REV. BILL BICHSEL CALLED TO CIVIL RESISTANCE
By Steve Maynard
** Despite health problems, Tacoma activist the Rev. Bill Bichsel has an undimmed passion for people in need -- and for peace **
News Tribune (Tacoma, WA)
August 24, 2008
[PHOTO CAPTION: The Rev. Bill Bichsel, left, chats with George Rodkey during a vigil Aug. 6 outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Tacoma. The vigil commemorated the atomic bombing of Japan in World War II.]
[PHOTO CAPTION: The Rev. Bill Bichsel has been taking a stand against injustice for more than 32 years, earning the admiration of all who support his views and many who don’t. The Tacoma priest turned 80 in May and is weakened by heart problems.]
[PHOTO CAPTION: Bichsel is arrested by Federal Protective Service police at the U.S. District Courthouse in Tacoma after chaining himself to the doors as an anti-war protest in 2003.]
Admirers approached the Rev. Bill Bichsel at a downtown Tacoma peace vigil in early August and savored the moments with him. April Quint gave the Jesuit priest a bottle of water and a necklace with a dove pendant. She was meeting him for the first time.
“I’ve heard tales of him from everyone,” said Quint, 52, of Federal Way. “Mostly, I just wanted to thank him for taking a stand for peace.”
Bichsel has made his stand frequently and visibly for more than 32 years. He has led protesters rallying against U.S. military programs and weapons. He’s been arrested dozens of times for trespassing. He’s been convicted and incarcerated more than a half-dozen times, spending nearly two years total in jails and prisons.
More quietly, the Tacoma-born priest has helped feed and shelter homeless people in his hometown for decades.
Bichsel renewed his call to action upon turning 80 years old in May, inviting others at his birthday party to join him. Five days later, he was one of a dozen people arrested -- some for trespassing, others for disorderly conduct -- while protesting Trident submarines and nuclear missiles at the Navy’s Bangor submarine base.
But now, weakened by heart problems, he faces limits on his ability to push for a world without war and help those in need.
While the man simply known as “Bix” inspires many, even some supporters disagree with his tactics.
At a neighborhood-watch party near Bichsel’s home on Tacoma’s Hilltop, neighbor Welton Wesley said the priest goes too far when he trespasses and violates the law. Even so, Wesley supports Bichsel’s drive.
“We’re followers of him who share his passion and compassion,” said Wesley, 55, who’s known Bichsel for more than 20 years.
During that time, Bichsel shouted down then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in Seattle to draw attention to the homeless. He chained himself to the doors of the federal courthouse in Tacoma after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And he repeatedly protested at the Army’s School of the Americas in Georgia, alleging that it trained Latin American soldiers involved in human rights abuses.
“I think he’s a great man because of his unflinching love of people in any circumstance and his undying love for the poor and the left out,” Wesley said.
Bichsel estimates he’s been arrested 45 times for protesting since his first “life-changing” demonstration at Bangor in 1976. Most charges were dismissed, he said, because judges didn’t want to take up court time or give the protesters publicity.
He said he has no misgivings about his actions.
“I have only regrets of not having done more.”
Time may be running short for Bichsel. Serious heart problems, including poor blood flow and a leaky valve, are slowing him down.
He’s had two bypass surgeries in less than 20 years and doctors talk about performing a third bypass -- this one especially dangerous because of his health and age.
They leave the choice to Bichsel, who says he hasn’t made up his mind. Without surgery, he will become weaker and the risk of heart attack will increase, he said.
He’s already not able to carry out his work helping homeless people. He can’t tend to the community gardens near the three-bedroom house he lives in on Tacoma Avenue South.
The 5-foot-11-inch priest has lost a dozen pounds in the past two years, his weight falling to 158.
Despite physical weakness, Bichsel led a service at an Aug. 5 neighborhood-watch party. He spoke against nuclear weapons and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The next day, he sat outside the federal courthouse along Pacific Avenue for a peace vigil with two dozen others. He was nearing the end of a seven-day fast marking the 63rd anniversary of the bombings.
Bichsel has long been a lightning rod for praise and criticism.
Retired Lt. Gen. Bill Harrison recognizes that Bichsel has the constitutional right to protest against the military. But once he exceeds the law, he should be prosecuted, said Harrison, commander of Fort Lewis from 1987-89 and a former Lakewood mayor.
“I don’t agree with anyone who breaks the law in any way,” he said.
“As far as what the father is doing regarding the School of the Americas, I disagree with him,” said Harrison, who has never met Bichsel. “It’s turned out some great soldiers and great leaders for Central and South America.”
Tom Danaher, public affairs officer for Naval Base Kitsap, which includes Bangor, said Bichsel has the right to protest and does so in a civil way.
“He’s an American exercising his rights,” Danaher said. “He’s respectful. He’s not contentious.”
Closer to home, Bichsel joined anti-war protests against the loading and unloading of Fort Lewis Stryker combat vehicles at the ports of Tacoma and Olympia in 2007. He was not arrested.
He also took part in rallies in Tacoma supporting Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, an Iraq war objector charged with missing his Stryker brigade deployment. Watada’s court-martial ended in a mistrial.
Mike Tucci has known Bichsel since 1955 when Bichsel was his teacher at Bellarmine Preparatory School in Tacoma. Bichsel taught there three years as part of his training for the priesthood.
Tucci, chairman of Tucci & Sons construction company in Tacoma, admires Bichsel for helping poor people but disagrees with some of his protests.
“I’ve told him so,” Tucci said. “The ones at Bangor, I just don’t believe in. I think we need a nuclear deterrent.”
Still, Tucci praises Bichsel as a “very humble example of how Jesus wants you to live your life.”
Susan Dobkins, 42, said he is a role model and a source of hope.
“Anybody that chains himself to the doors of the federal courthouse has a lot of guts,” Dobkins said at the peace vigil. “He’s just not afraid. Civil disobedience is about breaking unjust laws.”
Bichsel is part of the Tacoma Catholic Worker community he co-founded in 1989. The seven-person community runs Guadalupe House at 1417 S. G St., offering shelter to the homeless in six houses.
Tacoma Catholic Worker provides Bichsel with room and board in one of the houses. The Jesuits also provide Bichsel with health and auto insurance and a 1994 beige Geo Prizm.
Bichsel’s only income comes from stipends he receives for celebrating Mass as a fill-in priest at local parishes and presiding at weddings and funerals. He has no bank account.
Bichsel, who rarely wears a clerical collar, hasn’t led a parish since he was an assistant pastor at St. Leo Catholic Church on Tacoma’s Hilltop more than 30 years ago. But he has hundreds of supporters.
At least 300 people showed up for his 80th birthday party at Holy Cross Community Hall.
Bichsel calls his protests civil resistance -- not civil disobedience -- because he doesn’t believe he’s breaking the law. He said he is upholding international laws, such as the Principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal, which prohibit war crimes and crimes against peace and humanity.
“I never get the sense that I am a lawbreaker or that I am a criminal,” he said. “I am an enforcer of the law.”
On other Catholic issues, Bichsel said he opposes abortion and capital punishment but supports the ordination of women priests. He focuses his protests on what he calls the U.S. government’s use of weapons to dominate other countries.
Bichsel said the United States should pursue peace through international dialogue and disarm and abolish its nuclear weapons.
“I believe the possession of nuclear weapons is incompatible with the non-violence of Jesus,” he said.
At the neighborhood-watch party, David Fewster got Bichsel’s attention long enough to sing a song he and his wife, Heidi, wrote for the priest.
The song recalled Bichsel’s roots in Tacoma as the son of a railroad engineer. George Bichsel led the nationwide union for Northern Pacific locomotive engineers. He and his wife, Sarah, had seven children -- six boys and a girl.
William Jerome Bichsel was the next-to-youngest child and the youngest son, born on May 26, 1928, at St. Joseph Hospital. The family lived on South G Street at 27th Street.
Of his siblings, three brothers are still living -- Jack in St. Paul, Minn.; Jim in Tacoma; and Tom in Anchorage.
Bichsel said he keeps in touch with them regularly by phone.
Tom Bichsel said that his younger brother was “a pretty ordinary kid” with a lot of neighborhood friends. The brothers played baseball together, accidentally breaking windows at their own house and at neighbors’ homes with their batting exploits.
Tom Bichsel, 82, recalled an incident when Bill, then 5 or 6, put a lit punk in his pants pocket filled with firecrackers. The explosives went off, burning Bill’s leg.
“He was just a kid,” Tom Bichsel said. “I think he’s a great guy. We’re great friends.”
The family was raised Roman Catholic. Early on, their mother planted the seeds of a discerning faith.
“My mother was feeding people on the back porch during the Depression,” Bill Bichsel recalled. She served meat -- not fish -- on Fridays because that’s what was available. Catholic Church law forbade eating meat on Fridays.
Bichsel, then 7, told her, “That’s wrong. That’s a sin.”
His mother replied, “God understands. It’s all right.”
Bichsel went on to attend Bellarmine. He played football, basketball, and baseball, went to dances and had girlfriends.
A school buddy who planned to enter the priesthood encouraged Bichsel to join him, and pushed for an answer.
On the way back from a dance, lying in the back of his friend’s 1938 Ford after drinking too much beer the night before, Bichsel answered: “Yes, I think so.”
“I wasn’t sure where that came from,” he recalled recently.
In 1946, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Sheridan, Ore. Two years later, he professed vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Bichsel studied theology in Germany and was ordained in Berlin in 1959. The entire 15-year course for the priesthood included two more years of training.
The priest experienced one of the worst years of his life in 1968-69 school year while teaching religion at Seattle Preparatory School.
Parents at the increasingly affluent school complained that what he taught “bordered on communism,” Bichsel said. Their accusations were untrue; he was teaching about economic justice and the nonviolence of Jesus, he recalled.
That also was the year he had a relationship with a woman, Bichsel said. He thought about leaving the priesthood because he felt guilty. Instead, he broke off the relationship.
“I felt God’s forgiveness,” Bichsel said. “I had a harder time forgiving myself. I felt like I was leading a double life.”
Some difficult periods of depression also afflicted Bichsel. For years, he drank -- sometimes so much that it affected his relationships. He said he stopped drinking in 1981.
Bichsel’s commitment to civil disobedience grew over time, from taking part in Vietnam War protests while studying in Boston to his first protest at Bangor.
The writings and nonviolent actions of two Catholic priests, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, led Bichsel to become more involved in the peace movement. He took part in prayer vigils, fasted for peace and wrote to Washington’s congressional delegation to protest military spending.
He’s also worked for change in more conventional ways, such as by voting regularly.
His first arrest at Bangor opened the door to a life of civil disobedience.
It was Aug. 9, 1976 -- the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing. Bangor was under construction. A leader of a group of protesters asked for volunteers to carry a 600-foot-long replica of the Trident submarine onto the base.
Bichsel was moved by a Buddhist monk drumming in front of a photo of bombed-out Nagasaki.
“I said, ‘I’ll go,’” Bichsel recalled.
They cut a hole in the chain-link fence and trespassed onto the base with the mock sub. Bichsel was one of 70 people arrested; his charge was later dismissed.
“It was a life-changing experience,” Bichsel said. “I knew, by crossing over there, that would be the direction I was going in.”
He has since inspired others to protest at Bangor, including Jerry and Mary Ann Toohey of Tacoma. They’ve known Bichsel 35 years and call him “a holy man.”
“You need someone who gets you doing those things you thought you would never do,” said Mary Ann Toohey, 71, at the neighborhood-watch gathering.
These days, Bichsel lives behind Guadalupe House, a dozen blocks from where he was raised.
“I tell people in 80 years I moved a mile,” he said.
An oak table in his living room contains photos of some of his inspirations, including Gandhi, Catholic Worker Movement founder Dorothy Day, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Bichsel calls the group a “cloud of witnesses.” Based on the New Testament Book of Hebrews, it’s a heavenly cloud that Bichsel said he someday hopes to join, although he doesn’t equate himself with his heroes.
The aging priest said he remains motivated by the struggle to advance the values and kingdom that Jesus advocated.
“I’m more concerned about it here on Earth than I am for it in heaven,” Bichsel said. “I don’t want to wait for heaven.”
Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647
BICHSEL'S 10 STEPS TO PEACE
1. Establish a Cabinet-level Department of Peace.
2. Establish an international team led by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, to negotiate an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
3. Add a Cabinet-level position for alternate, nonfossil energy sources.
4. Establish a U.S. nuclear weapons disarmament task force.
5. Cease U.S. research and production of nuclear weapons.
6. Train workers to care for the environment and the country’s infrastructure, including roads and bridges.
7. Provide health care -- including mental health coverage -- to all U.S. residents.
8. Ensure adequate education for all U.S. residents.
9. Provide adequate housing for all U.S. residents.
10. Use land wisely for growing vegetables and other healthful foods and increase education about proper nutrition.
--Steve Maynard, The News Tribune
THE REV. WILLIAM J. BICHSEL
1928 Born at St. Joseph Hospital in Tacoma.
1946 Graduated high school from Bellarmine Preparatory School in Tacoma.
1946-61 The road to the priesthood: training in Sheridan, Ore.; teaching at Bellarmine; studying theology in Germany and near Los Gatos, Calif.; final training in Port Townsend.
1959 Ordained in Berlin.
1961-63 Assistant pastor at St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Spokane.
1963-66 Dean of students at Gonzaga University.
1966-68 Earned master’s degree in counseling at Boston University.
1968-69 Taught religion at Seattle Preparatory School.
1969-76 Assistant pastor at St. Leo Catholic Church on Hilltop.
1969 Helped start the Martin Luther King Center in Tacoma for homeless people.
1979 Moved into Guadalupe House in Tacoma to help shelter homeless people.
1982 Co-founded the G Street Community to expand Guadalupe House to include mentally ill people.
1989 Co-founded the Tacoma Catholic Worker community, which reorganized Guadalupe House.
NOTABLE PROTESTS, ARRESTS, AND IMPRISONMENTS
1980 Served four months at the federal prison camp in Lompac, Calif., for jumping the fence and trespassing the year before at the Trident submarine base at Bangor, Kitsap County.
1988 Shouted and disrupted a speech by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush at Seattle University. Cited for trespassing, but the charge was dropped.
1998-99 Served 362 days at the Sheridan Federal Prison Camp near Portland for attempting to damage government property and for criminal trespass during two 1997 protests at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga. In one protest, Bichsel dipped his hand in red paint -- symbolizing blood -- and placed his handprint on a Fort Benning sign. The Sheridan prison is near the site where Bichsel trained for the priesthood.
2003 Chained himself to the front doors of the U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Tacoma to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Spent five days at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac in 2004.
2008 Arrested May 31 for trespassing while protesting at the Bangor naval base; Bichsel will be arraigned Sept. 3 in Tacoma.