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Remembering Tom Lewis: Activist, Artist


* By Scott Schaeffer-Duffy

On April 4, 2008, the 40^th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Patrick Lewis died of natural causes at his home Austin Street home in Worcester, Massachusetts. His commitment to justice and peace flowed out of his love and art and began with civil rights, continued with opposition to the Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, and the current US War in Iraq. He was arrested many times for nonviolent civil disobedience, serving more than 4 years of his life in jail for his acts of conscience, including a multi-year sentence for his part in the burning of draft files in Catonsville, Maryland in 1968.

Tom was born on Saint Patrick's Day in 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland. He is survived by his daughter Nora Marie Borbely-Lewis, his mother, Pauline, his brothers Don and John, and his sister, Paula Anne Sheye. When he was 17, his family moved to the suburbs of Baltimore where Tom won a football scholarship to Saint Joseph's Xaverian High School. Upon graduation, he joined the National Guard "because we never had an anti-war discussion in any Catholic school I attended. I didn't even know what a conscientious objector was."

In a 1997 interview in /The Catholic Radical/ Tom said that it was during his military service that he started "a slow process of waking up to the problems of war." He said, "We did ABDC (Atomic, Biological, and Chemical) training…. When a tactical nuclear weapon was shot, we were trained to go to ground zero immediately after the weapons exploded to clear out any surviving enemy. The theory was that the radiation hadn't fallen to the ground yet. At worst, you might lose some hair and if it were too dangerous, the badge you were wearing would turn a particular color."

Simultaneously, Tom was developing into a talented artist who became involved in the liturgical movement of the early 1960s. He took courses to improve his skills and found work in churches that were looking for new forms of sacred art. This work also brought Tom into contact with dynamic clergy and the works of people like Tielhard de Chardin. In his own words, Tom "had the opportunity to listen, talk to, and question people in the liturgical renewal."

About this time, a friend named Fred Nass took Tom to a German bar saying, "I want you to meet this priest I know." The priest was Philip Berrigan (a World War II veteran, Holy Cross College graduate, and Josephite). Of the meeting, Tom said, "I was very impressed with how human this person, Phil Berrigan, was; how he was willing to sit down and eat some pretzels, drink a beer, and talk about some important things. This was pretty different from other people in the Church I had known… I was touched by how human and knowledgeable and special he was. It was through Phil that I started to wake up to civil rights issues and nuclear issues." Phil would also be the one to take Tom to New York City to visit the Catholic Worker house on Christie Street where they met Dorothy Day.

But Tom also stresses that his art itself drew him to activism. He described this dramatic examples of how that happened: " I heard about a demonstration at Gwen Oak Amusement park in Baltimore (where Black people were barred), so I went there to do some sketches. I was hoping to get some in the Catholic press because they had been using some of my artwork…. I thought they might want some civil rights drawings. I was there sketching with the group all around the demonstrators and as the demonstrators were hauled to the police van, the people I was standing with got uglier and uglier, yelling at the demonstrators, throwing little rocks and firecrackers. I had this awful feeling that even though I was sketching, I wasn't really separate from them. Even though I was there as an artist, a reporter, I really wasn't separate from the crowd and what they were doing. I was frightened by that, and stepped back, looked over the at the legal support demonstration. It was very clear that anyone who sat down or got near the people at the entrance would be dragged away and arrested. So I went over to carry a sign in the legal demonstration. I think it said, 'Jim Crow Stops Here.' This was quite frightening to do for the first time. I think I was in a cold sweat the entire time."

Following this demonstration, in 1964, Tom joined the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) where he met "a wonderful Black organizer" named Walter Carter who "had the patience to move people along slowly." With Carter's help, Tom started joining marches and was eventually arrested in a protest for housing integration. Tom and five others, three of whom were black, attended a public open house at a Baltimore apartment complex. When told by the manager that rentals were only open to whites, Tom and his comrades sat down and refused to leave. Six hours later, after many management threats, including one to fumigate the apartment, they were arrested.

It was only natural that Tom would become involved in opposition to the Vietnam War with friends like Phil Berrigan, but added to those relationships was the fact that his own younger brother was sent to Vietnam. By 1968, Tom would be a central character in two draft board protests, The Baltimore Four and The Catonsville Nine, which would capture the imagination of the entire country. He would eventually serve three years in jail without being deterred from his commitment to peace.

Since moving to Worcester in the late 1970s, Tom has been a leader in the peace movement. He organized a long and successful campaign to end work on the MX nuclear missile at GTE in Westboro. He vigiled at the plant faithfully for years and was arrested there 4 different times. In 1989, after civil disobedience at the GTE plant, he and his 4 codefendants were acquitted by a Worcester jury of six who agreed with Bishop Bernard J. Flanagan who said, "There are times and situations where civil disobedience is not only justifiable, but may actually be a duty." The MX contract was withdrawn and the plant converted to civilian use.

Tom was also a participant in two demonstrations which involved symbolic damage to nuclear weapons and a nuclear weapons carrying destroyer. These protests called "Plowshares actions" after the Prophet Isaiah's call that swords should be beaten into plowshares, often resulted in long jail sentences. Tom was unafraid of those consequences and continued to participate in nonviolent civil disobedience until his death.

Remarkably, Tom continued an active career as an artist even during his jail terms. He was never seen without his sketch pad. He made countless sketches of inmates and jail scenes, as well as woodcuts, paintings, etchings, and murals. He illustrated a number of scripturally-based books about resistance to war. In the foreword to Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J.'s book The Nightmare of God, the author describes Tom's art as "…a poignant and powerful witness to the survival of the endangered conscience…. He heals the ancient split between ethics and imagination." And although Tom could well have made a comfortable living teaching art classes full time, he chose to live among the poor in a such a way that he was always free to go to jail for nonviolent civil disobedience. Tom said that prison keeps "our minds sane and our direction clear… The nuclear age is calculated to dull our senses with false security and an illusion of hope, a hope which in fact is death. I believe that to stay alive, one must risk or enter jail for non-violent resistance to the Nuclear Beast. Otherwise we are dead before the very first strike is made."

Tom also challenged other injustices besides racism and war. In 2005, Tom was arrested with 6 others at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, DC to call for an end to genocide in Darfur. He was also arrested years earlier protests nuclear power at Seabrook New Hampshire and, last January, protesting against torture and calling for the closure of the US prison in Guantanamo, Cuba. After that, Tom traveled with a collective of international artists to protest the construction of the Israeli wall inside the occupied West Bank. With his typical artistic calm, he taught Palestinian children his technique of non-toxic printing in Ramallah.

On top of all this, Tom's home, christened Emma House after a deceased African American women who once lived there, has been home to many other activists, friends, and even the homeless. Tom also helped out when he could at the Mustard Seed Catholic Worker across the street.

Despite his focus on serious issues, Tom was also known for a fine sense of humor. Just after his codefendant Father Phil Berrigan was sentences to six years in jail for his part in the Baltimore Four, the judge asked Tom if he had anything to say before sentencing. Tom said, "No, your honor." The judge pressed him, "These are serious charges, Mr. Lewis. Don't you have anything to say?" Tom said, "No, I've said all I want to in my testimony." But, when the judge persisted, "You could be sent to jail for years Mr. Lewis, are you absolutely sure there's nothing you want to add?" Tom began to suspect that the judge wanted to scapegoat Phil as the priest mastermind of the protest and hoped Tom would make a last minute appeal for mercy, so Tom said, "Since you press me your honor, there is one quote which is important to me." The judge leaned forward and said, "Yes, yes." Tom straightened up and said soberly, "You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead. That's from Laurel and Hardy, your honor." The furious judge gave Tom six years too.

When asked in 1997 what sustained him through all these years, Tom said simply, "My faith and my art." He also credited his father's deep love for the Bible. Long-time peace activist Elizabeth McAlister said that when she met Tom in 1967 she know that he was "thoughtful, committed, and real." She said "Tom is moved by conscience and friendships." His brother Don said today, "Tom did everything possible to share his love with us, his family, but he belonged to a much wider community." His Catholic Worker friend, Claire Schaeffer-Duffy said, "Tom epitomized fidelity. As a young man he saw the truth of the evil of war and stayed with that truth all his life, even when it cost him to practice it." Her husband Scott said, "Tom was a saint, plain and simple. He's finally able to practice his art with all the masters in a place where there is no violence, war, or injustice. His joy is well-earned. He will be enormously missed."

Tom was in an Alexandria, Virginia court on Good Friday this year for his part in protests at the Pentagon. His case was dismissed and he was set free. His spirit was set free yesterday.

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