November 2, 1941 ~ January 13, 2022
(Photo: Jim Forest’s Flickr account)
On April 5, 1977, peace activist and author Jim Forest received a phone call that his friend and collaborator Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, an Argentinian peace activist, had been kidnapped by the military dictatorship and was surely being tortured. Adolfo had become a disaparecido, like thousands of others. The most likely outcome was death. From his office in the Netherlands Jim and his staff began working to free Adolfo. They had the idea to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize as a publicity stunt to embarrass the Argentinian government. Jim called two Nobelists, the peace activists Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, and together they wrote up material to nominate him and a press release stating as much. Within hours hundreds of papers picked up the story, and fourteen months later, by some miracle, Adolfo was released. Expecting nothing more to come of this, Jim thought he had received a prank call the next summer when the Nobel committee called to inform him that they would soon announce that Adolfo had won the prize.
Not wanting to waste this opportunity and before attending the Nobel ceremony together in Oslo, Jim and Adolfo began strategizing how to capitalize on this turn of events. Jim arranged for a meeting in Rome with Pope (now saint) John Paul II. At this meeting, Adolfo gave Pope John Paul a biography that Jim had written of Thomas Merton, Jim’s longtime friend and spiritual father. Their goal was to ask the Pope that Arturo Rivera Damas be appointed as the permanent successor to the recently assassinated Óscar Romero. The Pope went on to grant their request.
A “red-diaper baby,” Jim was born November 2, 1941, to two communists. Though Jim was at times embarrassed by his family’s outsider status in the ’50s, he attributed his upbringing to teaching him about the plight of the poor, something that paved the way to becoming a Christian. As a child, he also learned about the horrors of war when a friend and minister at a local Methodist parish hosted two victims of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had come to the US for reconstructive surgery. As a child, peering at their silk veils, Jim came to learn that hospitality to those in need and suffering was far more important than politics. Despite his many encounters with political events over the coming decades, he always kept in mind that it was people that ultimately mattered.
It is perhaps unsurprising then that, in 1960 while serving in the Navy, Jim would find a kindred spirit in Dorothy Day. While reading the Catholic Worker paper and her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, he learned that Dorothy was a former communist and Catholic convert who founded the Catholic Worker movement, a network of houses of hospitality that served the poor and promoted peace. Shortly after discovering Dorothy’s writings, Jim made his way to visit Dorothy’s community in Manhattan.
Before long, Jim became a Catholic himself, something which severely complicated his promising military career. When Jim had joined the military he was told “The Navy owns you. In case you didn’t get that, I’ll say it again. The Navy owns you… You are the property of the US Navy… We issue the orders and you obey the orders or there will be hell to pay.” After his conversion, he submitted the following to his superiors:
I would have to refuse to obey any order or fulfill any duty which I considered to be immoral, contrary to my conscience or in opposition to the teaching of my Church, as a Catholic… Though I would participate in the actual and just defense of our country, I would not assist in any attack or war effort which necessarily involved the death of innocent non-combatants. I would obey no order in conflict with my convictions.
Jim was discharged as a conscientious objector and went to live at the St. Joseph Catholic Worker community in Manhattan.
It was from Dorothy that Jim learned the profession that he spent the rest of his life doing, writing. Together they published the Catholic Worker paper, protested all violence, and offered hospitality to all those who came knocking. Dorothy also asked Jim to help manage the Catholic Worker’s relationships with important supporters such as Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, whose peace work landed him on the FBI’s ten most wanted list, and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. After a brief stint in jail for protesting nuclear weapons, Jim visited Merton in Kentucky, thinking of moving on from the Catholic Worker to become a monastic. Instead, Merton told him the Holy Spirit had other things in mind for him.
Jim did end up leaving the Catholic Worker after all, and in 1963 became managing editor of Liberation, an influential peace magazine. There he worked closely with A.J. Muste and Bayard Rustin. Jim said that on occasion their staff meetings would be interrupted with urgent phone calls from Martin Luther King, Jr. It was Dr. King’s decision that his famous 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail first be published in Liberation.
By 1967 Jim had founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship and was also working at the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Through his work with FOR, Jim became acquainted with Vietnamese Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh,* whom Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Thầy, as his friends called him, is partly responsible for introducing and popularizing the idea of mindfulness in the United States. Jim assisted Thầy with his most famous book, Miracle of Mindfulness, published in 1975 with an afterward from Jim. The first conversation Thầy and Jim had was whether psychedelics were a shortcut to enlightenment, a question which the Zen master took surprisingly seriously, and which sparked their decades-long friendship.
On September 24, 1968, Jim and thirteen others—the Milwaukee Fourteen, as they were known—broke into the Brumder Buiding in Milwaukee, liberated thousands of draft cards, and set them on fire with napalm. At his trial, Jim did not shy away from the charges. The fourteen chose to represent themselves, with Jim taking the lead. He sought to prove that the war in Vietnam was illegal and immoral. To that end, they sought to admit as evidence a range of legal opinions against the War in Vietnam, and a number of religious texts, including Pope John’s Pacem in Terris, as well as the New Testament. The judge rejected all of this, saying that admitting the New Testament as evidence “may create substantial danger of undue prejudice” in the jury. Years later during a Q&A at Yale Divinity School, a man stood up and told Jim he was draft age in Milwaukee when they burned those draft cards. The man thanked Jim and said, “You probably saved my life that day.” Without missing a beat Jim replied “And I’d do it again,” which earned him a standing ovation.
Jim was sentenced to what he has long called his thirteen-month “sabbatical” in prison. He was in prison during the famous Apollo 11 moon landing which first put humans on the moon. Shortly after missing the momentous event, he received a mysterious package from NASA. Initially, the warden told Jim this was an unauthorized correspondent and that he would not be able to receive the package but eventually did so. Inside was a color photo, made from the original negative, of the disc of the Earth, taken by the Apollo 11 crew. Soon after Jim received the photo, reproductions began appearing in the press. When he first received it, he was likely the only person outside of NASA and the White House who glimpsed this lunar view of Earth. He meditated on this photo for many hours in prison, and later made buttons of the photo. Handing me one decades later, he told me something to the effect that “From space, you can’t see borders, and you realize that we all share the same home.” Jim never found out who at NASA had sent the photo, but he suspected it was astronaut Michael Collins, who flew the command module.
Despite his closeness to central figures in the peace movement, Jim was not partisan and always felt that peace and justice were more important than ideology. When he received a note from Thích Nhất Hạnh in 1975 regarding atrocities committed by the post-war Marxist Vietnamese government, Jim helped to draft a 1976 letter to the Vietnamese government, asking them to open their “re-education camps” for inspection by Amnesty International and the International Red Cross. This letter become known as “the Forest appeal.” For his efforts, he was accused of being a CIA agent. Joan Baez had signed the letter and was pressured to withdraw her signature. Refusing to do so, she called Jim and relayed that when a friend told her that he [Jim] was CIA, she responded “Jim Forest is much too nice—and much too disorganized–to work for the CIA.”
Before long, Jim decided to leave the US, having previously spent time abroad living with Thích Nhất Hạnh. In 1977 he and his family settled in the Netherlands as he took over operations for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. It was during this period that he and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel began to work together. With the war in Vietnam over, Jim began to turn his attention to ending the Cold War. In truth, Jim has never seen a conflict he did not try to peacefully end. Jim made many trips to the Soviet Union to promote East-West integration. He saw the Russian Church as a natural partner in this work, given his experience with religious peacemaking. Over the course of the ’80s, he traveled to the Soviet Union, writing about the experiences of Orthodox Christians there. This resulted in his being invited by Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk to come to Moscow in 1987 for the conference, “For a World without Nuclear Weapons, for Mankind’s Survival,” at which Mikhail Gorbachev was to speak. A year later, Jim was in Moscow again during the signing of a treaty between President Reagan and Gorbachev. During this event, Jim made a pilgrimage to Boris Pasternak’s grave only to discover a freshly laid set of flowers. Locals told Jim that the flowers were put there by Nancy Reagan, who had just left. Jim snapped a photo and mailed it to the First Lady, who responded with a letter thanking him.
That same year, Jim took the personal step of crossing the Iron Curtain and joined the Russian Orthodox Church himself. Where others saw feared and hated enemies in looking at the Russians, Jim saw fellow humans on the same journey towards God. He would go on to write, “It is not so much belief in God that matters, but love of God, and similarly love of others, including love of enemies.”
Jim would go on to run the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and write many books, including biographies of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Dan Berrigan, and a memoir about Thích Nhất Hạnh. His other books include theological works, such as Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment.
Never in my life have I known someone who so often has had the epithet “Saint” attached to them. Jim may have had the life of Forrest Gump, but he had the temperament of Mr. Rogers. Since Jim’s passing, I’ve heard several people express the sentiment that rather than pray for him, we should ask his prayers for us, a common practice in the Orthodox Church for those who are or may be considered saints. I can’t help but remember a conversation I had with him some years ago. We were discussing the news that Dorothy had been given the title “Servant of God,” which in the Catholic Church is the first step towards earning the title “Saint.” Jim relayed to me that he was unintentionally responsible for inventing Dorothy’s most famous quotation. She herself never uttered the famous words now attributed to her, but instead, they were an invention of Jim’s, meant as a summary of their conversation: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
*Thích Nhất Hạnh followed close behind Jim on January 22, 2022. May his memory be eternal.
Jim Forest’s autobiography, Writing Straight with Crooked Lines, is available from Orbis Books.
Nicholas Sooy is a doctoral candidate in the philosophy department at Fordham University. Together with his wife, Oshadhi Sooy, he directs the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America and edits its journal, In Communion. He has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue.