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Fired up: Catonsville files plus nine hearts; 25th anniversary of 'suffering love.' (May 17, 1968 burning of Selective Service records in Catonsville, Maryland)

RESTON, Va. - You can see it in the street mural that inner-city kids are painting on a drugstore wall in Worcester, Mass. With the help of artist Thomas Lewis, they are depicting not only their fears but their hopes for a better life. You can hear it and read it in the lectures and books of Marjorie and Thomas Melville, a former sister and priest whose lives now focus on the downtrodden in Central America.

You can read it in the plays and poetry of Daniel Berrigan and see it in the actions of his brother, Philip, as be continues his protests against the military.

The searing, defining moment of their lives - and those of their coconspirators - took place in and around the Knights of Columbus Hall in Catonsville, Md., a quarter of a century ago.

Looking back

May 17, 1968, the Catonsville Nine, as they came to be known, forcibly removed Selective Service records from the building, dumped them in wire waste-baskets and, using crudely made napalm, set them on fire with the press and the public looking on.

The event - with attendant anti-war demonstrations and heavily covered federal trial and sentencing - sent shock waves through the public and the church.

Several months later, Federal Judge Roszel Thomsen handed down sentences to the Catonsville Nine. David Darst, John Hogan, Mary Moylan and Marjorie Melville received two years in prison. Daniel Berrigan, Thomas Melville and George Mische were sentenced to three years. Philip Benigan and Thomas Lewis received three and a half years.

All served at least part of that time in prison except Darst, who, on his way to meet antiwar resisters in Milwaukee, died in a car crash Oct. 31, 1969. In an interview three months before his death, Darst said he believed the Catonsville action was worth the consequences.

"I feel that what we did was a kind of calculated risk-taking," he said. "We said we knew this might not help too much, but nothing else has worked so we will try this, and if it means jail for a while, that is the risk we will take, and I think it was worth it.

"I'm convinced that the way of civil disobedience, the way of suffering love ... is the only hope for man and for peace among men, and I hope to find the strength somewhere to go on with this action."

|Something I

had to do'

Their actions may not have stopped the war in Vietnam or military atrocities in Central America. But it certainly had a lasting effect on the participants and many of those whose lives they have touched since they played their brief parts in history a generation ago.

Certain to stir memories of the event will be a three-day, 25th anniversary observance May 21-23 at Goucher College near Baltimore. All but two of the nine participants will take part in the weekend" sponsored by Pax Christi of Baltimore and a coalition of local groups. Included in the discussions: "The Future of Resistance."

In speaking of "the inner violence" that he terms "the bomb," Lewis said, "I'm still doing artwork and saying no to the bomb."

Along with Lewis, the Berrigan brothers and the Melvilles, is Hogan, a former Maryknoll brother and now a carpenter in New Haven; Mische, a labor organizer in St. Cloud, Minn.; and Moylan, a former nurse in Uganda. The late Darst was a one-time Christian brother.

It is difficult to say that their civil disobedience had a lasting effect, several of the participants said in interviews.

"We were nobodies before and we're nobodies now," said Thomas Melville. "It was something I had to do. That's it."

For Melville and his wife, Marjorie, the issue was not so much Vietnam as it was Guatemala. He had been a missionary there and she a Maryknoll nun before they got married, only months before their date in Catonsville. "What we had to say was largely lost," he said.

Melville said writing a book about Guatemala is all the protest be cares to make at the moment. One loses perspective, he said, in constantly going up against the barricades, and "the message gets confused with the personality." But that does not mean be is finished with civil disobedience, he said. "I'd rather end my life in a jail cell than in a hospital bed," be added.

Marjorie Melville, who heads the Chicano Studies Department at the University, of California at Berkeley, said there were lasting ripples. "It was an event that caught people's attention," she says. "It created options for all of us to visit different communities all across the United States... "It was the idea of personal responsibility, that citizens have a right and an obligation to make their sense of what is right known."

Philip Berrigan is the least changed of the group. Along with his wife, Elizabeth McAllister, the former priest runs Jonah House in Baltimore. They collect food for the poor and continue acts of civil disobedience that frequently land them in jail.

Prison "is one of the few places where you can identify with the poor," he said. "We're on the same plane." By his count he has spent 73 months behind bars in 25 years, and "I don't suppose I'm finished yet," he said.

Berrigan conceded that "the world's a little less precarious" than it was then but that the United States still spends $280 billion on the military. "The economy is being bankrupted to endanger the human family," he said. "So those who are thoughtful and knowledgeable don't have anything to do but continue."

Daniel Berrigan, whose play, "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine," was staged around the world, lives in New York City, where be remains active as a pacifist, teacher and writer. In an interview with Baltimore's City Paper, he said Catonsville "stunned, shocked and scandalized" the U.S. Catholic church, and that helped make it more contentious.

If the church has any function at all," he said, "it is to keep yelling that people are the heart."
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Author:Clancy, Paul
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:May 21, 1993
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