Tom Lewis remembered

posted by Michael Boover on April 20th, 2008

To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.
–Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard

Inside Worcester magazine, June 1990
Photo Credit: Inside Worcester

Tom Lewis, a much beloved friend and colleague, died in his sleep on April 4, 2007 at “Emma House” in Worcester, Tom’s household of Biblical faith and resistance to empire. Many have written beautiful pieces of remembrance about Tom and I am a bit reticent to repeat what others have so aptly described and appreciated. But I find it is necessary to add my own unique sense of things too. Tom and I shared a pilgrimage and activist commitments in this life. And we both shared teaching posts at Anna Maria College.

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The Art Center at Anna Maria where Tom practiced his craft with diligence, grace and love…
Photo Credit: State University

Tom was a good friend to me through much thick and thin since the late seventies. I will always be grateful for his kind friendship. Tom came to Worcester when I was still a full time Catholic Worker at the Mustard Seed and we struck up a friendship that would span three decades! And we were regulars at the Friday night liturgies at the Mustard Seed with Catholic Worker priest, Bernard Gilgun, and the worshiping community that gathers there weekly. We will miss Tom dearly at the Seed.

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Lyn and Tom, Photo Credit: Jonah House

Tom was a great personal friend but also a great public witness. Tom made us better people by reminding us of the nature of the Christian vocation. He did so by living it himself so faithfully and generously. He taught by example primarily and visually too as the artist he was! He went to jail and prison routinely to protest humanity’s inhumanity to humanity in war. Racial discrimination, war, the economic waste of militarism, genocide, destitution- all these significant sufferings of humanity and more did not go by him. He tried to do something about them in the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth who he loved, followed and served with his joining in deep solidarity with the world’s hurting peoples.

Tom was brave and yet very human, faithful and yet very vulnerable, humble and yet very bold. He possessed, by God’s grace, those rare combinations of faith, virtue and humaneness that make for a very pleasant and easy going personality. But Tom was also a man of profoundly sensitive conscience which tempered all of the above qualities of affability with a gentle but nonetheless gritty ability to tell the truth even when it was and is uncomfortable to do so. And he paid high prices for his truth telling, especially his act of burning draft records in Catonsville, Maryland in 1968. He and his co-defendants brought Christ, his person and teachings (and this with great theological import, high drama and Christian political aptitude), to the courtroom. They put the case of burning children before the American people and ignited a blaze inviting a searing moral reflection on the American soul and war.

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The Catonsville Nine, 1968

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Tom with people’s historian, Howard Zinn

Tom joined the Committee of Racial Equality (CORE) as a young man and upon meeting Philip Berrigan joined the Catholic ultra-resistance to the Vietnam War. He was steadfast in his opposition to nuclear weapons and power over decades of difficult and strenuous activism. Tom liked to fish and took prayer time at both Saint Joseph’s Abbey and nearby Browning Pond. He was a proud father and celebrated with us hard skinned activists how proud he was of his then little daughter Nora’s violin playing.

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Photo Credit: Montebros
Saint Joseph’s Abbey: A Favorite Place of Tom’s

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Tom with Art
Photo Credit: Jonah House

Tom was a gifted artist, a very good artist, an artist many of his fellow activist friends (I should speak for myself) may have taken a bit too much for granted. He was so humble that his artistic genius was often overlooked and his humility served further to disguise his greatness. Tom did paint scenes of horror as to shake us out of our complicity with war-making and the costly (at many levels and in many dimensions) preparations for war. But he also painted sunflowers in Koz’s garden as an expression of eschatological hope!

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Tom in center with his artful message: “Swords into Plowshares”

Tom lived in Piedmont with the poor of Worcester as a person of hope. He painted beautiful murals with Piedmont’s children and brought priests to the streets. He believed the Eucharist could be shared with the downtrodden and depressed in attempts to stem drug trafficking and death dealing at the neighborhood level and increase a sense of security and new life in the midst of urban decay, human fragmentation and economic hurt.

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Photo credit: Friendly stranger with Tom’s camera

One of our last actions together was three of us taking on US militarism at the commissioning of the USS Sampson in Boston Harbor, Fall of 2008. If you are interested in all the details, I’d be happy to send along word of that adventure.

Strangely, following a rather laudatory article by a Worcester Telegram and Gazette reporter about Tom upon his passing, a number of reader comments sounded some painful critical notes. I found myself getting defensive and my wife, Diane, reminded me of the way of Christ: “The best thing you can do is not to attack the attackers. We’ve had enough of that. Simply write something nice about Tom who was truly nice.” So I responded with the following which may repeat some of what has been written already, but I’d like to share it, so here goes:

”Tom was and (because I, like Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, don’t believe in death without Resurrection) remains one of the finest souls I know. He was a man of refined conscience who recognized that inhumanity to humanity must be opposed by good people.

Tom was a fine artist but was above all a follower of Jesus who was gracious, gentle and yet bold. Like Christ challenging the money changers in the temple, Tom took on the violent power brokers of American empire with the hammer of the prophet Isaiah and the whip of Jesus- so that we Americans might learn to turn our swords to pruning hooks and tame our commercial appetites.

When he saw black folks being maltreated in the South, he knew he had to stand with them. When Vietnamese were being burned with napalm and bombed unmercifully, he knew with Dan Berrigan and companions that ‘it was better to burn paper than children.’

Tom, like Martin Luther King, Jr. is a true American because he truly loved other human beings. His witness will perdure and I also suspect some art critic some day will discover an American Van Gogh who cried out with all his heart and soul on canvas and in etchings against the cruel madness of modern war and war preparations.

Tom also lived among the poor, was indeed one of the poor and served the poor as he could. He instinctively knew of another America, one that could reflect the reign of Heaven that Jesus would have us pursue- a graced state of living where the hungry are fed, the wounded are soothed, and the ways of peace and known and taken seriously.

Even the harshest judges recognized in Tom a teller of truth and a simple and good man. Sometimes Tom stood in stark relief to other equally committed but more strident activists in that his calm resolve included a savvy that told him to simply take up whatever sad cross the empire would put to his shoulder. But he was not one to despair. A man of good faith and hope, he knew grace transforms hearts!”

Tom will be greatly missed by the likes of me and mine at the Worcester Catholic Worker houses and beyond. He was a living reminder that we must oppose war and perform the works of mercy. Our hearts are broken but better for having him among us as true friend and true witness. Tom Lewis, pray for us.

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Sketch of Bruce by Tom Lewis (Source: Pie and Coffee)

Tom’s funeral Mass was held in Baltimore and his daughter, Nora, delivered a eulogy. A Memorial Mass for Tom will be held at the Mustard Seed Catholic Worker House at 93 Piedmont Street on Sunday, May 4th at 3 PM. Father Gilgun will preside and preach. All are welcome. We will have a Memorial Mass at the Madore Chapel at Anna Maria and Fr. John O’Brien will preach. The date has yet to be announced.

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Tom (with Harry Duchesne and Catholic Worker friends) while on trial for protesting genocide in Darfur in a witness at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, DC

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Photo credit: Paul Gingras

Thank you, Tom! You have loved us well… Godspeed, good brother.

Knowing of Tom’s great friendship and love for Dan Berrigan, we note Dan’s gifts too and a celebration to come in October in Dan’s honor at the Agape Community in Hardwick on October 4, the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi. Surely, Tom will be celebrated on that day as well.

Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest opponent of Nazism, prisoner and martyr, wrote in his prison diary, “If there was a little more light and truth in the world through one human being, his (her) life has had meaning.” Tom’s life had and has lots and lots of meaning. God knows, we will miss his friendship and his witness. We will not be left bereft. As Father Bernie reminds us, our vocation is to have “ life with the living God in the joyful communion of the saints.” We have that with Tom.

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