Thursday, May 6, 2010

Divining Providence

Posted On: 5/4/2010

The Style Weekly mag., Richmond VA


Divining Providence


Bill and Sue Frankel-Streit are parents, Catholics, felons and

anarchists. It’s all part of their mission to serve God.

by Amy Biegelsen


BILL FRANKEL-STREIT and his wife, Sue, did not fight once during their

first year of marriage, largely because the state of New York was

holding them in separate prisons.


Their imprisonment, and arguably their marriage, stem from the way

they celebrated New Year’s Eve 1991. That night Bill and Sue, along

with two others, broke into Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y.


They’d spent considerable time scoping the base in advance, but made

it on the grounds only twice before: once to attend a public air show

and again for an unauthorized, self-guided tour after hooking an

invitation to attend mass at the military chapel. So on New Year’s

Eve, after they cleared the barbed-wire fence and the perimeter road,

evaded circulating watch vehicles and cut through a chain-link

barrier, they were surprised to find an electric fence.


American military forces were 15 days away from beginning the air

strikes against Iraq during the Persian Gulf War and the base was on

alert. “We thought it was just blasphemous,” says Bill, who was

ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1982.


Once they cut the fence, it was only a matter of time until someone

noticed. By some miracle, the current wasn’t running through the fence

at that exact moment and they cut the wire and passed into one of the

most heavily guarded sectors on the base.


“When you go with faith the waters part,” Bill says.


Their quarry loomed: a nuclear armed B-52 bomber. They raised the claw

hammers they brought along and began banging on the side of the plane.

When the guards came, they offered no resistance. The Syracuse

Post-Standard, which ran more than 30 articles covering the action and

subsequent trial, reported that the base’s top security officers were

removed from their jobs after the incident.


That night, Bill and Sue joined a tradition of anti-war activists,

often Catholic, who have committed dozens of similar protests

worldwide since the 1980s, directly targeting the machines of war.


Called plowshares actions, they get their name from a familiar Bible

verse, Isaiah 2:4 — “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword

against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”


“The plowshares action was like a sacrament for me,” Bill says. They

spent the first two months of the year in jail and were temporarily

released that spring. While out, they prepared their defense and got

married, a decision that further altered Bill’s already strained

relationship with the church hierarchy. They represented themselves in

court, lost and spent the next year in jail — which was part of the



“I think he’s a model of what a married Catholic priest would be for

the church,” says Sister Anne Montgomery, a nun who participated in

the first plowshares action in 1980. She and seven others broke into

the General Electric Nuclear Missile Re-entry Division in King of

Prussia, Penn., and hammered on two of the warhead nosecones that were

manufactured there. “He manages to give himself totally to his family

and totally to disarmament work,” she says of Bill.


Twenty years and three children later, the couple remains committed to

nonviolent protest. Bill’s been incarcerated so many times that last

month he appeared in federal court in Washington not as a defendant

but as an expert witness on the comparative conditions of different



Hearing about Bill’s life of resistance likely was a novelty for the

judge and prosecutors that day, not to mention the defendant, who’d

been convicted of multiple homicides and appeared a little startled at

the beginning of his testimony.


Washington, in the aftermath of the health-care debate, was still

echoing with accusations of radicalism (Socialism! Communism! Naked

fascism!). The Catholic Church was in the news, too, as fresh

revelations in the sexual-abuse scandal came to light. All the

rhetoric about religion and radical politics, however, probably

doesn’t conjure up the image of anyone like Bill Franklel-Streit — a

living, breathing Catholic anarchist.


BILL AND SUE live with their three teenage children on a sprawling

property in Louisa County 60 miles outside Richmond. The parents are

taut and wiry. Sue has a mane of salt and pepper hair and a big gold

loop in her nose; Bill has a shaved head and walks with a limp because

of a lingering hip injury. They dote on their children, who are taller

and full-cheeked. Looking at them, you’d never guess their parents

were felons.


They all live in a little farmhouse with a low ceiling that gives the

place a cozy, conspiratorial feeling. There’s a composting toilet —

just toss in some sawdust when you’re done — and one that flushes in

case they’re ever putting up someone who is sick or elderly. As part

of their commitment to serving their community, helping those in need

and welcoming strangers, guests are constant.


They pick up odd jobs to pay the bills. Occasionally they’ll be

invited to speak at a church or a college. Bill’s campus talks often

draw an unlikely mix of “anarchists with piercings and tattoos all in

black, and clean-cut Christian kids,” he says. He tells them the Bible

is the original anarchist handbook and everybody freaks out.


They eat eggs from a mess of chickens they keep fenced off from a

bountiful vegetable garden. When they go to the store to spend some of

their $700 monthly budget of food stamps, they peek in the dumpster to

see if anything good got tossed out. The kids have Medicare. Despite

their opposition to the government, the Frankel-Streits figure if it

does exist, they might as well take advantage, and being part of those

programs means they live in solidarity with the poor.


Bill says their real insurance is “the community of people,” other

activists like them, who routinely send food and clothes, and a

handful of like-minded Catholics who occasionally tithe to them

instead of the church.


They home-school the children: Isaac, 17, Anna, 15 and Gaby, 12. The

girls are brainy and friendly and have learned to roll their eyes

every bit as well as their suburban counterparts. Isaac has a close

friend who lives over on the Twin Oaks commune, known for its homemade

tofu and hammocks. They commiserate together about “growing up in

community,” Bill says


The kids take music lessons and play team sports thanks to an annual

grant from the Rosenberg Fund for Children, an organization that gives

money to the children of activists. The fund was started by the son of

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were convicted with slipping atomic

secrets to the Soviets, and then executed in June 1953.


The children have absorbed a lot of the social aspects of their

parents’ lifestyle, but the religious content hasn’t taken as firm a

hold. Sitting at a long wooden table in the kitchen, Gaby acknowledges

that she doesn’t consider herself particularly Catholic. “We tried

church in exchange for a puppy,” she says.


“I’m probably going to have random people living in my house no matter

what I do,” Anna adds.


“I don’t care as long as they don’t drag me off to the White House at

6 in the morning,” Gaby says.


“Well, that’s the Pentagon,” Bill interjects. “The White House is

usually more like noon.”


In January, the family took a tour of the Capitol. When they reached

the Rotunda, Bill and some fellow protestors held a prayer vigil to

commemorate four Guantanamo detainees. The government claimed the

detainees had committed suicide, until a military whistleblower came

forward and said they likely were killed at a Central Intelligence

Agency secret site. The protesters were arrested and removed. Back

downstairs, a ticket taker, who didn’t realize the children had been

with them, apologized for the interruption and offered them free



BILL FRANKEL-STREIT grew up in Hazleton, Penn., and recalls a fairly

straight-laced upbringing. “I grew up with a lot of deference for

authority,” he says. When he saw on television that Martin Luther King

Jr. was killed, he wondered why doctors were being shot.


As a kid he always looked up to one uncle in particular: a priest.

Streit says he was drawn to the clergy because of their status. He’s

since wondered if his uncle had been in the military whether he might

not have followed him down that path too.


Bill went directly from high school to seminary. It was 1972, shortly

after the Catholic Church had released the decrees of the Second

Vatican Council, an internal effort to modernize itself and “arguably

the most liberal time in the church,” he says, but Vatican II didn’t

change everything. He was allowed to wear jeans to class, but he still

got the distinct impression that his teachers and fellow students

viewed lay people as second-class citizens rather than those they



Despite the not-quite-perfect-fit, Bill was ordained in 1982. He

busied himself with homilies and weddings, but struck up a

correspondence with Philip and Daniel Berrigan, brothers and radical



The Berrigans are best known for their actions on May 17, 1968, when

they burned stolen draft cards with homemade napalm — among the

military’s weapons of choice during the Vietnam War. During the trial,

Dan Berrigan read a statement. “Our apologies, good friends,” he said,

“for the fracture of this good order, the burning of paper instead of



The Berrigans went to jail, but it vaulted them to national stature.

They appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s Jan. 25, 1971, issue and

Gregory Peck produced a film based on the trial. The Berrigans

remained such devoted protesters, Streit says, that guards at the

Pentagon referred to both of them as Father Berrigan.


Through their correspondence, Bill became convinced that a true

shepherd comforts the sick and dying, but also challenges people on

war and racism and the death penalty. He began protesting and was

arrested for the first time in 1985, much to the chagrin of the church

hierarchy. In 1988 he took a leave of absence.


Bill moved to Washington, D.C., and joined a group home that named

itself after Dorothy Day, an activist and journalist who began a

newspaper aimed at all the Catholic workers who streamed into in New

York during an influx of poor immigrants moving into the country. The

first issue was published May 1, 1933 — 77 years ago this week.


There was a strong history in Catholic social teaching of advocating

for social justice causes such as poverty, housing, wages and

especially nonviolence, says Susan Mountin, an adjunct assistant

professor of theology at Marquette University.


“Very early on in the movement they found that they believed that acts

of nonviolent civil disobedience were ways of calling attention to

social injustice,” Mountin says. An early example was for Catholic

Workers to refuse to go down into bomb shelters during the civil

defense drills of the 1950s, and instead pray in local parks.

(“Entertaining Angels,” a movie about Day’s life, was released in 1996

starring Moira Kelly and Martin Sheen, who has been active in social

justice issues and has been arrested during protests dozens of times.)


Such radicals technically are a lay movement in the church, doing work

rooted in the gospel, but not recipients of church funding like monks

and nuns. “They have continued to say we are Catholic,” Mountin says,

“and maybe even more Catholic.”


The big blue Dorothy Day House in Washington sits on a corner lot

across the street from a rambling private park. Bill and about 30

others, activists and five formerly homeless families, lived and

worked there together. There are close to 200 more of these homes and

farms, known as hospitality houses, throughout the country.


One of Bill’s housemates was his future wife.


Sue lived on the Maryland side of the Washington suburbs. “I kind of

grew up in a Jewish, intellectual milieu,” she says, “so I didn’t

really think people read the Bible.” She grew up with more of a

post-Holocaust Jewish identity than one focused on religious and

spiritual aspects.


One summer during college, she worked selling books door to door, a

job that quickly became more of an anthropological experiment. She

noticed that she could depend on a drink or a bathroom in the homes of

the poorest families, while the richer ones would slam the door in her



“It was kind of my own little comprehension of capitalism and how

wealth affects people’s level of hospitality,” she says. One of the

books she was hawking was a Bible dictionary, which she began reading

at night.


After college — and a year in Japan at a business journal where she

edited former Chrysler Chief Executive Lee Iacocca’s occasional

columns — she moved back to Washington and worked for a Japanese

newspaper in the National Press Building downtown. She took the Metro

from her mom’s house into the city and struck up a friendship with

Mark, a homeless man who hung around her stop. One day she emerged

from the Metro and found Mark with icicles hanging off his eyelashes.

That was the final straw, she says. She wanted out of participating in

the mainstream culture.


She’d learned about the Dorothy Day House and started cooking a

community meal there once a week. Eventually she moved in. At first,

Bill and Sue were just very close friends. “I was a priest,” he says,

“so there was this whole to be or not to be thing.”


By the time they committed the Plowshares action in upstate New York,

they had decided to get married knowing full well their honeymoon

likely would be courtesy of the federal government. Bill says he saw

the experience as a good thumbnail sketch of what a marriage should

be: “risking your life together in faith, hope and love.”


After the airplane hammering they spent a few months in prison. The

judge had offered to release them on their own personal recognizance,

but “we really wanted to be in prison,” Bill says. “This was Phil

[Berrigan’s] big thing. It heightens the witness.”


Shortly before the trial began, a judge in Syracuse, N.Y., married them.


The goal of the courtroom phase in a plowshares action is to try to

turn the proceedings around and put the B-52 on trial. One way to do

that is to try to get information about the weapon system in front of

the jury, to quantify for them how much damage it can do, how many

people it can kill. In return, the prosecution tries its best to limit

what can be discussed by filing motions with the judge.


During the trial, every time the couple tried to ask a question about

the B-52’s capacity, the prosecutors objected and eventually blocked

most of the information they attempted to introduce in court. At one

point the exchange became so heated that the judge sent the jury out

of the courtroom and threatened all of them with contempt.


According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, the jury also wasn’t allowed

to hear an hour’s worth of testimony offered by Ramsey Clark, U.S.

attorney general under Lyndon B. Johnson. He had toured Iraq and

discussed the death and destruction that B-52 bombers had wrought on

the civilian population and infrastructure in Iraq.


Bill and Sue lost and spent the next 10 months in jail. In one fell

swoop, Bill had become a married priest felon. (It’s a set of

descriptors he’s a little uncomfortable with, especially after it was

revealed that Rodney Lee Rodis, another Louisa County priest who was

convicted last year for embezzling money from his church and had a

secret family in Spotsylvania County — a very different sort of

married priest felon.) Since then, Bill has carved out a new practice

and expression of his faith.


“I do my preaching in court now,” he says. Instead of maps of the Holy

Land, he’s familiarized himself with the placement and terrain of

military bases, weapons systems and prisons. He still follows the

Catholic calendar, but with a slightly different set of emphases.


“Good Friday, for me, instead of going to a church service, I act,” he

says. “I go to the Pentagon and confront Caesar.” As part of his

observance, he gets help from a sympathetic doctor who draws his

blood. He stashes the sample in his freezer until it’s time. When Good

Friday approaches, Bill thaws it out and drains it into a baby bottle.

He takes it with him to the Pentagon where he literally spills his own

blood. Typically, this gets him arrested. “The blood is already

there,” he often says in court. “We’re just making it visible.”


For Bill, this is a “really truthful act” of laying down his life

essence in the name of Christ. After all, he says, Jesus died for our

sins, he didn’t kill for them.


In late December, while the rest of the country celebrates Christmas,

the Frankel-Streits and their extended family of activists gather to

observe the Feast of Holy Innocents. This commemorates the story in

the Gospel of Matthew of King Herod, who gets word that a child has

been born who eventually will seize his throne. Herod executes all of

Bethlehem’s young male children. They also gather Aug. 6 and 9 to

commemorate the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Despite his estrangement from the formal Catholic hierarchy, Bill

still sees himself as working within the unique inheritance of the

early Catholic Church’s resistance to empires.


“The empire always has the death card and that’s why it’s total

blasphemy,” he says. “Presidents and pharaohs, they’re the

anti-Christ. They’re what has to be resisted. The whole Bible is about

resisting the principalities and powers, those who make war on God’s

children, the poor.” To that end, Christianity and anarchy become one

and the same. “Resistance is love,” he says. “It’s loving the victim

so much, and the oppressor, too. It’s like tough love. It’s like

living with an alcoholic.”


In his view, the “imperial religion” focuses on the individual instead

of the social gospel, which is how we have ended up with a popular

religious moment that “focuses more on sexual sin than on injustice.”

Frankel-Streit’s belief that all people are part of the body of Christ

stands at odds with the personal savior approach prevalent in many

churches today, the theological equivalent of union busting.


This is the calling Bill and Sue have been trying to answer since they

were released from prison in New York and began their life together.

They came back to Dorothy Day House in Washington and had the kids. In

1993 they moved to a Catholic Worker house in Baltimore where Philip

Berrigan was living at the time.


“Doing Bible study with Phil always meant you were preparing for a

felony,” Bill says.


When they returned to Washington they encountered a spike in violence

in the immediate neighborhood. After a kid who used to come by to play

was shot execution-style in front of the house, they left.


They moved to Goochland County and lived on rented property for a

while. After the 9/11 attacks, the landlord got itchier about having

radical tenants and evicted them. Bill and Sue happened to have coffee

with a young couple that had recently received a sizable inheritance

and offered to give them $100,000. It’s a startling coincidence, but

Bill says it’s typical of Catholic Workers to have such providential



They used the money to buy the house in Louisa and have been there

since. They call it Little Flower, which was the nickname of Therese

Lisieux, Dorothy Day’s favorite saint. She advocated the “little way”

of the cumulative power in little acts of love. After all, if the

massive destruction in Japan during World War II could be caused by

something as small as an atom, surely little acts of love could

counteract that evil.


Bill’s estrangement from the organized church has been embodied in the

person of Bishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo. He’s the bishop of

Richmond, but when Bill was a troublemaking priest in Pennsylvania’s

Scranton Diocese, DiLorenzo was part of the church administration.


DiLorenzo’s predecessor was the Bishop-President of Pax Christi USA,

the national Catholic peace movement, and sympathetic to the work of

the Frankel-Streits. Under DiLorenzo, however, the budget has been cut

for social ministry activities. He’s refused to allow speakers from

Pax Christi to speak, much less people from the Catholic Worker, and

has closed the door on a source of funding for the Frankel-Streits.


That’s become a slightly trickier issue lately. A woman and her three

small children had been in need of hospitality and staying at Little

Flower before deciding to move to Charlottesville last year. Social

Service workers have since intervened, in what the Frankel-Streits say

is an unnecessary incursion, and removed the children from their

mother’s care. The mother is back living at Little Flower, and Bill

and Sue are helping her fight to regain custody so they can all live

together. But their lifestyle and nontraditional funding streams are

under the microscope now more than ever.


Cooperating with the government agencies to become official foster

parents isn’t something the Frankel-Streits have been willing to do

before. It’s one small step among several they’re taking toward the

mainstream. Last year Bill got arrested, but didn’t serve any jail

time for the big three protest holidays. He participated as an expert

witness for the first time, rather than as a defendant. There’s even

some discussion about the youngest, Gaby, doing a year at a Quaker

school in Charlottesville.


Is it possible that in the same season that the general public took

glancing notice of Catholics and radical politics, these radical

Catholics are taking steps toward the mainstream?


Bill has a slightly different take. He’s not downshifting to more

mainstream tactics. Instead, he says, he’s doing what he’s always

done: “I ask myself, ‘What does love require at this point?’”


Bill and Sue Frankel-Streit

The Little Flower CW,

16560 Louisa Rd., Louisa, VA 23063

Ph: 540-967-5574

E-Mail: littleflowercw AT



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