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Divining Providence

Bill and Sue Frankel-Streit are parents, Catholics, felons and anarchists. It's all part of their mission to serve God.

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BILL FRANKEL-STREIT and his wife, Sue, did not fight once during their first year of marriage, largely because the state of New York was holding them in separate prisons.

Their imprisonment, and arguably their marriage, stem from the way they celebrated New Year's Eve 1991. That night Bill and Sue, along with two others, broke into Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y.

They'd spent considerable time scoping the base in advance, but made it on the grounds only twice before: once to attend a public air show and again for an unauthorized, self-guided tour after hooking an invitation to attend mass at the military chapel. So on New Year's Eve, after they cleared the barbed-wire fence and the perimeter road, evaded circulating watch vehicles and cut through a chain-link barrier, they were surprised to find an electric fence.

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American military forces were 15 days away from beginning the air strikes against Iraq during the Persian Gulf War and the base was on alert. “We thought it was just blasphemous,” says Bill, who was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1982.

Once they cut the fence, it was only a matter of time until someone noticed. By some miracle, the current wasn't running through the fence at that exact moment and they cut the wire and passed into one of the most heavily guarded sectors on the base.

“When you go with faith the waters part,” Bill says.

Their quarry loomed: a nuclear armed B-52 bomber. They raised the claw hammers they brought along and began banging on the side of the plane. When the guards came, they offered no resistance. The Syracuse Post-Standard, which ran more than 30 articles covering the action and subsequent trial, reported that the base's top security officers were removed from their jobs after the incident.

That night, Bill and Sue joined a tradition of anti-war activists, often Catholic, who have committed dozens of similar protests worldwide since the 1980s, directly targeting the machines of war.

Called plowshares actions, they get their name from a familiar Bible verse, Isaiah 2:4 — “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

“The plowshares action was like a sacrament for me,” Bill says. They spent the first two months of the year in jail and were temporarily released that spring. While out, they prepared their defense and got married, a decision that further altered Bill's already strained relationship with the church hierarchy. They represented themselves in court, lost and spent the next year in jail — which was part of the point.

“I think he's a model of what a married Catholic priest would be for the church,” says Sister Anne Montgomery, a nun who participated in the first plowshares action in 1980. She and seven others broke into the General Electric Nuclear Missile Re-entry Division in King of Prussia, Penn., and hammered on two of the warhead nosecones that were manufactured there. “He manages to give himself totally to his family and totally to disarmament work,” she says of Bill.

Twenty years and three children later, the couple remains committed to nonviolent protest. Bill's been incarcerated so many times that last month he appeared in federal court in Washington not as a defendant but as an expert witness on the comparative conditions of different prisons.

Hearing about Bill's life of resistance likely was a novelty for the judge and prosecutors that day, not to mention the defendant, who'd been convicted of multiple homicides and appeared a little startled at the beginning of his testimony.

Washington, in the aftermath of the health-care debate, was still echoing with accusations of radicalism (Socialism! Communism! Naked fascism!). The Catholic Church was in the news, too, as fresh revelations in the sexual-abuse scandal came to light. All the rhetoric about religion and radical politics, however, probably doesn't conjure up the image of anyone like Bill Franklel-Streit — a living, breathing Catholic anarchist.


 

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The Frankel-Streits rely on their abundant garden and, after a lengthy processing period, fertilize it with material that includes compost from their toilet.

BILL AND SUE live with their three teenage children on a sprawling property in Louisa County 60 miles outside Richmond. The parents are taut and wiry. Sue has a mane of salt and pepper hair and a big gold loop in her nose; Bill has a shaved head and walks with a limp because of a lingering hip injury. They dote on their children, who are taller and full-cheeked. Looking at them, you'd never guess their parents were felons.

They all live in a little farmhouse with a low ceiling that gives the place a cozy, conspiratorial feeling. There's a composting toilet — just toss in some sawdust when you're done — and one that flushes in case they're ever putting up someone who is sick or elderly. As part of their commitment to serving their community, helping those in need and welcoming strangers, guests are constant.

They pick up odd jobs to pay the bills. Occasionally they'll be invited to speak at a church or a college. Bill's campus talks often draw an unlikely mix of “anarchists with piercings and tattoos all in black, and clean-cut Christian kids,” he says. He tells them the Bible is the original anarchist handbook and everybody freaks out.

They eat eggs from a mess of chickens they keep fenced off from a bountiful vegetable garden. When they go to the store to spend some of their $700 monthly budget of food stamps, they peek in the dumpster to see if anything good got tossed out. The kids have Medicare. Despite their opposition to the government, the Frankel-Streits figure if it does exist, they might as well take advantage, and being part of those programs means they live in solidarity with the poor.

Bill says their real insurance is “the community of people,” other activists like them, who routinely send food and clothes, and a handful of like-minded Catholics who occasionally tithe to them instead of the church.

They home-school the children: Isaac, 17, Anna, 15 and Gaby, 12. The girls are brainy and friendly and have learned to roll their eyes every bit as well as their suburban counterparts. Isaac has a close friend who lives over on the Twin Oaks commune, known for its homemade tofu and hammocks. They commiserate together about “growing up in community,” Bill says.

 

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Bill Frankel-Streit and his fellow protestors have a standing Jan. 11 action to mark the anniversary of when the first detainees were brought to Guantanamo Bay. Photo courtesy of Jonah House

The kids take music lessons and play team sports thanks to an annual grant from the Rosenberg Fund for Children, an organization that gives money to the children of activists. The fund was started by the son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were convicted with slipping atomic secrets to the Soviets, and then executed in June 1953.

The children have absorbed a lot of the social aspects of their parents' lifestyle, but the religious content hasn't taken as firm a hold. Sitting at a long wooden table in the kitchen, Gaby acknowledges that she doesn't consider herself particularly Catholic. “We tried church in exchange for a puppy,” she says.

“I'm probably going to have random people living in my house no matter what I do,” Anna adds.

“I don't care as long as they don't drag me off to the White House at 6 in the morning,” Gaby says.

“Well, that's the Pentagon,” Bill interjects. “The White House is usually more like noon.”

In January, the family took a tour of the Capitol. When they reached the Rotunda, Bill and some fellow protestors held a prayer vigil to commemorate four Guantanamo detainees. The government claimed the detainees had committed suicide, until a military whistleblower came forward and said they likely were killed at a Central Intelligence Agency secret site. The protesters were arrested and removed. Back downstairs, a ticket taker, who didn't realize the children had been with them, apologized for the interruption and offered them free tickets.


BILL FRANKEL-STREIT grew up in Hazleton, Penn., and recalls a fairly straight-laced upbringing. “I grew up with a lot of deference for authority,” he says. When he saw on television that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, he wondered why doctors were being shot.

As a kid he always looked up to one uncle in particular: a priest. Streit says he was drawn to the clergy because of their status. He's since wondered if his uncle had been in the military whether he might not have followed him down that path too.

 

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Bill Frankel-Streit is carried away in handcuffs at the nation's Capitol. Photo courtesy of Jonah House

Bill went directly from high school to seminary. It was 1972, shortly after the Catholic Church had released the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, an internal effort to modernize itself and “arguably the most liberal time in the church,” he says, but Vatican II didn't change everything. He was allowed to wear jeans to class, but he still got the distinct impression that his teachers and fellow students viewed lay people as second-class citizens rather than those they served.

Despite the not-quite-perfect-fit, Bill was ordained in 1982. He busied himself with homilies and weddings, but struck up a correspondence with Philip and Daniel Berrigan, brothers and radical priests.

The Berrigans are best known for their actions on May 17, 1968, when they burned stolen draft cards with homemade napalm — among the military's weapons of choice during the Vietnam War. During the trial, Dan Berrigan read a statement. “Our apologies, good friends,” he said, “for the fracture of this good order, the burning of paper instead of children.”

The Berrigans went to jail, but it vaulted them to national stature. They appeared on the cover of Time magazine's Jan. 25, 1971, issue and Gregory Peck produced a film based on the trial. The Berrigans remained such devoted protesters, Streit says, that guards at the Pentagon referred to both of them as Father Berrigan.

Through their correspondence, Bill became convinced that a true shepherd comforts the sick and dying, but also challenges people on war and racism and the death penalty. He began protesting and was arrested for the first time in 1985, much to the chagrin of the church hierarchy. In 1988 he took a leave of absence.

Bill moved to Washington, D.C., and joined a group home that named itself after Dorothy Day, an activist and journalist who began a newspaper aimed at all the Catholic workers who streamed into in New York during an influx of poor immigrants moving into the country. The first issue was published May 1, 1933 — 77 years ago this week.

 

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As part of an annual observance of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay prison for suspected terrorists, in 2009 a group of activists fasted from Jan. 11 until President Obama's inauguration, urging him to close the base. Although he signed an executive order to close the facility his first week in office, it has yet to be fully shut down. Photo courtesy of Jonah House

There was a strong history in Catholic social teaching of advocating for social justice causes such as poverty, housing, wages and especially nonviolence, says Susan Mountin, an adjunct assistant professor of theology at Marquette University.

“Very early on in the movement they found that they believed that acts of nonviolent civil disobedience were ways of calling attention to social injustice,” Mountin says. An early example was for Catholic Workers to refuse to go down into bomb shelters during the civil defense drills of the 1950s, and instead pray in local parks. (“Entertaining Angels,” a movie about Day's life, was released in 1996 starring Moira Kelly and Martin Sheen, who has been active in social justice issues and has been arrested during protests dozens of times.)

Such radicals technically are a lay movement in the church, doing work rooted in the gospel, but not recipients of church funding like monks and nuns. “They have continued to say we are Catholic,” Mountin says, “and maybe even more Catholic.”

The big blue Dorothy Day House in Washington sits on a corner lot across the street from a rambling private park. Bill and about 30 others, activists and five formerly homeless families, lived and worked there together. There are close to 200 more of these homes and farms, known as hospitality houses, throughout the country.

One of Bill's housemates was his future wife. 

Sue lived on the Maryland side of the Washington suburbs. “I kind of grew up in a Jewish, intellectual milieu,” she says, “so I didn't really think people read the Bible.” She grew up with more of a post-Holocaust Jewish identity than one focused on religious and spiritual aspects.

One summer during college, she worked selling books door to door, a job that quickly became more of an anthropological experiment. She noticed that she could depend on a drink or a bathroom in the homes of the poorest families, while the richer ones would slam the door in her face.

“It was kind of my own little comprehension of capitalism and how wealth affects people's level of hospitality,” she says. One of the books she was hawking was a Bible dictionary, which she began reading at night.

After college — and a year in Japan at a business journal where she edited former Chrysler Chief Executive Lee Iacocca's occasional columns — she moved back to Washington and worked for a Japanese newspaper in the National Press Building downtown. She took the Metro from her mom's house into the city and struck up a friendship with Mark, a homeless man who hung around her stop. One day she emerged from the Metro and found Mark with icicles hanging off his eyelashes. That was the final straw, she says. She wanted out of participating in the mainstream culture.

She'd learned about the Dorothy Day House and started cooking a community meal there once a week. Eventually she moved in. At first, Bill and Sue were just very close friends. “I was a priest,” he says, “so there was this whole to be or not to be thing.”

By the time they committed the Plowshares action in upstate New York, they had decided to get married knowing full well their honeymoon likely would be courtesy of the federal government. Bill says he saw the experience as a good thumbnail sketch of what a marriage should be: “risking your life together in faith, hope and love.”

After the airplane hammering they spent a few months in prison. The judge had offered to release them on their own personal recognizance, but “we really wanted to be in prison,” Bill says. “This was Phil [Berrigan's] big thing. It heightens the witness.”

Shortly before the trial began, a judge in Syracuse, N.Y., married them.

The goal of the courtroom phase in a plowshares action is to try to turn the proceedings around and put the B-52 on trial. One way to do that is to try to get information about the weapon system in front of the jury, to quantify for them how much damage it can do, how many people it can kill. In return, the prosecution tries its best to limit what can be discussed by filing motions with the judge.

During the trial, every time the couple tried to ask a question about the B-52's capacity, the prosecutors objected and eventually blocked most of the information they attempted to introduce in court. At one point the exchange became so heated that the judge sent the jury out of the courtroom and threatened all of them with contempt.

According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, the jury also wasn't allowed to hear an hour's worth of testimony offered by Ramsey Clark, U.S. attorney general under Lyndon B. Johnson. He had toured Iraq and discussed the death and destruction that B-52 bombers had wrought on the civilian population and infrastructure in Iraq.

Bill and Sue lost and spent the next 10 months in jail. In one fell swoop, Bill had become a married priest felon. (It's a set of descriptors he's a little uncomfortable with, especially after it was revealed that Rodney Lee Rodis, another Louisa County priest who was convicted last year for embezzling money from his church and had a secret family in Spotsylvania County — a very different sort of married priest felon.) Since then, Bill has carved out a new practice and expression of his faith.

“I do my preaching in court now,” he says. Instead of maps of the Holy Land, he's familiarized himself with the placement and terrain of military bases, weapons systems and prisons. He still follows the Catholic calendar, but with a slightly different set of emphases.

 

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Bill Frankel-Streit and fellow protestors held an Ash Wednesday service in front of the what they called the Injustice Department in 2006. Photo courtesy of Jonah House

“Good Friday, for me, instead of going to a church service, I act,” he says. “I go to the Pentagon and confront Caesar.” As part of his observance, he gets help from a sympathetic doctor who draws his blood. He stashes the sample in his freezer until it's time. When Good Friday approaches, Bill thaws it out and drains it into a baby bottle. He takes it with him to the Pentagon where he literally spills his own blood. Typically, this gets him arrested. “The blood is already there,” he often says in court. “We're just making it visible.”

For Bill, this is a “really truthful act” of laying down his life essence in the name of Christ. After all, he says, Jesus died for our sins, he didn't kill for them.

In late December, while the rest of the country celebrates Christmas, the Frankel-Streits and their extended family of activists gather to observe the Feast of Holy Innocents. This commemorates the story in the Gospel of Matthew of King Herod, who gets word that a child has been born who eventually will seize his throne. Herod executes all of Bethlehem's young male children. They also gather Aug. 6 and 9 to commemorate the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Despite his estrangement from the formal Catholic hierarchy, Bill still sees himself as working within the unique inheritance of the early Catholic Church's resistance to empires.

“The empire always has the death card and that's why it's total blasphemy,” he says. “Presidents and pharaohs, they're the anti-Christ. They're what has to be resisted. The whole Bible is about resisting the principalities and powers, those who make war on God's children, the poor.” To that end, Christianity and anarchy become one and the same. “Resistance is love,” he says. “It's loving the victim so much, and the oppressor, too. It's like tough love. It's like living with an alcoholic.”

In his view, the “imperial religion” focuses on the individual instead of the social gospel, which is how we have ended up with a popular religious moment that “focuses more on sexual sin than on injustice.” Frankel-Streit's belief that all people are part of the body of Christ stands at odds with the personal savior approach prevalent in many churches today, the theological equivalent of union busting.

This is the calling Bill and Sue have been trying to answer since they were released from prison in New York and began their life together. They came back to Dorothy Day House in Washington and had the kids. In 1993 they moved to a Catholic Worker house in Baltimore where Philip Berrigan was living at the time.

“Doing Bible study with Phil always meant you were preparing for a felony,” Bill says.

When they returned to Washington they encountered a spike in violence in the immediate neighborhood. After a kid who used to come by to play was shot execution-style in front of the house, they left.

They moved to Goochland County and lived on rented property for a while. After the 9/11 attacks, the landlord got itchier about having radical tenants and evicted them. Bill and Sue happened to have coffee with a young couple that had recently received a sizable inheritance and offered to give them $100,000. It's a startling coincidence, but Bill says it's typical of Catholic Workers to have such providential run-ins.

They used the money to buy the house in Louisa and have been there since. They call it Little Flower, which was the nickname of Therese Lisieux, Dorothy Day's favorite saint. She advocated the “little way” of the cumulative power in little acts of love. After all, if the massive destruction in Japan during World War II could be caused by something as small as an atom, surely little acts of love could counteract that evil.

Bill's estrangement from the organized church has been embodied in the person of Bishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo. He's the bishop of Richmond, but when Bill was a troublemaking priest in Pennsylvania's Scranton Diocese, DiLorenzo was part of the church administration.

 

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From the Frankel-Streit living room home dAccor collection.

DiLorenzo's predecessor was the Bishop-President of Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace movement, and sympathetic to the work of the Frankel-Streits. Under DiLorenzo, however, the budget has been cut for social ministry activities. He's refused to allow speakers from Pax Christi to speak, much less people from the Catholic Worker, and has closed the door on a source of funding for the Frankel-Streits.

That's become a slightly trickier issue lately. A woman and her three small children had been in need of hospitality and staying at Little Flower before deciding to move to Charlottesville last year. Social Service workers have since intervened, in what the Frankel-Streits say is an unnecessary incursion, and removed the children from their mother's care. The mother is back living at Little Flower, and Bill and Sue are helping her fight to regain custody so they can all live together. But their lifestyle and nontraditional funding streams are under the microscope now more than ever.

Cooperating with the government agencies to become official foster parents isn't something the Frankel-Streits have been willing to do before. It's one small step among several they're taking toward the mainstream. Last year Bill got arrested, but didn't serve any jail time for the big three protest holidays. He participated as an expert witness for the first time, rather than as a defendant. There's even some discussion about the youngest, Gaby, doing a year at a Quaker school in Charlottesville.

Is it possible that in the same season that the general public took glancing notice of Catholics and radical politics, these radical Catholics are taking steps toward the mainstream?

Bill has a slightly different take. He's not downshifting to more mainstream tactics. Instead, he says, he's doing what he's always done: “I ask myself, ‘What does love require at this point?'”

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