Ordinary Hero: Jerry Berrigan Cared a Whole Awful Lot

A lifetime of peaceful protest brought Jerry Berrigan many places, including the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.A lifetime of peaceful protest brought Jerry Berrigan to many places, including the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. (Photo: Wikipedia)It’s the same way every night. My wife and I walk our daughter into her room at bedtime, change her clothes, play “Bounce” (which basically involves letting her jump around like a monkey so as to spend the last lingering scraps of her formidable arsenal of little-girl energy), and then it’s story time. I light the lamp, occupy the Reading Chair, she crawls into my lap and nestles close, and we choose.

“Where the Wild Things Are?”

“No.”

“The Very Hungry Caterpillar?”

“No.”

“The Cat in the Hat?”

“No.”

“Oh, The Places You’ll Go?”

“No.”

“Goodnight Moon?”

“No.”

“Then what will we read?”

“The Lorax!”

“Again?”

“Yeah! Again! Again!”

… and I selfishly sigh, because lost time is the first fate of fatherhood. I’ll admit it: I push for “Caterpillar” and “Wild Things” because they’re wonderful, but also because they’re blessedly short at the close of long days. No such luck; my daughter is bonkers for The Lorax, and so I drop my blade and plow through it night after night upon darling request … and I am here to tell you that I will put my recitation of that tale up against any and all challengers. Dr. Seuss and I are blood brothers.

… and every single time, when I reach the second-to-last page, right before the Once-ler gifts the last Truffula seed, I get to read this to my little girl:

The word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you
Cares a whole awful lot
Nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.

Jerry Berrigan died in Syracuse on Sunday at the towering age of 95 years old. Philip and Daniel, his brothers – both priests – became known and beloved as singular activists over the years. Jerry Berrigan gained no such fame, but he also dropped his blade and served his fellow humans well, and we are this day lessened by his absence.

Jerry Berrigan served three years in World War II. He marched the Pettus Bridge in the name of freedom and civil rights in Selma, Alabama. He smelled the gas, saw the violence, and stood. He poured blood on the Pentagon itself, and on a nuclear missile nosecone. He took a can of spray paint and wrote the word “Shame” on a Federal building to protest the war in Iraq. He was arrested more than 30 times over the years for the cause of peace, the last one when he was 92 and protesting drone warfare.

A former seminarian, he was active in the Catholic Worker movement thanks to his long friendship with Dorothy Day. He ministered to prisoners and homeless people. He taught English, composition, literature and Shakespeare, and according to his family, regularly donated almost sixty percent of his annual income to various charities. He had a smile a mile wide, never sought the spotlight, and lived a life of good works in full.

When word of his passing reached the office of the Mayor of Syracuse, the flags at City Hall were ordered lowered to half-mast.

Jerry’s brother Daniel wrote this a long time ago:

Some stood up once, and sat down.
Some walked a mile, and walked away.

Some stood up twice, then sat down.
“It’s too much,” they cried.

Some walked two miles, then walked away.
“I’ve had it,” they cried,

Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools,
they were taken for being taken in.

Some walked and walked and walked –
they walked the earth,
they walked the waters,
they walked the air.

“Why do you stand?” they were asked, and
“Why do you walk?”

“Because of the children,” they said, and
“Because of the heart, and
“Because of the bread,”

“Because the cause is
the heart’s beat, and
the children born, and
the risen bread.”

You wonder where you’ll finish when all is said and done, you know? You wonder where you’ll fetch up once you’ve played out your string, and if any damn thing you’ve done amounts to that single damn … and then Jerry Berrigan passes away, beloved brother of Philip and Daniel, a trio whose towering devotion to justice and peace has no peer, and you pause, and take honest stock.

Jerry Berrigan put in the work, in your name and mine, for more years than I’ve been on the planet. He lived and died in grace and service to his fellow souls. He was, and will ever remain, a man standing for his human family, a strand of hair on the head of God, a member of a bloodline that has saved more lives than can be appropriately accounted.

Tonight, when a reading of The Lorax is again demanded by my daughter, and I recite from memory, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not,” I will also whisper to her the story of Jerry Berrigan, of his brothers Daniel, and Philip, and of the work.

And of the heart’s beat, and the children born, and the risen bread.

Jerry Berrigan cared a whole awful lot.

Be that guy.