CTAWW 2015

Western Washington

For nearly 40 years, the Rev. Bill Bichsel protested against U.S. military programs and weapons, resulting in dozens of arrests and making the Jesuit priest one of the most visible and admired protesters in the Pacific Northwest. But to most folks, he was a Tacoma-born priest simply known as “Bix.” Bichsel, who had a history of heart problems, died Saturday evening. He’d been in a coma recently and died peacefully in hospice care, surrounded by friends and family who were holding vigil at the Catholic community home where he lived. He was 86. Bichsel devoted decades to his pursuit of peace, at home and abroad. He protested Trident submarines and nuclear missiles at the Navy’s Bangor submarine base. He chained himself to the doors of the federal courthouse in Tacoma after the U.S invasion of Iraq. And he repeatedly protested at the Army’s School of the Americas in Georgia, alleging that it trained Latin American soldiers involved in human rights abuses. In 1988, Bichsel shouted down then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in Seattle to draw attention to the homeless. The priest was arrested dozens of times for trespassing during protests. He was convicted and incarcerated more than a half-dozen times, spending about 21/2 years total in jails and prisons. More quietly, he also helped feed and shelter homeless people in his hometown. Bichsel was part of the Tacoma Catholic Worker community he co-founded in 1989. When asked during a recent interview if he had any regrets, Bichsel said he wished he had done more. “I wish I had been more conscious of the call to peace and nonviolence” earlier in life, Bichsel told The News Tribune in August. He urged people to recognize “the divine works in all people and to trust their calls to reach out to others, to be more human.” That includes “resisting those forces that deprive us of life,” such as the “production and maintenance of nuclear weapons,” he said. Bichsel said a cardiologist told him in 2011 he had one year to live. He had two open-heart surgeries and declined to undergo a third to repair leaking heart valves. “I feel like I’m on a gravy train,” Bichsel said. “It could have happened a lot earlier.”  Bichsel said he didn’t think much about what happens after death. “No. 1, I don’t know.” But he added: “I just believe in some way or another we become taken to God and we become part of the universal cloud of witnesses” to peace, Bichsel said. He said he hopes his work for peace had been an encouragement and inspiration for others.             Civil resistance: Bichsel called his protests civil resistance — not civil disobedience — because he didn’t believe he was breaking the law. He said he was upholding international laws, such as the Principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal, which prohibit war crimes and crimes against peace and humanity. “I never got the sense that I am a lawbreaker or that I am a criminal,” Bichsel said in an interview in 2008. “I am an enforcer of the law.” His protests and other actions made him a lightning rod for praise and criticism. Even some supporters said Bischel went too far when he trespassed and broke the law. In 2009, Bichsel took another step that proved to be controversial. He helped lead a group that traveled to Japan to ask forgiveness for the destruction caused by the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The so-called “Journey of Repentance” sparked an outcry from those who said it ignored the attack on Pearl Harbor and atrocities committed by the Japanese military during World War II. Born in Tacoma in 1928, William Jerome Bichsel was the son of a national union leader for Northern Pacific locomotive engineers. Bichsel was still a teenager when he started the process of becoming a priest, and for three decades he followed a fairly traditional path as a student, pastor, teacher and academic. His commitment to civil disobedience grew over time, from taking part in Vietnam War protests while studying in Boston to his first protest and arrest at Bangor in 1976. In 1979, he moved to Guadalupe House in Tacoma to shelter homeless people.            Hundreds of supporters: His only income came from stipends he received for celebrating Mass as a fill-in priest at local parishes and presiding at weddings and funerals. But he amassed hundreds of supporters. In 2008, at least 300 people showed up for his 80th birthday party at Holy Cross Community Hall in Tacoma. Longtime close friend Joe Power-Drutis remembered Bichsel as a prophet who cared for others. “Bix’s civil resistance has had little direct impact on our military industrial complex or the general consciousness of our nation regarding nuclear weapons, war, or other violence,” said Power-Drutis, a Tacoma resident who knew Bichsel for 45 years. “He is more a prophet than a political change agent,” he said. Bichsel’s belief in caring for each person as family was rooted in the example set by his mother and her care for family and community, especially during the Great Depression, Power-Drutis said. Despite his outward affection for people, Bichsel sometimes struggled “with deep loneliness and insecurity,” Power-Drutis said. He used that interior pain to build empathy and warmth for others, Power-Drutis said. Even many people who disagreed with Bichsel’s politics had warm feelings for him. Jack Donaldson of Tacoma was on the opposite end of the disarmament debate, but Bichsel wouldn’t get angry with him; he would playfully jam his fist in his friend’s chest. “If you knew Bix at all, he could be a very funny guy; he would laugh easily,” said Donaldson, who hosted parties years ago attended by young priest Bichsel. “He walked the walk. Not that everyone agreed with him — I certainly didn’t — but he was a personality. He was always cheerful.”  By his own count, Bichsel estimated he’d been arrested some 45 times. Most charges were dismissed, Bichsel said in 2008, because judges didn’t want to take up court time or give the protesters publicity.Bichsel’s last arrest came in July 2010 for trespassing in protest at a plutonium processing plant near Knoxville, Tennessee. He served a three-month prison sentence. In 2011, Bichsel expressed no regrets when he and four other war protesters were given prison sentences by a federal judge in Tacoma for breaking into the Bangor Navy base in 2009 to protest nuclear weapons kept there. They were convicted of using bolt cutters to cut through three chain-link fences to enter an area where nuclear warheads were stored on the base about 40 miles northwest of Tacoma. “I’m so glad for the action we took,” Bichsel said at the sentencing in Tacoma. “I think the only law that we tried to carry in our own hands is God’s law.” U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle called the protesters’ actions a “form of anarchy” that, left unchecked, would lead to a breakdown in society. Settle sentenced Bichsel to three months in prison and six months of home detention. Settle also praised Bichsel for caring for the needs of others in the community. “It’s not easy to sit in judgment of people who have lived such sacrificial lives,” Settle said. BILL BICHSEL Born: May 26, 1928, at St. Joseph Hospital in Tacoma, the next-to-youngest of seven children of Sarah and George Bichsel. Schooling: Bellarmine Preparatory School in Tacoma. The track to priesthood: In 1946, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Sheridan, Oregon. Two years later, he professed vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He studied theology in Germany and was ordained in Berlin in 1959. Career before civil resistance phase of his life: Served as an assistant pastor at a Spokane parish and dean of students at Gonzaga University. Taught religion at Seattle Preparatory School. Was assistant pastor at St. Leo Catholic Church on Tacoma’s Hilltop from 1969-76. Survivors: Brother Jack in St. Paul, Minnesota; and 34 nieces and nephews.   Nearly 1,000 people turned out Saturday for a memorial service for the Rev. Bill Bichsel, the radical Tacoma priest who spent much of his life demonstrating for peace and the rights of vulnerable people. Bichsel, a Jesuit known widely by his nickname,“Bix,” died Feb. 28 at age 86.  Friends, supporters and fellow political activists filled Tacoma’s St. Leo Church to capacity for the service. Latecomers spilled over into a large tent set up in the church parking lot for the occasion. Eulogies and stories painted a picture of a man remarkable for his fierce adherence to New Testament principles and decades of protest against “the establishment.” “When you take the road that the Spirit demands of you, you will find aching and weariness within your bones,” the Rev. Pat Twohy, a fellow Jesuit, said during the memorial ceremony. “Father William Bichsel took such a road.”   “Bix imagined and lived an impossible road, and he asked us to walk it with him,” Twohy added. “He lived the life of Jesus in his body, his blood, his sinews and bones. “His love for everybody burned him up,” Twohy said. “There was nothing left for him to give, and the Father came for him.” By his own count, Bichsel was arrested 46 times for his political activism, most often for trespassing during protests. He chained himself to the doors of the federal courthouse in Tacoma after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He repeatedly protested at the Army’s School of the Americas in Georgia, alleging that it trained Latin American soldiers involved in human rights abuses.   In 2011, Bichsel and four other war protesters used bolt cutters to cut through three chain-link fences on the Bangor Navy base in Kitsap County to enter an area where nuclear warheads were stored. A federal judge called his actions “a form of anarchy” and sentenced him to three months in prison.   At his memorial service, political activism played a prominent role, even in prayers. A series of prayers advocated ending the death penalty, better care for the mentally ill, an end to war, and parity for women in the Catholic Church.  Along with programs at the door, attendees were handed a pamphlet urging people to “Carry the “Bix” torch forward: Oppose nuclear proliferation in Washington state.” Dotti Krist-Sterbick, a pastoral assistant at St. Leo Church and an associate of Bichsel’s, fondly recalled him as “the one who was always there ... but maybe a little late.” She remembered Bichsel as “an ally who would not back down,” citing political struggles that over the years included marching for civil rights in the South, protesting the Vietnam War, and advocating for the mentally ill and homeless. Bichsel most passionately protested against the atomic bomb, she said, which he regarded as the ultimate symbol of the military industrial complex. “He knew it is the vulnerable who pay the price,” Krist-Sterbick said.   After the memorial service, several hundred people walked in light rain behind a hearse carrying Bichsel’s pine casket to the street in front of the Tacoma Catholic Worker, the homeless-assistance community he helped start in 1989.  Walkers were accompanied by musicians with guitar, banjo and Japanese drums. In the lead was a giant fabric replica of a flying dove with a 20-foot wingspan, carrying an olive branch in its beak.
Audio Interview conducted by “the Melon” with Fr. Bix... Oct. 31, 2008 Part One   &   Part Two Newest NCR article on Fr. Bill Bichsel
Fr. Bill Bichsel S.J.