Remembering Daniel Berrigan, a Forgotten AIDS Hero

Dan responded to the suffering and ostracism of people with AIDS with loving kindness, compassion and friendship. A friendship in which there was no place for the pharisaical moral judgement of so many church leaders.
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In the early years of the epidemic, AIDS was an almost unspeakable disaster. As if a medieval plague had become manifest in our times. To be stricken with AIDS was to be given a death sentence. Tens of thousands of people died; many suffered gruesome, horrific deaths. The horror was compounded by the panic the disease provoked and the virulent homophobia of the times that led many sick people to be abandoned, shamed, and treated with contempt.


The AIDS crisis brought out the worst in many people. But it also brought out the best in some. Among the best were those able to hold on to their humanity and decency, and had the courage and the strength to care for those who were sick and dying.

There are many people who deserve to be recognized as heroes for their selfless, compassionate care giving during the fierce and terrible plague years of the 1980's and 90's. One of them has recently died; the famous anti-war priest Father Daniel Berrigan.

I had the privilege of knowing Dan when I was a young man. I was in awe of his witness against war and violence, dating back to the Vietnam war. I first heard him speak in 1982, when still in high school. A few years later I participated in religious services he led at the Catholic Worker house where I lived. I also joined him in several protests at facilities that helped make nuclear weapons. Most remarkably, at his invitation, I helped him plan an act of civil disobedience against one of those facilities.

However I did not then realize the extent to which Dan had immersed himself in the care of those dying of AIDS. In 1984, at the very beginning of the epidemic, when people with AIDS were overwhelmingly treated with a toxic mixture of terror and contempt, Dan had begun to care for them. He volunteered with the AIDS Hospice program at St. Vincent's hospital in the West Village of New York City, and for more than a dozen of the very worst years of the epidemic, welcomed the dying into his life and heart.

When Daniel Berrigan died many tributes to his remarkable life swiftly appeared in the media . Rightly, there was a great deal of focus on his life of resistance and non-violence. But to my sorrow, I read almost nothing of his work with people with AIDS. At most a single sentence: Berrigan volunteered with those dying of AIDS in the 1980's and 90's. Such work required much of one's heart and soul, and yielded much suffering and sorrow. Dan's heroic care giving throughout the plague years deserved far more recognition that a sentence.

I googled Dan's name and AIDS. I learned that in 1989 he had written a book about his care giving, Sorrow Built A Bridge: Friendship and AIDS. I rush ordered it, and have been reading it over the past days. It is slow going; what Dan writes is so painful, raw, so overwhelming, that I have a hard time reading more that a paragraph or two before I begin to weep. I walk back and forth until the tears stop flowing from my eyes.

Dan's task was to befriend those who were sick and dying. Most of them were gay men. He went to their homes, usually apartments in the East and West Village and Chelsea. He brought gifts, arriving with flowers, or cookies, books, a milkshake, a container of clam chowder.

He got to know the men. He describes himself as their "listener of last resort." Some were lonely and isolated. He invites them to meals at his apartment when they are healthy enough for the journey uptown. He takes them to restaurants. He invites one man living as a guest in someone's tiny spare room to stay in his apartment while he spends some weeks teaching at a distant university. He invites another man to stay at a cottage he has use of on Block Island to escape a brutal heat wave, but alas when the time came the man had become too ill for the journey.

Some of the most moving passages are Dan's descriptions of the gay men he encounters caring for their dying lovers and friends. One night Dan hosts a dinner for Peter, and Cary, who has moved in with Peter to help care for him. Also present were members of Dan's Jesuit community

Dan describes how Peter had cared his previous lover, and as he was dying Peter had also become ill. Now Cary was Peter's partner:

Then Cary; he had entered Peter's life, he had become the wage earner of the duet. "And the cook as well," he interjected, half humorously, half in indignation. "And the shopper, and just for the record, the dish washer too!...

Cary, such burdens taken on, has grown.

I think to myself, what is one to do with his life, except give and give? And stick with someone, thick and thin?I'm a tribal person, my background is Polynesian. We're big on family. In lonely New York I have to have someone to come home to. This is grief, but also privilege. The Jesuits were bug-eyed. I think we saw our own community in a light that shamed us, and at the same time, opened a vein of hope.

Some pages later Dan describes, with evident and abundant admiration, another pair he has befriended; how Andrew has taken Rick into his home, and quit his job, living off of his savings, so as to care for his friend around the clock. Andrew tells Dan:

Two years ago I learned that Rick was in the hospital. I visited him; then someone told me, no one wants him, he has nowhere to go. On an impulse I said, let him come to me. I'll take care of him.

And you understand, I hadn't the slightest notion of what that would involve. I only heard the words, he has no one. And I thought, Yes he does. He has me.

Dan humbly comments:

Never once have I responded to someone in such a way. (Maybe once or twice tried gingerly to walk that thin line.) But to meet someone homeless on the street, saying on impulse, Come home with me. And then to discover the consequence; this someone, this new-found friend is ill, God help us, very ill. And God above all help me; I've taken on a task that well may break my bones.

I think it important that we read Dan's words of admiration for the heroic goodness of these gay men in contrast to the messages then being disseminated by the leaders of his Roman Catholic church. These were the years when the Vatican and the Archdiocese of New York were ramping up their hostilities against LGBT people. When Cardinal O'Connor held a press conference on the steps of Saint Patrick's Cathedral and threatened to close every catholic orphanage and every catholic school in New York City should the local gay rights bill be passed and he be forced to hire gay men. When Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) issued his notorious document saying that homosexuality was an "intrinsic inclination towards evil."

But no condemnation from Dan. Only the most tender and patient friendship. As the men grew sicker he fed them, he bathed them. He washed their soiled clothes. He panicked when they did not answer their phones.

Dan sits with them for hours in the hospital as they decline. Talking with them while they still have the ability to communicate, offering silent companionship when they are rendered unable to speak. Often merely holding their hands. These were the first years of the epidemic, when the ability to treat the scores of opportunistic infections was limited. The suffering that comes upon his friends is horrific. Some became covered in lesions. Some went blind. Some are rendered unable to eat, or suffer from endless diarrhea.

Dan describes Rick's passing:

...Andrew summoned me urgently. "Please come, I must have some help. He's been vomiting blood, is quite beside himself."

Dan rushes to their East Village apartment.

Our patient was quite visibly dying. He continued vomiting blood, as we held him, spoke as tenderly as we might on that bleak last mile of his. His breathing stertorous, his calling out Help me, Help me.

His head tossed witlessly this way and that, his poor sticks of arms made wild gyrations in the air; tracing what? ...He seemed at times to be beckoning, at others repelling.

He was bleeding, he was dehydrated...Andrew leaned close, called in his ear; Do you want to return to the hospital?

The hospital once more? But what benefit could the hospital offer at this dire stage? And could not a catastrophe be precipitated on the way, with the banging and pummeling and lifting up and thumping down? Why not abide in peace with us?

Go for it. Andrew phoned the police...A siren sounded, the medics came in...

They uncovered him; then a horror, a stench. Even the medic was shaken. He turned to us. 'Didn't you know he's been bleeding rectally?' Indeed he had bled, a dark infected stain permeated sheets and mattress.

They bore him out. At the doorway I saw the tormented head fall to one side. The others hardly knew, but I knew.

Andrew followed them, a friend and I stayed, cleaning up as best we might, rolling up sheets and coverlets for burning. We were sobered and silent; the swift assault upon that poor life!

Outside the medics pursued their crisis routine, hustled his frame into an ambulance. But he was gone, they knew it.

Again and again the men that Dan has tenderly befriended suffer and die. Dan attends funeral services, describing attending one held by Dignity at the LGBT Center on 13th Street, after they had been banished by Cardinal O'Connor from any local Catholic church. Some have asked Dan to conduct their memorial services, planned them out with him before their deaths. Some, estranged given the hostility they endured from the churches of their youths, ask Dan to provide their memorial services in his own apartment.

Peter had asked Dan to scatter his ashes into the ocean surrounding Block Island. Dan obtains a boat and he and Cary make the journey to comply with Peter's wishes.

The moment came, the boat (or was it ourselves?) shivered as we sped. Months of waiting, years of travail all ended. We took in hand the sack of human ash, the small light residue of one we loved and wept for...

The boat leaned gently, as though a providence held us in it's palm. The ashes fell and fell. They met the waters in a scaly cloud and sank on the instant. No trace, no wake, Peter's name written in water.

It was simple, easeful, final, after the ferocious ice and fevers of life...

Dan writes of being bludgeoned by grief, of being frightened by it's intensity as his friends suffer and die. And yet, again and again, for many years, he continues to open himself with love and companionship to new men, knowing the devastation that lay ahead.

The AIDS caregivers of that terrifying, anguishing time deserve to be recognized as heroes. Dan was hardly the only one. What is remarkable, though, is that he was by far the most famous, most notorious, person to enter that hard world. It is curious that the extraordinary compassion and kindness of his care giving in a time of plague hasn't been celebrated, especially as he left such a compelling document in Sorrow Built a Bridge.

I consider the reasons for his neglect:

Dan's audience was primarily the Catholic left. I can attest, from having spent several years in the Catholic Worker movement in the 1980's that there were strong currents of homophobia in that environment. There must have been a great deal of discomfort with the fact of Dan's immersing himself so thoroughly in the world of openly gay men. Frankly I suspect that his doing so raised troubling questions among some of his Catholic admirers about Dan's own sexuality. (I wondered how much this discomfort informed the fact that among the many speeches at his wake and funeral service, at which I was present, there was not one mention of Dan's years of AIDS work). Even in the compilation of his "essential writings" assembled by a brother Jesuit, there is no inclusion of the searing writing about his AIDS work.

And conversely, our broader LGBT community would have seen Dan's Catholicism as a barrier. These were years of tremendous antagonism, when the Catholic hierarchy, in the midst of a time of unbearable terror and suffering for LGBT people, saw fit to repeatedly condemn and disparage us. When Cardinal O'Connor saw fit to cruelly throw Dignity, the LGBT affirming catholic group, out of the church where they had met for eight years (ironically St. Francis Xavier, the same church where Dan's funeral was held), and threatened to remove any pastor who dared welcome Dignity in. When the powerful cardinal fought tooth and nail attempting to prevent the passage of the local law prohibiting us to be discriminated against in jobs and housing.

Even more enraging were the efforts of Cardinal O'Connor and the Vatican to oppose HIV prevention strategies meant to save our lives. They refused to re-examine catholic moral teaching on the use of contraception, even if doing so might have saved many lives. They aggressively opposed the use of condoms, even opposed public efforts to educate about the effectiveness of condom use in preventing HIV infection. Cardinal O'Connor and Vatican officials went so far as to deceive, claiming that condoms were largely ineffective in preventing HIV infection.

Many in the LGBT community saw this response to our plague as almost genocidal. Their dogma took priority over our lives. In 1989, the same year Dan's book was published, ACT-UP held it's infamous protest outside of Saint Patrick's Cathedral. Nearly 5,000 people (I being one of them) screamed in rage over Cardinal O'Connor's obstruction of HIV prevention.

It wasn't a time in which the efforts of a priest, even one as deeply allied to our community as Daniel Berrigan, were able to be widely recognized.

Furthermore, the trauma of survivors who cared for the sick and buried the dead during the plague years continues to be felt. The memories of so much suffering and so much loss are hard to bear, and hard to examine. The LGBT community has thus far been more able to celebrate the heroism of the AIDS activists who did so much to bring about viable treatments.

Now, as the impact of Daniel Berrigan's extraordinary life is being examined, I hope this neglect can be corrected. Dan provides something remarkable: an example of a truly Christian response to AIDS and homophobia. Dan responded to the suffering and ostracism of people with AIDS with loving kindness, compassion and friendship. A friendship in which there was no place for the pharisaical moral judgement of so many church leaders. A friendship of persons made equal though love, helping each other through a terrible time.

Sorrow Built a Bridge concludes with a homily that Dan preached at a Miami gathering of Dignity in 1987. In it he sums up a recurrent theme through the book, his immense sorrow at the ways his suffering friends had been harmed by religious condemnation, and his recognition that such cruelty is a betrayal of the suffering Christ.

The church remains for the present adamant: against serious peacemaking, against the gay community. But in these matters, each in it's own way a matter of life and death, it cannot be said that the church speaks for Christ. It could even be said that the church speaks in contrariety to Christ...We think of the church, and the official treatment of many, and then we think of Christ...We are struck by a contrast. The church rejects, ostracizes, places certain people beyond the pale; on a lifelong basis...

I do not know, any more than you, whether church authority will renounce it's sinfulness, will at last heal and bind up those it has wounded so grievously. (And so be healed and bound up, and acknowledge her own wounds.)...We must forgive, deepen our love, persist in our conviction that even the church can be redeemed from sin.

I went to gaze upon his dead body at the wake. He had been rendered tiny by his advanced age and death. I marveled that such an enormous amount of love and courage and healing had been manifested through this now diminutive being.

I thank Daniel Berrigan, the great and valiant peacemaker, for his authentic Christian witness during the worst years of the AIDS crisis. I thank him for the loving kindness and steadfastness with which he cared for our dying brothers. I thank him for standing with us in friendship, solidarity and love in a time of plague.

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