Despite age and poor health, Jesuit activist continues to fight for peace

Jesuit Fr. Bill Bichsel protests at the National Nuclear Security Administration's Kansas City Plant in July 2013. (NCR photo/Kate Simmons)

Jesuit Fr. William Bichsel is in fragile health -- heart condition, blurred vision, impaired balance -- yet still does not shy away from harnessing himself to the peace plow.

The 86-year-old longtime peace and justice activist recently returned home to the Catholic Worker house in Tacoma, Wash., from South Korea, where he took part in the ongoing resistance against construction of a massive naval base.

Bichsel said he has been "deeply moved by the deep pool of grace" he encountered during his two trips to the village of Gangjeong on the southern edge of South Korea's Jeju Island, where construction of a naval base has been progressing for more than seven years. 

The scope of the South Korean government's project makes it clear that the base will accommodate large U.S. naval vessels and stand as a hedge to the growing Chinese global influence.

"Bix," as Bichsel is known to friends and colleagues, described the "very faithful, sustained, day-in-and-day-out" struggle of Gangjeong villagers, priests and nuns as "a great sign of Eucharistic resistance."

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Bichsel and nine others, most from the Puget Sound area, journeyed to Jeju Island for 12 days in mid-November to join those local opposition efforts, which include almost-daily Mass near the gates to the base site.

At these demonstrations, protesters sit in chairs to block trucks from entering. Bichsel joined them in a wheelchair, having been taken to the location with friends' help.

To allow trucks to enter, Korean police pick up protesters and move them. Bichsel said police picked him up and placed him aside multiple times daily.

"It's sort of like a choreography," Bichsel told Tacoma's The News Tribune.

"There is a wealth of grace there from which we can draw," he told NCR.

He said he encourages "any who can find a way" to travel to Gangjeong. "It is a life-changing to experience to taste and feel the warmth and constancy and commitment" in their opposition to the base despite "the cards being stacked against them."

The Jesuit praised local Bishop Peter Kang U-il as well as the Society of Jesus province serving the area for backing the protest effort. In a written reflection on his first trip to Jeju Island last year, Bichsel called Kang "a servant leader who believes and follows Jesus who walks in the market places and the roadways where the poor and the outcasts live" and credited the bishop's "daily calling to peace and non-violent action" against "forces that deprive humanity of life and livelihood" as "the foundation of this on-going resistance."

Similarly, Bichsel wrote, "Never have I been more proud of the Jesuits or affiliated with a Province that is so involved in the works of social justice. Not only have Jesuits been assigned full time to this apostolate, but the entire Province is behind it."

Pope Francis' visit to South Korea in August was well-received and appreciated, Bichsel said, but advocates of the Jeju resistance were disappointed that the pope did not visit the island itself. Kang, who heads the Korean bishops' conference, had traveled to Rome prior to the papal trip to ask the pope to do so.

However, Bichsel noted, Francis treated Kang and Jesuit resistance leaders warmly. 

Asked how he responds to those who defend the Jeju base as tactically important, Bichsel said: "The United States already has more than 950 military bases throughout the world to protect American resources and military supremacy."

Depending on the definition of military installation, the U.S. has between 700 and 1,000 military facilities in roughly 150 countries, according to multiple sources.

Bichsel also plans to be part of next month's annual nonviolent action at Naval Base Kitsap, a naval submarine base on the Hood Canal near Bangor, Wash.

The priest estimates he has taken part in "about 75 percent" of the annual nuclear submarine protests that began some four decades ago.

He missed some of the actions because he was in jail. In all, Bichsel has spent more than two years in various prisons, including a year in a federal facility in 1996 for his part in the School of the Americas protests in Fort Benning, Ga.

Bichsel has also been incarcerated for three months for breaching security at the nuclear submarine base. In 2011, he was sentenced to another three months in a federal jail near Seattle for trespassing at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Part of the latter sentence was served in solitary confinement.

During interviews, Bichsel will sidestep personal questions and try to steer conversation toward the situations he deplores, most of which come under what he and colleagues describe as "ongoing, unabated works of war" and "forces of militarism."

Is he ever accused of grandstanding?

"Oh, yeah, publicity [seeking] has come up a lot," he said. "We do check ourselves. If it seems that we are being motivated by publicity ... we have to check our own motivations and try to insure that we are actually ... being faithful to the mission of ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction."

"I know it sounds idealistic," he added, "but I do feel very strongly in the Resurrection and how we can act together. I believe strongly in my heart in the power of God and the power of creation and the Resurrection. They are much stronger than the powers of death."

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR West Coast correspondent. His email address is dmyoung@ncronline.org.]

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