Giving Peace a Chance a Century after Its Patron's Birth, the Pittsburgh Thomas Merton Center Celebrates His Life and Rededicates Itself to His Life's Work and Expands Its Vision of Social Justice, Writes Charles Mccollester

By McCollester, Charles | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 12, 2015 | Go to article overview

Giving Peace a Chance a Century after Its Patron's Birth, the Pittsburgh Thomas Merton Center Celebrates His Life and Rededicates Itself to His Life's Work and Expands Its Vision of Social Justice, Writes Charles Mccollester


McCollester, Charles, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Already an activist with 19 years of Catholic education, I discovered the Thomas Merton Center during the 1970s.

Center co-founder Molly Rush, knowing that I had hitchhiked across Poland in 1967, asked me to speak when the annual Thomas Merton Award was given "to the People of Poland" in 1982. It was the only time the award - also presented to Dorothy Day, Dom Helder Camara of Brazil, Noam Chomsky and Martin Sheen over the years - was bestowed on an entire nation. Martial law had been declared, but the massive, nonviolent uprising of Poles in shipyards, mines, mills and streets fundamentally changed the politics of Europe. The movement was suppressed but ultimately triumphed.

Ms. Rush impressed me as the leader of a different type of activist organization. She was a mother of six who had put her life on the line for her beliefs. Her commitment to family extended to encompass the entire human family threatened with nuclear annihilation. Through more than 40 years of engagement inspired by the ecumenical spirit of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, she and the Merton Center, founded in 1972, have provided inspiration to Pittsburghers engaged in social justice issues. While the founders were Catholic, the spirit always has been all- embracing and nonsectarian.

Inspired by a Trappist monk

Unlike traditional leftist organizations that support causes to advance their organizational goals or ideology, the Merton Center embraces the ecumenical vision of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and spiritual writer, who was born Jan. 31, 1915, in Prades, France, to nonreligious parents. Educated at the University of Cambridge and Columbia University during the Depression, he wandered spiritually, spending a year close to the Communist Party in New York. Ultimately, he was alienated by the party's capacity to condemn all war as imperialist one year, call for all-out war against fascism the next and then switch back without any apparent twinge of conscience. He converted to Catholicism and became a Trappist dedicated to silence, prayer and physical work, dying Dec. 10, 1968, in Bangkok, Thailand.

On March 18, 1958, he had a revelation on a Kentucky street corner. He recalled being "suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people" who were "walking around shining like the sun." This vision inspired his final social justice phase, rooted in a commitment to confront the threat of nuclear war and human annihilation. It is fitting that Muhammad Ali Boulevard traverses Thomas Merton Square in today's Louisville. Ali was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and Merton was a fierce opponent of racism and a bridge builder to other faiths.

Merton insisted that Christians had a duty to struggle for the end of war. His social commentaries increasingly attacked the intellectual roots of the Cold War between Soviet Russia and the United States: "The fact that they are powerful does not mean that they are sane, and the fact that they speak with intense conviction does not mean that they speak the truth."

Active on many fronts

Like its namesake, the Merton Center is collaborative and spiritual. Over the years, it has worked closely with Quakers, the NAACP, the Catholic Interracial Council, Dignity, Amnesty International, Pax Christi, the American Civil Liberties Union, Hunger Action Coalition, Veterans for Peace, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network and many others. It has supported farm worker-led boycotts, plant closing struggles and anti-sweatshop groups. The center played a leading role in the founding of the Jubilee Kitchen, Uptown, and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne.

The center has supported Haitian solidarity, ending the U.S. boycott of Cuba, supporting the national aspirations of Palestinians and aiding victims of the war in Darfur. It demonstrates against nuclear and chemical waste and supports community farming initiatives and the ban of shale drilling on public land. …

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