son of Rosemari Mealy; Laura Harris, 40, daughter of LaDonna and Fred Harris; and Cecil Gray, 41, son of Victoria Gray Adams.

THE PRICE OF ACTIVIST PARENTS. While activist parents might worry about their children’s alienation from classmates, the individuals with whom I spoke said isolation from peers isn’t the problem. The problem is separation from your parents.

Berrigan talks candidly about growing up in a radical Catholic family. Her father, Philip (along with his brother, Daniel), came to activist fame with the Catonsville Nine, an anti-Vietnam protest group that burned draft files in a Maryland Selective Service office in 1967. "I grew up in Jonah House (a religious anti-war community in Baltimore founded by her parents). But I can’t talk about that time without talking about my mom. In ’82 or ’83, she went to prison for two and a half years."

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2002
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