Blessed Memory: Bob Randels and Jim Forest

Bob Randels (+September 14, 2021+) and I met Jim Forest (+January 13, 2022+) – both now of blessed memory – in 1974 when we were seminarians at Union in NYC. Forest was part of Emmaus House in Harlem then, though we were around him at the Thomas Merton Center based just blocks away from us at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Our teacher, Dan Berrigan, had pointed us there. Forest had fallen in with the NY Catholic Worker after departing the Navy as a conscientious objector. He eventually became editor of the paper and his connection with Merton began as editorial correspondence. In 1964 he was part of Merton’s Gethsemani retreat on “The Spiritual Roots of Protest,” which radically deepened the activism of the Catholic Left. In subsequent communication, he was eventually recipient of a letter from Merton, famously come to be known as “Letter to a Young Activist.”

That Merton Center (there have been more than one) put out a fine reflective newsletter (including an issue with Dan’s recollections of the Gethsemani retreat), organized demonstrations (we were part of one with Daniel at St. Patrick’s Cathedral), and published a long prison poem of his, A Letter to the Vietnamese, done as a series of interlocking posters with art by Tom Lewis. Though we were not in attendance, when Elizabeth McAlister and Philip Berrigan married, I believe it was basically in Merton Center digs.

As Bob and I approached graduation, we anticipated heading back to Michigan with our partners and friends to form a small nonviolent resistance community. We were looking to maintain our probationary (diaconal) orders with the United Methodist Church, so were trying to figure out an appointment we could serve. One opportunity presented itself: to be the unpaid staff of the Methodist Peace Fellowship, then little more than a mailing list affiliated with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. First step was a trek up to Nyack, NY and a meeting with Jim Forest and Richard Deats, then national staff of the FOR. We were novices in both organizing and church work, but they welcomed us warmly – most likely with an advance word from Dan.

I picture meeting in a room with big bay windows overlooking the Hudson, but I may be making that up. What’s for certain is the four of us sitting on the floor for a simple tea ceremony and talk. A contemplative atmosphere obtained. Life sharing, conversion stories to gospel nonviolence, and visions of work, of community. The two of them were affirming, supportive, and excited about what we were offering, basically for free (on the Catholic Worker model). As far as they were concerned, this was a go, and we wrote to the bishop that we had the institutional basis for a special appointment.

All that remained was to meet with the executive committee of the Methodist Fellowship. Another trek to Nyack as I recall. A room with more formal chairs. As we shared our vision, they began to offer ostensibly helpful suggestions. Had we considered the United Farm Workers? Were there any peace centers already established in Michigan churches? It gradually came clear they were declining the offer. We were wild cards to be sure, appearing out of nowhere to take over their largely dormant operation. But they were also established Methodists, convinced that if UM’s were going to do peace work, they ought do so through United Methodist structures, like The Board of Church and Society. They were gonna hold tight the mailing list. We were slow for this rejection to dawn on us, but we eventually departed disabused of our hopes. We wrote the bishop that our institutional apparatus had collapsed, but we were going to Battle Creek in any event. We would forego appointment and take leaves of absence – unless they wanted to appoint us to the little board which governed our destination, Peaceways. We didn’t realize we were effectively hardballing the bishop and cabinet, but in the end, they appointed us to Rebecca Shelley’s wooded rural community. And thereby begins another tale.

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I met Forest again on my own in 1982 when I attended the first European Nuclear Disarmament Conference in Brussels, Belgium. Can’t even remember who sponsored me, but I stayed with the Little Brothers of Jesus Community there. Must have been over July 4th because one of the brothers, intending an honor, made a cake with red, white, and blue frosting!  The conference was a great event which included activists from the eastern bloc. Lots of conversation. In the aftermath I got myself to Jim and Nancy’s bright and compact little home in Alkmaar, Netherlands. Another lovely visit, more tea as I recall, and a tour of the International FOR office which he was then directing.

We corresponded periodically, most recently when he was working on his Daniel Berrigan biography and memoir. He was then inviting contributions of collective memory to the project and in turn was gracious to me as I undertook the book of my own reflections on Dan. The last time I saw him face to face was in Birmingham, AL a couple years ago. He was there to lead the Advent retreat for Jim and Shelley Douglass’s Mary House community – in the course of which he asked me to offer a little presentation on the Water Struggle here in Detroit.

Both he and Bob were good, deep, and generous souls – ones who’ll be missed by many – disciples of Jesus and true Catholic (or Protestant) Workers. Thanks be to God.

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