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The Gospel According to John

By Cheryl R. Devall

As other graduating seniors anticipate summers abroad, five-figure salaries, and advanced degrees, John Timothy Leary doesn't expect to go very far. Depending upon the mercy of the Massachusetts judicial system, he may have no choice. John faces up to two months in the Billerica state correctional facility for distributing peace leaflets at Cambridge's Draper Laboratory (a leading center for research and development of nuclear missile accuracy systems). It's doubtful, however, that time in prison will "correct" John's activism. Many previous brushes with authority have proven him to be a shameless agitator.

The Draper action, which John insists was not a deliberate attempt to get arrested, continues a pattern of activism he began in seventh grade with his eyebrow-raising nomination to the environmental board in his home town of Vernon, Connecticut. Since coming to Harvard, he has coordinated, among other programs, the Phillips Brooks House prisons committee and the Catholic Student Center social action committee, practiced civil disobedience at nuclear plant sites and abortion clinics, and lived with his door open to anyone without a home.

John's characteristic reaction to recognition for all this is evasive, self-effacing and joking. The soft-spoken Religion concentrator calls the Ames Prize, for which he was nominated this year, "a reward for drowning do-gooders." His good works, however, spring not from a knee-jerk urgency but a deeply spiritual and thoughtful analysis.

The source of his activism and moral vision can be found. John says, in his upbringing. The youngest son of an Irish working class family recalls a representative symbol of his parents' attitude hanging in their living room: a picture of John F. Kennedy '40 and Pope John XXIII sowing the seeds of peace. Catholicism and liberal values were "part of the environment." John says. "There was a sense (in our home) that you looked out for people in need, and there was a great openness in our house," he remembers; hard-up relatives often stayed there.

"I remember freshman year, if I didn't bring back someone for a holiday, I would feel kind of guilty. It was expected." When John extended the hospitality concept to homeless people he didn't know, allowing them to stay in his various dwellings in Cambridge, Dorchester, and the South End, his parents reacted with surprise. "Now I think that some of the things I'm trying to do are living out values they had. They might think I'm a little extreme at times, even if they think it should be done."

Looking out for people in need has motivated John through a political and spiritual quest that has taken him places few Harvard students go. He entered college expecting to major in Government and "graduate from here, go home, get elected to a little thing, and work my way up. Since about age six," he said, "I decided I should be president, that that was the way to help people--and I did, in fact, do all the right things. I'd gotten involved in local politics at a pretty young age.

On a list of extracurricular activities two pages long, John includes a stint as local youth coordinator for the 1976 Udall for President a Campaign. The candidate's two-vote loss in a town primary kept the young pol from attending the Democratic national convention that year. In addition to his political involvements, John led what he calls "a double life" as a troublemaker--despite a good academic record--and waited for the Harvard admissions officers to discover they'd made a real mistake. After his first set of midterms, he "realized it wasn't as demanding as I'd thought."

Shortly thereafter, he ventured into Phillips Brooks House and signed up to tutor prisoners at Walpole. "More than anything else, that moved me from being liberal to losing faith with liberal politics. I walked into PBH looking for a place to do good and ended up getting my whole understanding of what our society was like changed by spending a good amount of time in the prisons." Sophomore year he became chairman of the prisons committee, an experience which was highlighted by "the process of making connections."

"I started out saying, 'Well, there's somebody in prison who needs some help reading; that's a good thing to do, to help him out.' Then I started thinking about why mostly illiterate people are in prison.... Then I started thinking about the violence and brutality and injustice of prisons, and what connection that has with the structure and bias of our society--of how, while Black people are a small percentage of the population, they're the over-whelming majority in prison. You can develop a theory of racial inferiority, but that doesn't make sense once you get to know people." The experience moved John "past the stereotypes and romanticism by being involved in relationships with some of the people in there and seeing what the existence of such places meant about our society."

This radicalized view of society led John to participate in a variety of political activities off and on campus. He helped organize a Harvard human rights group, and became involved in peace work. "I did a 72-hour vigil and fast with Mobilization for Survival at Faneuil Hall, and that was an introduction to a tradition of opposition to nuclear weapons. That really led me in another direction." The intensity of his involvement also introduced him to "burnout" by the middle of his sophomore year. "I started realizing that from seven in the morning until one the next morning (I was) spending most of my time calling people or going to meetings or working out at the jail. Studies got squeezed in. I couldn't continue that way.

"It wasn't, at that point, a question of leaving for a year. It was...leaving with no expectation of returning." John had intended to move to Washington, D.C., live in a communal house, and organize tenants. "But later that year," he said, "I became involved with the abortion issue."

"It's something I didn't want to do," he recalls, lowering his voice. "It was pretty clear to me that I could find nothing I wanted to identify with in the traditional right-to-life movement or the pro-choice movement. Then I met some people through the peace activities who were coming at it from a different perspective.

"Some of them had been very much involved in the civil rights and peace movements, some of them were feminists, who felt there was something wrong about abortion--that it was a form of violence and injustice." He chooses his words carefully, fully aware that some matters of conscience are harder to talk about than others.

"Some of them were doing sit-ins at abortion clinics. The idea had come from some civil rights activists who were saying, 'Look, here's a place of violence right in our neighborhood.' Even if you believe, which I don't, that changing the laws is the way to change society so abortion is unnecessary, you're walking to the legislature past a place where, every day, 30 or 40 unborn children are killed." He clears his throat, blinks water our of his eyes. "Women are being pushed, or going to, that choice with a degree of hopelessness and pain. You're accepting that (when) walking by.

"I really struggled with the thing. My inclination was not to want to participate, because of some past personal experiences and because I have known well-and loved and respected--women who have had abortions and people who were pro-choice activists. But ultimately I came to the point where I had to participate in some way. I felt called, in a sense...."

He and a Radcliffe student focused their attention upon the Preterm clinic in Brookline. John insists his tactics were different from those of other anti-abortion activists: "Our interest wasn't in trying to judge or confront the women who were there. But it seems to me there's a difference between the women who are (seeking abortions) and the people who are making money off that. To be able to love the clinic operators involved confronting them with what they were doing. We let them know we had no power, that we were just going to sit there between the machine and their ability to use it." Their attempts at dialogue with the clinic personnel were "limited," however, and the police were called in.

"We expected we'd get some long jail sentences because we'd decided to keep going back until we got locked up." But they were never imprisoned. "I think it may have had something to do with pure chance, and something to do with our age, and something to do with the fact that these were Irish Catholic judges and this was the abortion issue."

Friends at Harvard were not entirely sympathetic with John's point of view. "I knew that taking a stand on abortion would alienate a lot of people," he remembers. "I don't think I lost any friends. I got a lot of acquaintances angered at me. But I understood and respected where they were coming from.... I think that once people realized I was not interested in coercing women, or enacting legislation that would get the power of the state behind them to prevent them from having abortions), they could better understand what I was doing. But there was a lot of anger."

At one point, John withdrew from further sit-ins at Preterm and returned to college. "It seemed that going back wouldn't be an act of hope or love. There's so much ambiguity, complexity, and violence structured into the society that leads to abortion, that makes pregnancy a problem, a woman's problem." This thinking led him to try and develop support systems for the women who changed their minds. "We were taking people into our house in the South End, so that anyone who wanted to leave the clinic had a place to stay for a while. (Some of them) later testified at our trial that if we hadn't been there that day they would have gone through with something they really regretted. But I don't think we did enough. We just didn't have enough people with us to be able to offer the support--a real context--for doing something as dramatic (as sitting in.)"

He shifted his activities toward urban shelter issues and peace activities, concerns which led him to volunteer at a Catholic Worker soup kitchen in the south End and take a half-time draft counseling job at the Pax Christi Center on Conscience and War. "I think the values that led me, partly against my grain, to take some stand against abortion are the same values that led me to say there's something wrong with the city when its supposed development depends on forcing poor people into the streets," he explains. "And there's something wrong with deciding that our national definition of freedom and our rights to resources enable us to support slaughtering people in Latin America and actively prepare for world war with nuclear weapons. To be human," he believes, "means more than looking out for Number One."

To this end, John has lived the last three years in group situations in which inhabitants share food, money, shelter, and prayer. This "gospel-based lifestyle," he says, "helps sustain me for the long haul." His religious faith, which he rejected in adolescence and reclaimed during college, has helped to shape his political response. Among his housemates and partners in activism have been Quakers, Episcopalians, and Buddhists--all of whom have inspired and challenged his faith. "I find much more hope living in communities with people who have made traditional religious vows that also include lay people," he points out, emphasizing his delight in living with people both younger and older than himself. "I definitely see that as a religious community."

While his religious practice is very different from that of many Catholics around him, John realizes his approach is essential to his present identification as "very Catholic." "I don't think there was ever a time I dogmatically rejected God, but there was certainly a time I wanted nothing to do with institutional religion. Looking back, it seems to me I could not have accepted Catholicism in any way if I had not ditched all it was. There's so much within the church as an institution that's incredibly contradictory to the message it's supposed to be proclaiming." Paraphrasing his friend Daniel Berrigan, he says, "I'd love to leave it, but where else would I go?"

Maintaining the spiritual element in his life "is a real effort," John explains. "It's much easier for me to walk into Draper knowing I might face 30 days in Billerica than it is to sit quietly in a chapel and pray and meditate for 20 minutes." But he tries to guard himself against what he calls "an idolatrous activism" by drawing upon the example of Dorothy Day, Dom Helder Camarra, and other Catholics in the activist tradition.

Part of that tradition involves patience in the face of uncertainty, and, save for the possibility of imprisonment, John Leary has few immediate plans. "What seems to be important now is finding people to live with, pray with, and work with, and see what comes from there. I think there's a tremendous temptation for those of us graduating from Harvard to jump from one speeding train to another, even if it's a downwardly mobile one. I have a commitment to what's happening here, to the people I'm living with, to the soup kitchen. But I see a need not to jump into any new things right now."

He now sees the individual foci of his activities in a larger context of "margination"--"People being marginal, useless to the system. The campesinos in El Salvador who are being gunned down because they want to structure their society in a way that will help them out, or the people on the streets of Boston, or the women who end up without support in raising their children, or the children who get killed in the process of abortion--one thing they share in common is that the people in power in this society have decided they're not as valuable as other people." John believes any attempt to help and empower these people contributes to a new community. "I see the issue now as not so much constraining things like nuclear weapons or abortions, but as building that community where those things will be unnecessary."

Chuckling, he adds, "There's still part of me that says it's too simplistic, too naive, too impossible...and it may be. But one of the things I've lost in the last few years is cynicism--and certainty. Those are in abundance at Harvard. It's really (expected of you) that you be cynical and be certain. One of the things Robert Coles said...is that people take a course expecting everything to be in neat little boxes so they can say, 'Now I've got that all figured out.' But I don't...."

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