Two Jesuit names worthier of Georgetown halls

Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan in 1992 (CNS/Babette Augustin)

Of the roils and rumbles that have been shaking the nation's campuses this past fall on racial issues -- at the University of Missouri, Princeton, Yale, Duke, Amherst, Kansas State University, Claremont McKenna, among others -- the student agitators I know best and admire most are ones at Georgetown University. I've been on its adjunct law faculty for 27 years and this past semester have been teaching "Peace Is Possible," an undergraduate course with 50 students.

On a Friday and Saturday in mid-November, some 30 students, many of them active in the Black Leadership Forum, staged a sit-in outside the office of the Jesuit school's president, John DeGioia.

Sprawled on the floor of the chandeliered and wood-paneled chamber and being of the iPhone and laptop generation, the students were agile at multitasking. Protest, yes, but abandon texting, no. Self-hushed and well-mannered, they mindfully tried not to disturb the president's secretary as she worked at her desk.

Being a teacher who encourages students to move beyond grinding for grades and resumé-building and, instead, rouse their spirits to take risks for what is just and true, I took time to visit the sit-in and offer some words of support. I was heartened that the students were carrying on the effective tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.: When the other side doesn't see the light, make 'em feel the heat.

In a corner of the chamber was one of the lights: a large-lettered sign, "Change the Names." The students had a demand, among others, that two of the campus buildings be renamed.

In the 1830s, a decade that saw Nat Turner leading a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Va., two Jesuit priests were involved in selling the university's slaves -- said to be more than 272 -- to Louisiana plantation owners. The total payment came to $33,000 -- adjusted for inflation, $900,000 by the university's count. For their fiscal acumen, Jesuit Frs. William McSherry and Thomas Mulledy had two buildings named after them.

The heat of the protest worked quickly. After the second day, a 15-member Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, which included five current students, three Jesuit priests and several professors, recommended that the names be canned. The school's board of directors approved.

Related: From MLK to Ferguson: Catholic identity and the struggle for racial justice

Interim names, Remembrance Hall and Freedom Hall, were selected -- with permanent names to be chosen in the spring. The working group has publicly said it welcomes suggestions.

I have two: Jesuits Fr. Richard McSorley and Daniel Berrigan, both all heart, both pacifists steeled in the works of peacemaking, racial justice and fidelity to Christ's teachings on nonviolence.

McSorley, a Jesuit for 70 years until his death in 2002, founded Georgetown's Center for Peace Studies, a one-man operation that survived on pennies. He routinely protested the school's hosting of the military's ROTC program. His persistent question for the school's administration was "Should we teach life and love or death and hate?"

After his ordination in the late 1940s, he was assigned to St. James Parish in southern Maryland, where the overt racism meant that blacks and whites sat and took Communion separately. The young priest rebelled.

"As I consulted brother Jesuits," he recalled in his 1996 autobiography, My Path to Peace and Justice, "this was the advice I received: If you speak out about segregation, you will never be appointed to any position of honor in the Jesuit order. I knew of no one else in the province who spoke out against segregation. I would be alone."

It turned out that way. Realizing that his politics and pacifism were too far to the left of Georgetown Jesuits, he moved off campus to satisfy his needs for community by living in the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House, which he co-founded in Washington's Petworth neighborhood in the 1980s.

Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit for 76 years, now frail at age 94 and living in New York City, is mostly likely to be remembered, along with Day and Thomas Merton, as one of Catholicism's giants of the 20th century.

As with McSorley, Berrigan was a dissenter who fiercely opposed America's military might and did hard time in prisons for his repeated acts of civil disobedience. His militancy also edged him to the fringes of his order.

He wrote in his autobiography, To Dwell in Peace, one of his four dozen books, that too often Jesuits "fall victim to worldly ways; that we allow ourselves to be pelted with that filth that goes by the name of 'riches, honors, the credit of a great name.' "

"Now and again, this has been our shame," he wrote. "Jesuits have woven the Byzantine toils and mazes of Roman politics, have laid out little and paid up nothing. We have sought institutional prospering, and whored after the rich; and so built up a kingdom of twilight."

Not surprisingly, Berrigan has never received an honorary degree from Georgetown, spoken at commencement or been asked to teach.

At the beginning of the semester last September, I asked my undergraduates if any had read the writings of McSorley or Berrigan. No hand rose. Perhaps if the university graces itself with McSorley and Berrigan halls, future Georgetown students may take it upon themselves to learn about these two prophetic and steadfast souls and be energized to carry on their missions to increase peace and decrease violence.

[Colman McCarthy, a former columnist for The Washington Post, directs the Center for Teaching Peace, a Washington nonprofit.]

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