The Rev. John Dear is not afraid to step on toes — so long as no one gets hurt

The Rev. John Dear, S.J., has had two major conversions in his life: the first to Christianity as a college student at Duke University, and the second as an aspiring priest at the Sea of Galilee.

The second was nearly as profound as the first.

“Seeing the reality of war, and watching bombs fall where Jesus once walked, I was the only one around for miles and miles. Which was probably dangerous,” said Dear, 49, whose memoir, “A Persistent Peace,” was just released by Loyola Press, and in time for the annual protest at the gates of Fort Benning.

Today and Sunday, Dear joins between 10,000 and 15,000 people in town for the 19th annual vigil. He and the others are pressing for the closure of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly named the School of the Americas). He’s taken part in the annual protest for nearly a decade.

His second calling, in 1982, was to nonviolence. To practice the discipline in his own life, and to protest in the lineage of Martin Luther King: without weapon or sword or any such force. What he saw in Galilee convinced Dear that Jesus meant what he said in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers ...”

Dear’s memoir begins at Duke in 1978. The beginning of his college years started off like that of many college kids: persistent partying (in his case with his fellow Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers). Dear also took a shine to music, had private jazz lessons from music great Mary Lou Williams while at Duke and dreamed of becoming a rock star. That aspiration, however, fell by the wayside as he became more immersed in the Catholic fellowships and services on campus.

An early influence was the Rev. Ralph Monk, Duke’s Catholic chaplain at the time. Additionally, at another professor’s behest, Dear began visiting patients at a North Carolina mental institution, where he came face-to-face with intense suffering. That work had a profound effect on him. At the same time, Dear was reading material by the late Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Elizabeth Anne Seton, a Catholic laywoman who founded a religious order in New York.

After struggling up to that point to get away from the Church, “My heart filled with desire to give my whole life to God,” Dear writes. Then he embarked on a journey with the Jesuits, the Catholic order known for its rigorous scholarship, ministries with the poor and fighting injustice. He professed his vows as a Jesuit in 1984 and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1993.

“My plan was to be a nice priest,” said Dear, who earlier this week was on a book tour in the northeast, “but then I found out you have to love your enemies.” The teachings of Jesus, he added, is not “just nice poetry.” With exemplars including King and Gandhi, and activists Dorothy Day and Philip and Daniel Berrigan, Dear has protested the following: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the Pentagon (the site of his first arrest); nuclear weaponry; and the death penalty, among other things.‘Gentle agitator’

He has been arrested more than 75 times, with his longest and most famous incarceration occurring in 1993-94 in North Carolina. His crime was hammering on an F15 nuclear fighter bomber. North Carolina is Dear’s home state. He spent nine months there in jail.

While he doesn’t find imprisonment enjoyable, comparing it to being locked in one’s bathroom for an extended period, he is willing to do time for what he sees as gross injustices around the globe. “It’s a pretty rough experience,” Dear said. “It’s horrible. You go stir crazy.” Depending on his companions in jail, Dear passes the time by meditating and praying, writing letters and reading the scriptures.

His highest exemplar is Jesus, whom he calls a “gentle agitator.”

“I talk about him as nonviolent and that he was a troublemaker, and I am supposed to follow him,” said Dear, who has been called similar names himself by his superiors and by parishioners. He’s nearly been kicked out of the Jesuits.

In 2002, Dear was banished from the Diocese of New York, where he was then serving, for disobedience against the Church. (Many had complained to the archdiocese about some of Dear’s writings.) His current home is in New Mexico, but the current archbishop, Michael Sheehan, is currently mad at him for his regular protests against Los Alamos, where nuclear bombs are manufactured, Dear said.

After pushback from a church he led in Eagles Nest, N.M., he was removed. His sermons were too divisive for parishioners, some said.

He’s just come off a strict probation period in New Mexico.

Though Dear has allies, his Church and his order often aren’t countercultural enough for the priest.

“The Jesuits mirror the country and we have a long history of supporting war. We are very brainwashed by the culture of war,” said Dear, who is somewhat resigned to the fact that many would want him to keep quiet and be the “nice priest” he thought he’d be.Tutu endorsement

But Dear just got a boost for his activism from none other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who nominated Dear this year for the Nobel Peace Prize. “That is the greatest honor of my life, from possibly the greatest person living on the planet,” Dear said of Tutu. In his own country, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Tutu chaired, was established in 1995. Founded after the abolition of apartheid, the TRC — a court-like body — allowed for perpetrators to offer testimony, and with amnesty.

Tutu is one who endorsed Dear’s book. An independent film, as well, has been released about Dear’s life. It’s called “The Narrow Path.” Dear has written or edited 26 books, including this new one.

In addition to his high-profile life, Dear has ministered to people in more socially accepted ways, and certainly in ways more acceptable for clergy. Right after 9/11, Dear organized chaplains for the Red Cross who were counseling families. For several months, he worked with about 1,500 families who lost loved ones, as well as police and fire fighters.

He writes: “So many people, a blur in my battered memory, all of them crying out, ‘Father, please pray ---’ ”

In the weeks that followed, he was critical of the almost-immediate U.S. build-up to war. He wrote a letter to President Bush, urging him to cease the bombing in Afghanistan. Though the letter went unanswered, it was circulated widely on the Internet. He has also vehemently opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

On his recent book tour, Dear has been asked frequently to interpret the election of Sen. Barack Obama as the next president. He views his election as a positive symbol but doesn’t imagine it will lead him to cease protesting, writing and speaking out.

“I’m pursuing the audacity of peace and nonviolence,” said Dear, referring to the title of Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope.” “I want to close the Pentagon and Los Alamos and the SOA, and not just rebuild our economy; I want to end starvation on the planet.” And ultimately to lead others to conversion of heart.

For more about John Dear, see His book is available through the Web site.