by Steve Clemens | May 20, 2009 • Father Larry was a gentle person, one with few possessions or needs. I remember his joy at being moved to solitary confinement at the Potter County Jail in Amarillo, TX one week after our arrest for praying at the assembly plant for all U.S. nuclear weapons (Pantex) in 1981. When we saw each other at the arraignment, he beamed and said, “They gave me my own little prayer cell”.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Larry had joined the other five of us because someone else who had planned on taking part of this witness against nuclear weapons was sick so Larry decided to take his place. Prior to the six of us being booked into that jail, we were held together in a cell while the FBI attempted to interrogate us. It was at that point that Larry told us about his imprisonment and torture in Brazil while serving the poor under the inspiration of Dom Helder Camera. After describing what he went through there, I knew I could survive this, my first long-term stretch in the slammer.
|Mennonista is the blog of Steve Clemens, a Twin Cities peace and justice activist who writes about his convictions that often lead to arrest and [occasional] convictions.|
Because we were locked in different cellblocks for all but the first week together, I didn’t get to spend much time with Larry – but what time we shared was precious. I learned about his previous experience in prison as the result of his participation in burning Vietnam-era draft files as part of the Milwaukee 14. But what really made an impression on me was his statement on why he scaled the 12’ fence at Pantex that cold February morning in 1981. He said when he worked with the “street people” in Recife, those young, homeless kids had no idea what an atomic bomb was –or what it was capable of doing to its victims. Larry said, “I don’t know too much about these bombs myself, but I know enough that I have to speak out on their behalf.”
It had been less than a year since Archbishop Oscar Romero had been martyred in El Salvador but Larry must have picked up the mantle that dropped when Romero fell about being “a voice for the voiceless”. Larry tried to tell the jury at our trial about his experiences in the slums of Recife and why it propelled him to go to the Pantex plant but Judge Robinson cut him off and stated it was irrelevant to our “crime” of trespass. Larry was sentenced to a year in prison for praying for peace at the “wrong” place. But while still in the county jail, before being transferred to federal prison, the local Catholic bishop came to pay this renegade priest a visit. It was after Bishop Leroy Matthiessen visited Larry in jail that he made his own act of conscience and courage: the bishop publicly asked all those of conscience to stop working for that bomb factory. And what a firestorm that caused!
If Fr. Larry and the other 5 of us had tried to devise an action to compel the local Texas bishop to denounce nuclear weapons, I’m sure our efforts would have failed. But Larry did a simple act of faith and conscience and, as a result, his “sowing of the seed bore much fruit”. Because the newspaper mentioned in the story that a Catholic priest was among the 6 arrested and held in the jail, one of the Pantex workers had a crisis of conscience. Why would a priest be willing to go to prison to protest at the place where he worked? When that worker talked to the bishop, the bishop had to find out for himself.
I joined Fr. Larry once again a couple of years later when he, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, and Linda Ventimiglia came to Koinonia Partners and told us about their intended campaign at Ft. Benning where Salvadoran troops were being trained. (This was just prior to the School of the Americas being moved there.) They invited some of us who were vigiling by the base gate every Thursday to join them in what turned out to be their final action in a very busy week. Several of us joined the 3 of them and we planted our crosses on the Base Commander’s front lawn before we were arrested and hauled off. My last time seeing Larry was at their trial in 1983.
I’m grateful for his life and witness. Rest in Peace, my friend and brother.
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