What would you do if you were told you had six months to live? When doctors told my Godfather, Bix (Father Bill Bichsel), that his time was limited, he chose to use the time he had left to eliminate nuclear weapons.
A realistic goal? Perhaps not. But “being realistic” never suited Bix much.
To him, if people are hungry, plant a garden to feed them. If they are homeless, just take these two neighborhood houses, build a covered bridge between them and turn the whole thing into a giant transitional housing unit, with free meals and public showers. How to pay for it? Take that U.S. military training school in Ft. Benning, Georgia, the one that trains counter insurgents who are a force of destabilization in Latin America and shut it down.
And in a world where it is legal to press a button and end hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, Bix held the U.S. in contempt of International Law and demanded disarmament. As you can imagine, Bix spent a good chunk of time behind bars with dozens of arrests, nights in jail and three prison sentences (the last two terms while he was an octogenarian).
You may note that people are still hungry, still live on the streets, and that counterinsurgency training facility (the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas) is still open. Not a single warhead has been disarmed. In fact, it looks as if Iran may soon join the nuclear weapon club.
Bix’s legacy wasn’t putting an end to injustice, in any of its iterations. Bix’s legacy was saying yes.
Instead of heeding the medical reality of six to eighteen months to live, Bix stayed with us for another eight years. I believe he was kept alive by his wholehearted dedication to nuclear disarmament. The fire continued to burn, so that even when walking seemed impossible, he walked. Even when those around him grew disheartened or exhausted, he continued moving forward (both figuratively and literally).
I recall a moment in Japan, where Bix led a group of us to commemorate the 64th Anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our delegation walked from a Catholic monastery (where we had just been kicked out) to a Buddhist temple (that warmly offered a floor for us to sleep on). The hike was strenuous and we encouraged Bix to take a cab, but he refused. Despite his congestive heart failure, he continued on foot. Slowly.
Bix was a servant leader in our community, who chained himself to courthouses, broke into nuclear submarine bases in the dead of night and used every means possible to promote peace and justice. When social issues arose, Bix always stood with the poor and vulnerable.
He accomplished remarkable, newsworthy things — a great number of them. But it was in the details that Bix left his greatest mark on our world, our community and on me personally.
In the heart of Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood is a community called Guadalupe House. Today it's home to the Tacoma Catholic Worker, community gardens and transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness, women coming out of prison and those with mental health issues. It is a house of peace and justice action where Bix spent the final decades of his life. Twenty years ago the neighborhood was a hotspot for crime, gang violence and drugs.
Although he was a Jesuit priest, Bix chose to move out of the rectory so he could live in poverty among the people he served. He knew he needed others if he wanted to help those in need; one of his greatest talents was the ability to make requests that people found difficult to refuse. And what was the point of refusing Bix really? If you turned him down, he’d just ask again.
When Bix set out to create Guadalupe House, it wasn’t long before Joe, the Vietnam vet, and Theresa, the carpenter, (who later became my parents) along with Bob, the community activist, became co-founders. It wasn’t long before the Catholic Worker was established there. It wasn’t long before businesses in the area were pitching in and neighbors began offering the use of their property to expand the gardens. The resulting community has never had enough resources, however “necessity is the mother of invention.” Like Bix, the community continues on despite the odds.
In Bix’s eyes, the people served in this community and those offering help or supporting the work are all equally valuable and worthy. In the same way that he anticipated a “yes” from those around him, he always said “yes” to others. Did he have $2 for bus fare? Could someone live rent-free in his spare room? Will he protect a child and love them like his own? Will he preside over our weddings, funerals and random celebrations? The yes always came first; the how naturally followed.
He was the last stop for those who had nowhere else to turn, for those that even the Tacoma Catholic Worker couldn’t take in. And he loved all those he welcomed through his door.
He was able to love us all, to see our goodness and potential, because he himself was broken. He also needed to rebuild his life. And he’d seen — firsthand — what is possible when you put your faith in community.
To know Bix was to love him (or at least to like him). Even those who didn’t agree with him, didn’t approve of his tactics or thought he was a crazy radical, often called him friend. How can you not appreciate someone who dedicates his entire being to serving and caring for those who are most vulnerable and often invisible to the rest of us?
Until three weeks ago, I had never experienced life without Bix. He welcomed me into this world, and we held him in community as he peacefully, fearlessly left it.
The loss of this one, beloved person saying yes to those in need raises the question: who now will find the broken? Will anyone else be their last refuge when all others turn them away? Will anyone else see in others the potential to move mountains when we do not even know if we can stand?
Bix left big, heavy shoes to fill. I can’t image any single person stepping into them. But if the multi-faith, multi-race, multi-generational, multi-ideological masses at his recent memorial service were any indication, the answer to my questions is yes.
And if it isn’t, I know that Bix will just keep asking.