THE REMARKABLE LIFE AND WITNESS OF JIM FOREST
BY NICHOLAS SOOY (EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE ORTHODOX PEACE FELLOWSHIP)
The following essay was originally written by Nicholas Sooy, the executive director of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, as a tribute to Jim Forest upon his death on January 13, 2022. The original version of this essay can be found at incommunion.org.
On April 5, 1977, peace activist and author Jim Forest received a phone call that his friend and collaborator Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, an Argentinian peace activist, had been kidnapped by the military dictatorship and was surely being tortured. Adolfo had become a disaparecido, like thousands of others. The most likely outcome was death. From his office in the Netherlands Jim and his staff began working to free Adolfo. They had the idea to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize as a publicity stunt to embarrass the Argentinian government. Jim called two Nobelists, the peace activists Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, and together they wrote up material to nominate him and a press release stating as much. Within hours hundreds of papers picked up the story, and fourteen months later, by some miracle, Adolfo was released. Expecting nothing more to come of this, Jim thought he had received a prank call the next summer when the Nobel committee called to inform him that they would soon announce that Adolfo had won the prize.
Not wanting to waste this opportunity and before attending the Nobel ceremony together in Oslo, Jim and Adolfo began strategizing how to capitalize on this turn of events. Jim arranged for a meeting in Rome with Pope John Paul II. At this meeting, Adolfo gave Pope John Paul a biography that Jim had written of Thomas Merton, Jim's long-time friend, and spiritual father. Their goal was to ask the Pope that Arturo Rivera Damas be appointed as the permanent successor to the recently assassinated Óscar Romero. The Pope went on to grant their request.
A "red-diaper baby", Jim was born November 2, 1941 to two communists. Though Jim was at times embarrassed by his family's outsider status in the 50s, he attributed his upbringing to teaching him about the plight of the poor, something that paved the way to becoming a Christian. As a child, he also learned about the horrors of war when a friend and minister at a local Methodist parish hosted two victims of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had come to the US for reconstructive surgery. Peering at their silk veils, as a child Jim came to learn that hospitality to those in need, those suffering, was far more important than politics. Despite his many encounters with political events over the coming decades, he always kept in mind that it was people that ultimately mattered.
It is perhaps unsurprising then that in 1960 while serving in the Navy that Jim would find a kindred spirit in Dorothy Day while reading the Catholic Worker paper and her autobiography, The Long Loneliness. Dorothy was a former communist and Catholic convert who founded the Catholic Worker movement, a network of houses of hospitality that served the poor and promoted peace. When Pope Francis spoke to the US congress in 2015, he singled out four "representative Americans" he admired: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Shortly after discovering Dorothy's writings, Jim made his way to visit Dorothy's community in Manhattan.
Before long Jim had become a Catholic himself, something which severely complicated his promising military career. When Jim had joined the military he was told "The Navy owns you. In case you didn't get that, I'll say it again. The Navy owns you… You are the property of the US Navy… We issue the orders and you obey the orders or there will be hell to pay." After the troubling Bay of Pigs incident, Jim began to think about all the dutiful soldiers who did what they were told and perpetrated the Holocaust. Remembering a Russian proverb he had heard, "eat bread and salt and speak the truth," Jim did two things that he spent the rest of his life doing: he said no, and he spoke the truth. He submitted the following paragraph to his superiors:
I would have to refuse to obey any order or fulfill any duty which I considered to be immoral, contrary to my conscience or in opposition to the teaching of my Church, as a Catholic. It is highly conceivable that there are duties that would be imposed on me during war time which I could not accept. Though I would participate in the actual and just defense of our country, I would not assist in any attack or war effort which neccesarily involved the death of innoncent non-combatants. I would obey no order in conflict with my convictions.
Jim was discharged as a conscientious objector and went to live at the St. Joseph Catholic Worker community in Manhattan.
It was from Dorothy that Jim learned the profession that he spent the rest of his life doing, writing. Having never attended college, Jim was schooled in what he called "Dorothy Day University." Together they published the Catholic Worker paper, protested all violence, and offered hospitality to all those who came knocking. Dorothy also asked Jim to help manage the Catholic Worker's relationships with important supporters such as Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, whose peace work landed him on the FBI's ten most wanted list, and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. After a brief stint in jail for protesting nuclear weapons, Jim visited Merton in Kentucky, thinking of moving on from the Catholic Worker to become a monastic. Instead, Merton told him the Holy Spirit had other things in mind for him.
Jim did end up leaving the Catholic Worker after all, and in 1963 became managing editor of Liberation, an influential peace magazine. There he worked closely with A.J. Muste and Bayard Rustin. Jim said that on occasion their staff meetings would be interrupted with urgent phone calls from Martin Luther King Jr. It was Dr. King's decision that his famous 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail first be published in Liberation.
By 1964 Jim had again moved on and began to focus on anti-War in Vietnam work, founding the Catholic Peace Fellowship with help from Dan Berrigan and the support of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Their main purpose other than speaking out against the war was counseling young Catholics who like Jim found their faith incompatible with military service.
By 1967 Jim was working double duty, both at the Catholic Peace Fellowship, and at the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest peace organization in the US. It was through his work with FOR that Jim became acquainted with Vietnamese Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh, whom Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton both nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Thầy, as his friends called him, is partly responsible for introducing and popularizing the idea of mindfulness in the United States, most significantly with his book Miracle of Mindfulness in 1975, with which Jim assisted Thầy in publishing and for which Jim wrote the afterward. The first conversation Thầy and Jim had was whether psychedelics were a shortcut to enlightenment, a question which the Zen master took surprisingly seriously and which sparked their decades-long friendship.
After being a background character in the lives of giants for so many years, Jim's moment in the spotlight came on September 24, 1968, when Jim and thirteen others, the Milwaukee Fourteen as they were known, broke into the Brumder Buiding in Milwaukee, liberated thousands of draft cards, and set them on fire with napalm. At his trial, Jim did not shy away from the charges. The fourteen chose to represent themselves, with Jim taking the lead. He sought to prove that the war in Vietnam was illegal and immoral and that they were rescuing people from imminent danger. To the first, they sought to admit as evidence a range of legal opinions against the War in Vietnam, and a number of religious texts, including Pope John's Pacem in Terris, as well as the New Testament. The judge rejected all of this, saying that admitting the New Testament as evidence "may create substantial danger of undue prejudice" in the jury. To the second, Jim spoke boldly,
It seems to me that when people are dying every hour, American boys, Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, women, children, the old, the young, that it's certainly imminent peril that we're speaking of… By analogy, consider the situation of a Jew in Nazi Germany. He didn't have to be walking to the ovens to be in imminent danger. He was in danger if he was a Jew and could be found.
In the end, Jim was sentenced to what he has long called his thirteen-month "sabbatical" in prison. Years later during a Q&A at Yale Divinity School, a man stood up and told Jim he was draft age in Milwaukee when they burned those draft cards. The man thanked Jim and said, “You probably saved my life that day.” Without missing a beat Jim replied “And I’d do it again,” which earned him a standing ovation.
Jim was in prison during the famous Apollo 11 moon landing which first put humans on the moon. Shortly after missing the momentous event, Jim received a mysterious package from NASA. Initially, the warden told Jim this was an unauthorized correspondent and that he would not be able to receive the package but eventually did so. Inside was a color photo, made from the original negative, of the disc of the Earth, taken by the Apollo 11 crew. Soon after Jim received the photo, reproductions began appearing in the press. When he first received it, he was likely the only person outside of NASA and the White House who glimpsed this lunar view of Earth. He meditated on this photo for many hours in prison and later made buttons of the photo. Handing me one decades later, he told me something to the effect "From space, you can't see borders, and you realize that we all share the same home." Jim never found out who at NASA had sent the photo, but he suspected it was astronaut Michael Collins, who flew the command module.
Despite his closeness to central figures in the peace movement, Jim was not partisan and always felt that peace and justice were more important than ideology. When he received a note from Thích Nhất Hạnh in 1975 regarding atrocities committed by the post-war Marxist Vietnamese government, Jim helped to draft a 1976 letter to the Vietnamese government, asking them to open their "re-education camps" for inspection by Amnesty International and the International Red Cross. This letter become known as "the Forest appeal." For his efforts, he was accused of being a CIA agent by several allies in the antiwar movement. Joan Baez had signed the letter and was pressured to withdraw her signature. Refusing to do so she called Jim and relayed that when a friend told her he was CIA she responded, "Jim Forest is much too nice — and much too disorganized — to work for the CIA."
Before long, Jim decided to leave the US, having previously spent time abroad living with Thích Nhất Hạnh. In 1977 he and his family settled in the Netherlands as he took over operations for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. It was during this period that he and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel began to work together. With the war in Vietnam over, Jim began to turn his attention to ending the Cold War. In truth, Jim has never seen a conflict he did not try to peacefully end. Jim made many trips to the Soviet Union to promote East-West integration. Jim saw the Russian Church as a natural partner in this work, given his experience with religious peacemaking. Over the course of the 80's, Jim made many trips to the Soviet Union, writing about the experiences of Orthodox Christians there. This resulted in Jim being invited by Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk to come to Moscow in 1987 for the conference, "For a World without Nuclear Weapons, for Mankind's Survival," at which Mikhail Gorbachev was to speak. A year later, Jim was in Moscow again during a signing of a treaty between President Reagan and Gorbachev. During this event, Jim made a pilgrimage to Boris Pasternak's grave only to discover a freshly laid set of flowers. Locals told Jim that the flowers were put there by Nancy Reagan, who had come to the grave alone and had just left. Jim snapped a photo and mailed it to the First Lady, who responded with a letter, thanking him.
That same year, Jim took the personal step of crossing the Iron Curtain and joined the Russian Orthodox Church himself. Jim told me that traveling through Russia he could not help but identify with the persecuted Christians there. It reminded him of his own upbringing as a communist: always on the outs, always under threat. As a child, Jim's father was arrested for his political activities, and one day while his mother was out, two blue-suited men with badges came to their home to look around and told Jim, "Say hello to your mother." Later as a teenager living in Los Angeles, Jim began dating the daughter of one of the writers of Gunsmoke. The FBI closely monitored contacts between communist families and Hollywood figures at the time, which Jim discovered firsthand one day when he went to call the girl on a public phone. After dialing her number, instead of a ring, he heard a click followed by a recording of the conversation he had had with her 24 hours prior. Whether it was intimidation or a mistake Jim did not know. Decades later, Jim told me that he was once crossing the border between East and West Germany when an icon he had purchased was discovered on him. The KGB took him in and interrogated him for some time about this. I can only imagine how familiar this must have felt to him.
Writing of his experiences in the Soviet Union, Jim once recounted a conversation with Fr. Vladimir Makheev. The priest asked where he was from, and when Jim said America, Fr. Vladimir replied,
"You are the first person I have met from America. Our countries have been enemies but I want to tell you that I have never been your enemy.” He said he had read Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. I told him I read Dostoyevsky and Gogol. He gave me a scratchy embrace, kissing me on the cheek.
Where others saw feared and hated enemies in looking at the Russians, Jim saw fellow humans on the same journey towards God. Jim would go on to write "It is not so much belief in God that matters, but love of God, and similarly love of others, including love of enemies."
Jim would go on to revive the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and write many books, including biographies of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Dan Berrigan, and memoir about Thích Nhất Hạnh. His other books include theological works, such as Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment. In the time that I knew him, I never met someone so committed to radical openness to others, to loving even when it is difficult, and to overcoming the obstacles that divide us. Jim had a way with people that made you feel seen, no matter who you were or how different from him. Anything you said to Jim he treated as if it were the most fascinating thing he had ever heard. I remember walking through the streets of Amsterdam one day, tired after a long liturgy. Jim happened across an artist celebrating the opening of his show. By the end of the conversation, they had become such good friends that they had exchanged gifts, with Jim walking away with a free artist book in exchange for a children's book he had written.
In the end, despite all he did for "the movement," Jim lived by a set of words he received in a letter from Thomas Merton, "personal relationships are everything." The letter ended up being published as "Letter to a Young Activist" and is now perhaps the most famous thing Merton has written aside from his autobiography The Seven Story Mountain. I first heard these words when as a burnt-out and depressed young man I wrote to Jim that trying to make a difference seemed pointless given how bad things were. Jim responded with Merton's letter,
Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, as you yourself mention in passing, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.
Ultimately, that is what defined Jim's life: the many loving relationships he cultivated. Many have tried to be his enemy, but none have ever really succeeded, as Jim much preferred to have friends.
In our own time as friends, Jim taught me many lessons. I recall once expressing exasperation at the contrast between the proclaimed teachings of Christianity such as love, generosity, and peacemaking, and the horrendous behavior of real Christians. I told him "It is the right religion with the wrong people." He looked at me gently and said "We are the wrong people too." To Jim, people who did wrong were hurt individuals in need of healing, not enemies to be dispensed with.
On another occasion, I was standing in his kitchen doing the dishes after a meal. While doing so I was musing on a story from the beginning of Miracle of Mindfulness, told by Thích Nhất Hạnh about their time together.
One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes. I said, "Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them." Jim replied, "Come on, you think I don't know how to wash the dishes?" I answered, "There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes." Jim was delighted and said, "I choose the second way-to wash the dishes to wash the dishes."
Jim walked into the kitchen and stepped beside me to help me with the dishes. Turning to me he said "Have I ever told you my story of washing the dishes with Thích Nhất Hạnh?" I said I had read it to which he replied,
That isn't what happened. What really happened was I was tasked with washing the dishes one night. I had never been in a Vietnamese kitchen before and when I entered I couldn't tell where the mountain of dishes ended and the kitchen began. Sensing I was unhappy, Thầy entered and said to me "Why are you washing the dishes?" I was upset at this, because wasn't it obvious? My mind rushed to come up with a clever-sounding answer that would sound good to a Zen master, but in the end, all I said was "To clean them." Thầy said "There are two ways of washing the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes." That's what Thầy put in his book. I found this answer unhelpful. What does it mean to wash the dishes to wash the dishes? Seeing my confusion, Thầy said something that actually helped, which he didn't put in his book: "Wash each dish like it is the infant Christ." After that, I volunteered to do the dishes the rest of the week.
Jim helped me in so many other ways, as I know he did for so many others. Many of these ways are too personal to share, but he always was there with love and a smile. Jim passed away in the Netherlands on January 13, 2022 at the age of 80. I've never lost a mentor before, but I know Jim did many times. How I wish he were here to offer some last advice, but I suppose he will have to teach me this lesson another way.
Never in my life have I known someone who so often has had the epithet "Saint" attached to them. Jim may have had the life of Forrest Gump, but he had the temperament of Mr. Rogers (and the same sense of style). Shortly after Jim's passing, I've heard several people express the sentiment that rather than pray for Jim, we should ask his prayers for us, a common practice in the Orthodox Church for those who are or may be considered saints. I can't help but laugh and remember a conversation I had with him some years ago. We were discussing the news that Dorothy had been given the title Servant of God, which in the Catholic Church is the first step towards earning the title "Saint." Jim relayed to me that he was unintentionally responsible for inventing Dorothy's most famous quotation. She herself never uttered the famous words now attributed to her, but instead, they were an invention of Jim, meant as a summary of their conversation but which falsely were attributed to her instead of him: "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed that easily."
You can read the original version of this essay on the website of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship here.
For a fuller autobiography of Jim Forest, you can pick up his highly engaging memoir, Writing Straight with Crooked Lines: A Memoir (Orbis Books, 2020).
Below are links to other essays on Jim's life and tributes in commemoration of his remarkable life upon his repose in 2022.
"Getting from There to Here" by Jim Forest
"No Borders: Remembering Jim" by Nancy Forest-Flier
"Author Jim Forest, chronicler of giants like Day and Berrigan, strengthened many" by Robert Ellsberg
Below are links to Jim's books and articles from his prolific writing, publishing, and journalistic career:
PHOTO GALLERY OF JIM FOREST'S LIFE: