Joining the Fight for Justice
When Bill graduated from the seminary, he had his doubts about the some aspects of the priestly life, but nevertheless he emerged with a conservative streak. After he was ordained, he subscribed to the National Review, voted for Eisenhower, bought a 1939 model ‘baby Cadillac’ for $50 (“I loved powerful cars”) and read his breviary every day. “He was a sacristan kind of priest,” he said, trying to do all the rituals properly, keeping the rule as he had in seminary.
His first assignment was St. Jarlath on Fruitvale in Oakland, a middle-class, all white parish, where he learned the correct protocol for baptisms, weddings and funerals. He describes it as “so incredibly clerical” and “so proper,” and a difficult adjustment for him.
The pastor, Monsignor Thomas Scahill, was a “great guy, very sensitive” and also witty, but he was an alcoholic and “just crushed by this problem.” Bill, however, had taken the routine seminarian’s pledge to avoid alcohol for five years before ordination and five years after and even went one better. “I kept it for six,” he said. And he was a good worker in the parish. One Saturday he celebrated five Masses, including one funeral and one wedding because the pastor was ‘under the weather.’
Bill took care of pastor Tom. He lied for him, told his friends that
he was ‘sick,’ told himself, “Tom’ll get tired of this.” “Msgr. Scahill
was Irish,” Bill said, “very nice to people, terribly insecure. He was
incredibly embarrassed and ashamed that he couldn’t control it. He was
a binge drinker, and he never admitted that he was an alcoholic. He would
say, ‘I slipped.’” He made fun of AA. He would get shaky from withdrawal,
and Bill or another
To this day, Bill said, he feels as if he killed his first pastor because he took part in the cover-up and because he looked in on the priest the night he died, found him asleep in bed with a whiskey bottle nearby, and left without waking him. “I left because it was easier than talking.” Bill was leaving for Seattle to visit his sister Mary and called from Portland to see how Msgr. Scahill was doing. A sister said, “Father, I’m so glad you called. Monsignor died last night.” The cook had found him dead in bed. He was 54 years old. Bill vowed he would never been an enabler again.
That was 1962, and later that year Bill was assigned to Corpus Christi in Piedmont, where the pastor was Father Edwin J. Keller, “old, cranky, egotistical,” Bill said. “He thought he should be bishop, so he was a very bitter man.” He was also very sick, and Bill took on a lot of the sacramental duties. In 1964 Father Maurice Donovan became pastor.
It was during his time at Corpus Christi that Bill got his taste of social activism. Before then, he said, he was “totally for the establishment. I thought life was serving the establishment. I bought the American system thoroughly and the Roman (church) system.” But this began to change when the chancery appointed him to the Catholic Interracial Council, which had been created by John Cummins, before he was Bishop Cummins, and a lay Catholic in the history department at Cal. It was to bring Catholics of different ethnic groups together to look at social issues involving race. “They thought that because I was in Piedmont, it would impress the blacks,” Bill said. This was his first taste of civil rights issues.
Tom Fike, just out of law school and a member of the CIC, remembers Bill as politically naive. “He had absolutely no background in inner city stuff or political radicalism or civil rights. He just didn’t know anything about that stuff.” But Fike also remembers that Bill was “a bright young Irish guy” who “knew what was right” and “started educating himself.” “Bill would sit back and watch. At first he was really timid and quiet. He would sit in the back of the meeting. As he got more and more conscious, he moved to the forefront.”
Bill’s mentor on the council was Tom McGowan, now a deacon. “He taught me in a gentle way what it means to be black.”
From left, Tom McGowan, Joe Piazza, Bill before a
Via the Catholic Interracial Council Bill also took up the fight to oppose state Proposition 14, which repealed a fair housing act. Tom Fike got to know Bill when they were doing political organization around the No on 14 campaign. They met often on the picket lines when they went after all-white unions, housing discrimination and employment. They picketed BART for failing to hire minorities in the construction of the transit system.
At first, Bill said, “I didn’t know what I was doing. So that’s where my learning began, of other peoples, other religions, other groups. It was like going to kindergarten. I didn’t dream there’d be so much knowledge to be had. It was really all through experience, of meetings, hearing people tell their stories, going places.”
All this was in the early to mid-60s. Fike recalls Bill as “one of those guys who was always doing it, one of those guys who was always available, always picking up a picket sign.”
He had three years at Corpus Christi, and then he was sent to St. Joseph in Alameda, where “the pastor put on an air of extreme piety,” which hid a serious contempt for his flock. Monsignor Alvin P. Wagner took great care with his vestments, he had a voice that intoned the liturgy, and he was “religiosity incarnate,” according to Bill. He recalled, “He would say, ‘Father Bill, would you lead the people in singing?’” in low, dignified tones. Bill once gave it a try, was flat, and broke down laughing.
Monsignor Wagner used to “treat the altar boys shamelessly.” When the parish held a funeral, “he would go to the deceased’s son or daughter and suggest that they buy a window. If they refused, he’d say, “Did you love your mother?” When a woman fainted during a weekday morning Mass, Bill discovered that she was poor and hadn’t had breakfast. She lived in an apartment owned by the church, one of ‘the monsignor’s apartments,’ so Bill went to Msgr. Wagner and asked him to reduce her rent. He refused, saying he couldn’t “because the apartments belong to the church.” Bill was outraged. “That to me was such a scandal.”
He was Father Wagner when Bill arrived, and then he became monsignor, an honor that pleased him no end. “I thought he’d go orgiastic,” Bill said. “It was sickening.” Bill learned to go his own way. “I did guerrilla warfare with him,” he said. He was the 13th assistant in 12 years, and parishioners were also leaving, most of them for the downtown cathedral, St. Francis de Sales, but Bill lasted 16 months, and soon after he arrived, he traveled to Mississippi, the front lines in the struggle for civil rights.
Jim Kennedy, a priest friend from San Francisco bought a van and invited Bill to drive with him to Mississippi. Bill used his vacation time to make the journey “because they would never allow me to do it as part of the parish work.” They filled the van with supplies provided by Interracial Council members, and headed off for St. Francis Church in Greenville, Miss., which ran a center where people came for food, clothing and other help. It was the summer of 1965. The march from Selma to Montgomery had taken place that spring and feelings were high.
They drove through Texas without stopping and through green rolling hills in Mississippi farm country up to the center, housed in a big wooden warehouse. There some 20 people had been praying earnestly for a van, and they came out to see Bill and Jim Kennedy arrive, stepping out of a van and saying it was a gift to the center.
“They knew we were coming, but they didn’t know we were going to give them a van and books and everything, and they were shocked at the fact that they had just been praying for a van, as if God said, ‘Yeah, here’s one’. It wasn’t new, but it had traveled from California to Mississippi without a mishap.”
The center was a haven for the black population living around Greenville. The town was “very hostile. It had a White Citizen’s Council made up of some business people and some ministers, too, and they had the Klan do their dirty work. If they thought someone was a threat to their way of life, they had the Klan take care of it.” St. Francis Parish “was mixed,” Bill said. A woman who was serving in the state legislature had founded the church center, “but it was a very noblesse oblige attitude. She thought the Civil Rights Movement was going to ruin everything. It was a very patronizing attitude, and yet the people understood that and kind of laughed at it. They used it because it did benefit them.”
Bill was just getting acquainted with African-Americans. His world in Livermore and the seminary had been nearly all white. When he heard about racism as a kid, he thought it applied to “the Portuguese guys,” and on the construction crew the blacks had kept to themselves. He had seen Louis Armstrong in concert once, but, he said, “I really didn’t get it. It was too far outside my experience.”
But in Mississippi, “We lived in this center. I was struck with the beauty of the black people. After that I knew how beautiful they are. Before, when I first went to the council, I was so patronizing.” In Greenville he felt as if he was “in an alien land.” He visited the homes of local Catholics, where every one had photos of Pope John XXIII and John F. Kennedy, and he saw shotgun houses, shanties, and “the blatant racism” where black neighborhoods had no paved streets. It opened his eyes to the more subtle racism in California.
After Mississippi, Bill went on to Selma, Alabama. The march on Selma had taken place that spring, and the movement was changing, with some activists rejecting the non-violence of Martin Luther King for a more pugnacious stance. Bill came back from his trip further enlightened and deeply committed to the non-violence of Gandhi and King. “It was exciting. It was my beginning to deal with real evil, a way of changing, rather than trying to make people feel good and put up with the crap. Church was: say prayers and maybe things will happen, maybe God will change it. So I began to experience with God and people who can change it, and that was very enlightening, and that was the hook that kept me in.”
When he returned from Mississippi to St. Joseph in Alameda, he told the pastor that he was going to speak about his visit. “His only, only answer was, ‘You’re not going to talk about money, are you?’” Bill was soon taking up the cause of blacks in Alameda, who were being forced out of the community. “They made a tent city in the park. I joined them, I urged parishioners to go talk to them. The pastor said I was trying to lure them to our parish ‘horrors!’”
On the picket line
Bill said of those times: “The farm worker movement was on and the anti-war movement was on. So all these different people would come to support a cause or an issue. They were all wonderful. I saw atheists, communists have a greater, much greater, moral sense than religious people. That was a great education. They were more willing to sacrifice than church people, so many church people I know.” He had already seen that violence didn’t work. “When I was younger, I said, ‘The hell with the consequences,’ but the more I experienced the vacuity, bankruptcy and futility of violence, I saw that it made things worse.”
Bill’s first picket line “was to integrate a bank in Alameda. I remember walking toward the picket line. My feet wanted to turn around, but when I got there it was wonderful because I was with wonderful people. People spat at me and so on, but it was OK.”
Late in 1966 he got a call from Bishop Begin, who said, “I’m going to do you and the pastor a favor. I’m sending you to Hayward, and he will be relieved of you.”
The new parish was St. Joachim, and the pastor was Father Maurice Hannigan. Bill had been there several months when Hannigan choked on a piece of meat and died. “It was Saturday night dinner. He tried to get up, and I heard him fall. I tried to revive him by breathing into his mouth. The ambulance arrived, and they tried to revive him, but he died. “Bill remembers him as “a nice guy but just irrelevant; he was out of it, useless.”
Father Thomas Murphy took his place. “A dry alcoholic,” Bill said. “He had the alcoholic mentality.” The pastor did not approve of Bill’s involvement in civil rights. He complained to the bishop, who called Bill in and said he wasn’t doing enough parish work because he was devoting time to social justice activities. Bill was incensed. In fact, he said, the pastor was absent much of the time. “His presence was a real pretense. It left the other priest and me to do the work. “The other assistant was an old, old man, and I was doing the parish work, everything from baptism to Masses. I had a hundred communicants in rest homes, and I had the parish organizations, and that really angered me so much.”
César and the farm workers
One Palm Sunday he read a San Francisco Chronicle story about César Chávez, and “as a farm boy,” he was curious. “I didn’t believe you could organize farm workers. “He began to hear about César and his work with the United Farm Workers, but he didn’t meet him until he went to a state senate committee hearing concerning farm workers that was held in Fresno. “I saw César Chávez at the hearing. I was in awe of this little guy and Fred Ross, Dolores Huerta, those three.”
Father Murphy tried to talk Bill out of his involvement with social justice, but he was fully committed by now. When he protested against police for the shooting of a young Latino kid, the pastor said, “You know, if you get involved in this case, the police will target you, and you know how sometimes we come home at night, and we’ve had a few drinks, and we need friends.” Then he tried another tack: “What would your mother say?” Bill began to laugh and said, “Oh, Mom really pushes me to do this,” which was a lie.
Bill was chaplain of Newman Club at Chabot College and used his position to promote civil rights and speak against the Vietnam War. “I used that to get guys declared conscientious objectors and to recruit people to picket Safeway.” Once he invited César Chávez to speak at Chabot, and César lost his way, so he went to the rectory for directions. The pastor recognized him, but he told César that Bill was “too busy to be involved in anything you’re doing, and it has nothing to do with church.”
“He was so rudely, rudely treated, “Bill said. “I was so embarrassed.”
It was the UFW that drew Bill into his first act of civil disobedience, a demonstration at Safeway “because they were buying from growers that exploited.” It was May 15, 1969. With UFW supporters Bill showed up for a scheduled meeting with Safeway executives at the company’s Oakland headquarters at Fourth and Jackson to demand that the grocery chain honor the grape boycott. Safeway executives refused, declared the meeting adjourned and walked out of the room, leaving a guard at the door. “About six of us stayed,” Bill said, “union guys” with UFW and the Central Labor Council. The executives left about 1:30 p.m., and Bill and his fellow protesters stayed on until closing time, about 5 p.m., when the company called the police.
In the meantime the union leaders began to taunt the security guards: “Why aren’t you union? You’re scabs.” Then two union men rushed the guards. “I was amazed. This was supposed to be non-violent. It was all a tactic; it was to get the guard to strike, to provoke him. He drew his baton and was going to strike one of the guys, but his boss came, immediately sized up the situation, excused the guard, gave him another duty and took over. And everything quieted down because this more knowledgeable guy was very friendly, so the union guys couldn’t do anything. A very interesting dynamic for me. They wanted to make a case of the Safeway guards beating up on them.”
His first arrest
After closing time, the police sent in a tac squad, just in case trouble broke out with the 200 UFW supporters gathered outside the building. The police came with their helmets, face shields, their batons and guns. Bill, wearing his clerical collar and scared at what was coming, was arrested and taken to the Oakland jail on Broadway. It was his first arrest, his first act of civil disobedience, and once they were behind bars, the group planned to stay there “to embarrass Safeway,” but they changed their minds and got out on their own recognizance. The case went to trial, Bill and the others pleaded no contest and got a year of probation with no fine. “But the farm workers’ attorney,” he recalled, “had to go to Goodwill to get a coat and tie and present himself to the judge.”
Bill and the union leaders were out of jail by evening, but he had found the experience unnerving. “It was scary. It was a drunk tank they put us all in. Being with the guys was wonderful because of the talk and conversation, but still it was horrible. If I’d been by myself, I would still be shaking today. Scary. I wasn’t used to street drunks then, and they brought in three transvestites from the street, and they were gorgeous. They were strip searched and I was shocked to find out they were men. I was so naive. I did wonder why women were in a men’s part of the jail. It turned out they were men.”
Even though Bill had been picketing stores and handing out leaflets, he had never before crossed the line into breaking the law, but he knew it was “the next logical step.” César Chávez and Dolores Huerta had asked him to make that move. “I thought of a thousand reasons why I couldn’t, but I had to do it. I couldn’t say no, even though I was scared. I saw I was participating in something that was a matter of justice, and I knew I was going to get arrested. I was convinced it was OK with God.”
It was also OK with other activists and many parishioners, but some parishioners were outraged, and Bill received complaints and hate mail. Shortly after his arrest, he learned that he was being transferred to Sacred Heart Parish in Oakland, and he told reporters that the transfer was “politically motivated.” This prompted a letter from Bishop Floyd Begin, who said the decision to transfer him had come before the arrest. The bishop also said that under canon law he was ordered “not to become involved again in civil disobedience or demonstrations which easily lead to violence – so that no more adverse publicity will result from what you say or do.”
Bill drew support from some of his fellow priests. The morning after
his arrest, he was at a meeting of priests held at Catholic Charities,
where he announced that he’d do another sit-in. Father Ed Hassl spoke up
and said, “And we’ll sit with you.” To Bill “that was so encouraging and
so supportive. It gave me so much more confidence because I felt very alone.”
That same day the diocesan Bishop’s Committee for the Spanish Speaking
released a statement supporting Bill. It was signed by Fathers John Garcia,
Ben Figueroa, Antonio Valdivia, Walter Saunders, George Crespin and Donald
Bill received hate mail, but he also received support.
His arrest had come on his father’s birthday. Bill was 39 years old, and he “admired these young kids in their 20s getting arrested. I was such a slow starter.”
At Chabot College Bill joined a campaign to get Chicano Studies on the curriculum, and to press the case, he attended a meeting of the board of trustees. The board president told the noisy crowd of demonstrators that they couldn’t speak because they weren’t on the agenda. Bill proposed that the protesters tell the board they wouldn’t leave until they were allowed to speak. At this, the board president said he would call the police, and Bill found himself stepping forward. “We’ll gladly go to jail,” he said, because they were only asking for ten minutes.
Bill had already been in jail by now, and he was willing to go again. But it wasn’t necessary. The board took an hour to discuss the issue and told the demonstrators they could get on the agenda for the next meeting. “So,” Bill said, “I go home and I think, ‘Oh God, that was really going to the edge.’ Murphy comes into my room and he says, ‘Where have you been? You’re never around here anymore.’ And I blew. I lost it, and I gave him a litany of all the things I did in the parish, and rather than talk about it, he just turned around and fled.”
At Sacred Heart the pastor was Msgr. Michael O’Brien, whom Bill describes as “one of the best of the Vatican I priests. He was a very nice guy, an entertainer, he told jokes, he sang songs, a Bing Crosby clone. “He and Bill were worlds apart politically and theologically, but the two men liked each other and got along famously” until he put Bill in charge of a neighborhood fair.
“So I invited the farm workers, and I invited the Black Panthers, with everyone else. He walks in on Saturday to this fair, and he just blows sky high.” It was anti-military; it was pro-Panther and pro-farm worker, “and he exploded all over me. And that Sunday in my preaching assignment I preached against the war, and he just went crazy, in the sense that he wouldn’t talk to me.”
Bill slipped notes under O’Brien’s door, saying they had to talk. “I was kind of jabbing it to him, too, kind of saying, ‘This situation is your fault and not mine,’ in a nice way.” A few days after the fair the two men were passing on a narrow flight of stairs and the pastor said, “Oh, by the way, I’m sorry,” and kept going. “We never discussed the pros and cons, the reasons. That was kind of rectory life,” Bill said.
In 1973 Bill got his own parish, St. Joseph the Worker in Berkeley, and he was the one who called the shots. His series of prickly relationships with pastors had ended, and he found himself in the city known for its social activism.
His own prayer life was still formal, found in the sacraments and ritualized prayer, but he was beginning to change. He noticed that something was missing. “As a cleric I did everything they told me, then I ran into a big wall.” He found his life without meaning, but the problem was that it was really “the clerical life, which is just the institution. There’s no mystery in being a cleric.” He soon stopped reading his breviary, which was all in Latin and had little meaning for him. One night he poured himself a drink, opened the breviary and closed it again. He has never opened it since.