16th November 2000
Send in the Clown
Carl Kabat has a sacred mission that could land him in jail -- and outside the priesthood.
By Eileen Welsome, New York Times


Last month, a small group of protesters gathered on the traffic island outside Aurora's Buckley Air Force Base. It was an unseasonably warm day, and a gusty wind had suddenly materialized out of nowhere. The demonstrators, some of them in their sixties and seventies, narrowed their eyes against the swirling grit and struggled to hold aloft banners bearing such slogans as "U.S. military in space: Undemocratic, Immoral, Irrational" and "The heavens are for wonder - not for warfare." The weedy strip, buffeted by the wind and the roar of traffic, felt earthbound and far from the starry mysteries of the heavens. While the protesters maintained their vigil, local and national officials gathered on the base itself to commemorate the transfer of Buckley from the Colorado Air National Guard, which has maintained the air base for forty years, to the Air Force. With its numerous "radomes," or satellite dishes, Buckley will have an important role in the coming decades as the Air Force shifts more resources toward military operations in space. The satellite dishes, six of which are covered in a protective material and resemble huge golf balls, download data from satellites that circle the globe; the data is then organized and analyzed by Buckley's Aerospace Data Facility. Air Force officials refuse to discuss specifics about the kind of data downloaded, the number of satellite dishes located on the base, or what other national intelligence agencies are involved at Buckley. But Loring Wirbel, who oversees the Electronic Engineering Times, says Buckley is "the largest consolidated intelligence base in the western hemisphere for joint use of the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Security Agency."

Overseeing Buckley will be the United States Space Command, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. According to an Air Force brochure titled "Vision for 2020," the U.S. Space Command intends to militarily dominate space within the next two decades to ensure that "U.S. interests and investment" will be adequately protected. The demonstrators maintain that not only is that goal immoral, but it's highly questionable given the collaboration between the taxpayer-supported military and America's most powerful corporations. Furthermore, they say, the stated goal violates the Outer Space Treaty signed by the United States and numerous other countries in 1967. That treaty, which was reaffirmed in 1999 by all of the original signers except the U.S. and Israel, states that space belongs to all mankind and should be used for peaceful purposes rather than the military goals of any one nation.

Although the issues have far-reaching consequences, the demonstration drew little interest from motorists. Still, the mood was upbeat, even festive, largely because of the commanding presence of two of the participants: Carl Kabat, a Catholic priest who has spent the last fourteen years in jail because of his nonviolent civil protests against nuclear weapons, and Bill Sulzman, a former Denver priest who runs the Colorado Springs-based Citizens for Peace in Space. Later, at Denny's, the two gulp down glasses of iced tea and laugh with such pleasure that they draw curious glances from people in nearby booths. Was the response to the protest worth two hours of standing in the hot sun? "We're required to be faithful, not successful," Kabat says. "I learned a long time ago to do what you can do, then sing and dance."

With his reddened face and huge, calloused hands, the Reverend Kabat resembles not so much a man of the cloth as a retired prizefighter. He still plays basketball, and not too long ago, he was the over-35 champion of Minnesota's Sandstone Federal Prison. But the years are beginning to catch up with him. His wispy white hair sticks up all over, and his right eye, a watery blue, is virtually useless because of a botched medical procedure. Recently he celebrated his 67th birthday. Instead of looking forward to a comfortable retirement, Kabat is facing one of the toughest ordeals of his long career: He is on the verge of being dismissed from his order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, for disobeying orders and heading to Colorado for another protest -- an action that could land him in jail again.

Bill Strabala, a retired Denver journalist who has known Kabat since his seminary days, says that because Kabat has taken a vow of poverty, that dismissal will most likely mean that he'll join the ranks of the homeless and destitute. "To many Americans, Catholic or not, Carl is a morally justified hero, a man acting as any priest should, out of deep moral and religious conviction," Strabala says. "Carl is a Martin Luther King of our church."

The seeds of rebellion were planted early, perhaps when Carl Kabat was a boy back in Scheller, Illinois, sitting on the hard wooden pews and listening to the local priest drone on about money. Fifty-two Sundays a year, the priest talked about money. The sermons were devoid of spiritual sustenance, and Kabat vowed that when he became a priest, he would talk about something other than money.

He originally intended to become a doctor first and join the priesthood later. But after a couple of semesters of college and at the urging of his brother, Paul, who was already studying to be a priest, he joined the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Founded in France at about the time of the French Revolution, the Oblates' primary mission has been to serve the poorest of the poor. At a seminary in Mississippi where he completed his theological studies, Kabat's job was to keep the plumbing in working order. "He was self-reliant and tough and resilient," remembers fellow seminarian Strabala, who recently completed a book on Kabat and other activist priests titled Prophets Without Honor.

After working in parishes in Minnesota, Kabat spent three years in the Philippines, where he learned what true poverty meant. But when he returned to the United States and tried to talk about what he had seen, no one wanted to listen. "I knew I really didn't fit in anymore," he says. So when an opening came up for a missionary post in Brazil, Kabat once again volunteered to go. In Brazil, he was astounded to see the millions of dollars that the government spent on military weapons and the pennies it spent to feed and clothe the poor. Kabat came to believe "that every plane which flies robs the poor," Strabala says. "That every nuclear missile kills -- even when not used -- because it causes the poor to starve."

In 1976, while attending a world day of peace sponsored by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Kabat stopped at Baltimore's Jonah House and asked if he could spend the night on the floor. Named after the man who was swallowed by the whale, Jonah House was a war-resistance community founded by former priest Phil Berrigan; his wife, Liz McAlister, an ex-nun and art-history teacher; and a half-dozen others.

The following day, some of the residents of Jonah House were heading to Plains, Georgia, Jimmy Carter's hometown, for an anti-nuclear demonstration. (Carter had just been elected but not yet sworn in.) Kabat asked if he could accompany them. While there, he was thrown in jail with several others for allegedly parading without a permit, blocking traffic and failing to obey police. It was his first time behind bars. "It made me feel good, that I had finally done something," he remembers. Later that night, he was kept awake by a creaking noise, only to discover that it was his own body shaking in the bunk. "Though I felt at ease from the neck up, my body was shaking with nervous tension."

The arrest in Plains marked the official beginning of Kabat's civil-disobedience actions. Between 1978 and 1980, he splattered human blood on the pillars of the Pentagon three times and once at the White House, actions that netted him a total of 23 months in the slammer. He used human blood, he explains, to show how those institutions actually "kill people."

Jail time is always hard time, but Kabat, who is loath to talk about himself, gradually learned to adapt to the loneliness, the dehumanizing treatment, the constant noise and lights. He and the other religious demonstrators prepared themselves for what lay ahead through prayer and meditation. There were also lots of practical arrangements to be made -- clothing and books and cars to be stored, even children to be taken care of. Sometimes during the actual arrests, Kabat would wind up being the one who urged everyone to stay calm. "We try to inform them right away that we're nonviolent people," he says.

In 1980, Kabat took part in the first "Plowshares" action, a name derived from the biblical mandate to "beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. "On September 9 that year, Kabat, Phil Berrigan and his brother, Daniel, a Jesuit priest, and five others broke into a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, poured human blood on blueprints and tools, then proceeded to beat on the nose cones of two Mark 12 warheads. The group, which became known as the "Plowshares 8," was arrested and charged with an assortment of misdemeanor and felony counts and sentenced to anywhere from eighteen months to ten years in jail. Kabat got three to ten years, which he served in three different institutions.

Upon his release, Kabat continued his David-and-Goliath struggle against the military establishment. By then, Plowshares nonviolent actions were occurring at military bases and defense plants around the world. But Kabat's most controversial action was yet to come.

On a wintry day in November 1984, Kabat and his brother, Paul, along with Larry Cloud Morgan, a Native American and mental health care worker from Minneapolis, and Helen Woodson, the mother of eleven natural, adopted or foster children, ten of whom are retarded, decided to stage an action at a Minuteman II missile silo outside Kansas City. The four loaded a jackhammer and compressor into an old truck and headed out to the cornfields. Kabat had a white beard, and his brother was wearing a woolen cap; together they looked more like grizzled lumberjacks than ordained Roman Catholic priests.

On one of the silo fences they hung a banner with a quote from the Old Testament: "Why do you do this evil thing? Your brother's blood cries out to me from the earth." Then they got out the jackhammer and started drilling. Before they were apprehended, they managed to destroy three radar devices, several electrical cables, two locks controlling access to the missile and the concrete launch lid over the missile itself. The action infuriated the federal judge, who was unmoved by numerous letters of support that poured in. Carl Kabat and Helen Woodson were each sentenced to eighteen years; Paul Kabat got ten years, and Larry Cloud Morgan received an eight-year sentence. Paul and Cloud Morgan were released approximately three years later following a sentence-reduction hearing, but Carl Kabat was not released until 1991. Helen Woodson remains incarcerated. In 1993, after she was paroled, she walked into a Chicago bank with a cap pistol and demanded money from a teller. Then she piled the bills on the lobby floor and set them on fire, proclaiming that money is the root of all evil. For that, she got another eighteen-year sentence and was returned to jail.

Time marched on while the Plowshare activists did their time. The Soviet Union disintegrated and the Berlin Wall came falling down. Still, the United States had enough nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert to destroy the world many times over. On April 1, 1994, which was both Good Friday and April Fool's Day, Carl Kabat donned a brightly colored clown suit. Proclaiming himself a "fool for Christ," he climbed the fence surrounding a Minuteman missile silo in North Dakota and proceeded to beat the hell out of the concrete covering with a sledgehammer. Result: another four and half years in the slammer.

Although his civil disobedience is motivated by deeply serious concerns, Kabat has learned the art of not taking himself seriously, and a bright vein of humor runs through nearly everything he does. "A certain sort of foolishness," he once said in a sermon, "is required for any creativity -- a playful willingness to roam, to revision, to see the odd connection in things that were not seen before." To underscore his point, he drew upon the words of the Apostle Paul, who said, "God chose what is foolish in the world to confound the wise."

While he was doing his prison stint for the North Dakota action, Kabat devoured some 400 books, ranging in subject matter from theology to philosophy, history and Scripture -- virtually anything but fiction. He often found himself beginning a book at seven in the morning and finishing it by eight or nine o'clock that evening.

But sometimes even books were not enough to sustain him. With two years left in prison, his indomitable spirits seemed to flag; the fire looked like it was going out. In an interview with a reporter from the Bismarck Tribune, Kabat said he was going to take it easy for a while when he got out of jail: "I'm old enough to retire now. Mostly, I just want to rest."

Kabat was released in 1998 -- in time to attend the deaths of his mother, Anna, and his beloved brother and fellow agitator, Paul. He was assigned to St. Henry's Oblate Residence in Belleville, Illinois. The Very Reverend David Kalert, the Oblate provincial who oversees the 500 Oblate missionary priests in the United States, instructed him that he could not leave the house overnight without permission. That order chafed Kabat as he went about his community service work. "I wasn't thirteen; I was 65 years old," he says. And the Oblates soon adopted a new set of guidelines on civil disobedience. Adapted from the Jesuits, the six rules require priests engaging in civil protests to first obtain approval from their superior. Strabala argues that the rules were put into place to "clip the wings of Oblate clerics who, in the conservative judgment of superiors, may have flown too freely in their anti-war protests."

This past July, with the 55th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima approaching, Kabat decided to come to Colorado to participate in another nonviolent protest. Instead of getting formal approval, he simply left a note for his superior at St. Henry's saying he was going to engage in an "action." He didn't consult his fellow Oblates for fear of making them co-conspirators, he says.

The move drew a harsh response from Kalert. In an August 2 letter, which did not reach Kabat until after the protest, Kalert warned: "I must remind you that this new action on your part constitutes cause for dismissal from the congregation." Kalert reiterated his warning in a second letter dated August 22, in which he told Kabat, "I am pursuing your dismissal from the congregation." (Kalert, reached by telephone at his Washington, D.C., headquarters, declines to comment on Kabat's case.)

Meanwhile, on August 6, Kabat, former Denver priest Bill Sulzman and several other protesters pulled up outside the Minuteman missile silo known as N-7, near New Raymer, Colorado. With Sulzman holding the ladder, Kabat scrambled over the fence and once again donned his red and white clown's suit. He placed unconsecrated bread and wine on the silo along with a small hammer and proclaimed: "We are fools and clowns for God and humanity's sake."

Within a matter of minutes, the protesters were surrounded by military vehicles and two squad cars from the local sheriff's department. But it was a full two hours before they were taken into custody: The Air Force apparently had decided to use the incident as a real-time training exercise. A couple dozen camouflaged soldiers sprinted toward the protesters, alternately falling to their stomachs and then squirming across the ground. When they were almost upon the protesters, several armored vehicles arrived, and more soldiers got out and began screaming, "Get down!"

Kabat and Sulzman did as they were told. "They roughed us up a little bit. They were making quite a show of putting us at a disadvantage," says Sulzman, who himself is a tall, imposing man. Sulzman was given a summons, but Kabat was carted off to the Weld County jail, where authorities discovered that he had also violated his probation. He was eventually released on his own recognizance.

Attorney Walter Gerash has agreed to represent Kabat pro bono at his trial, which is set to begin on January 8 before U.S. Magistrate Boyd Bowland in Denver. Gerash says he hopes to present evidence showing that the threat of using nuclear weapons is itself a war crime. "And if it's a war crime, under the Nuremberg Code, a citizen is supposed to speak up and say he's against it. Otherwise, he's a complicitor," Gerash explains.

Even if Kabat is acquitted of the federal trespassing charge in Colorado, he's likely to be sent back to prison for violating the terms of his probation. But Kabat seems unconcerned by the notion of being a jailbird again. "There are more important things in the world," he says.

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