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To be free from fear: The Berrigan family's call to action

inaugural Berrigan-McAlister Award

Special Collections and Archives published its new digital exhibit, “To Be Free From Fear": The Berrigan Family's Call To Action, to celebrate the presentation of the inaugural Berrigan-McAlister Award in early May. Spearheaded by faculty in the Department of Catholic Studies, DePaul bestows the recognition to a person or organization who exemplifies active Christian nonviolence like that practiced by Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J.; Phillip Berrigan; and Elizabeth McAlister. This year's inaugural recipients are the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, a group of Christian activists who were arrested for entering the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia in 2018 to protest nuclear weapons of mass destruction. 
McAlister's letter from 1977
Liz McAlister's letter dating back to 1977. (Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives)

The online exhibit, curated by Jade Ryerson, a DePaul senior and Special Collections and Archives student assistant, focuses on the values that inspired generations of the Berrigan family to speak out against injustice and war. Documents and photographs from the Berrigan family archives highlight the wisdom, commitment and hope that sparked the Plowshares movement.  However, years before the family focused their war resistance efforts on nuclear weapons, brothers Philip, Daniel and Jerome absorbed lessons taught by their devout Catholic parents. The exhibit features a letter from their mother, who writes:

“There is so much said about 'the Love of God,' without ever a mention of how to carry our burdens for 'the Love of God.'"

Perhaps the question of “how to carry our burdens" was a formative call to action for the Berrigan brothers? Notable events in the lives of the Berrigan brothers described in the exhibit certainly indicate an awareness of their mother's insight.

Philip Berrigan and Liz McAlister made a lifelong commitment to each other and to creating a peaceful world. The letters composed while they were serving prison sentences for protest actions balance emotion and enlightenment. The exhibit's title comes from one such letter dated Jan. 26, 1977, written by Liz to her two small children, Frida and Jerome. In the opening sentence of a very short letter she sums up the purpose of her work:

“To be free from fear of having all of life vaporized by seemingly reasonable folk – is what it is all about dear little ones." 

Newspaper articles from the student newspaper shed light on the relationship between the Berrigans and DePaul, which was cultivated by Robert Ludwig, who became the first layperson to serve as director of University Ministry in 1989. Dan Berrigan taught classes and gave lectures in the 1990s. In 2002, the university invited Jerry and his younger sister, Kate, to speak at DePaul's Human Dignity Week. They shared their experiences growing up in Jonah House, a faith-based community in Baltimore, Maryland, founded by a group that included their parents, Phil and Liz.

At another college appearance, Jerry explained: “Generally, Jonah House is committed to three very Biblical, very Catholic principles, which we believe are interdependent: community, nonviolence, and resistance."

Since 2001, scholars and filmmakers have consulted the Berrigan family archives and related peace activism collections in DePaul's Special Collections and Archives for their books, articles and documentaries. DePaul students have analyzed primary sources from the collections in history classes, and archivists have collaborated with faculty teaching courses in the Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies program to integrate selected materials into their curriculum. People are drawn to the primary sources created by the Berrigan family and their network of supporters because they document the power of community rooted in shared values. Their poetry, letters, essays, and photographs echo Phil Berrigan's message:

“Peacemaking is not only a central characteristic of the Gospel, peacemaking is the greatest need of the world today."