Father William J. "Bix" Bichsel was a working-class Catholic priest who became a radical antinuclear activist and community builder in Tacoma, Pierce County. Bichsel grew up in Tacoma and received his Jesuit education in the United States and Germany. He became politicized during his employment in Spokane and his graduate education in Boston in the 1960s. Upon his return to Tacoma he initiated many social-justice organizations, including the Tacoma Catholic Worker. He also became involved in peace protests, particularly against nuclear weapons. He was arrested for the first time in 1976 protesting construction of a nuclear submarine base at Bangor on Hood Canal, and continued opposing the Bangor base, including in a November 2009 action in which he and four others broke into the base and attempted to symbolically disarm its nuclear weapons. He also became known for leadership in the campaign to close the School of the Americas, a U.S. Army training facility for soldiers from Latin America, many of whom became notorious for human-rights abuses. Bichsel continued to perform resistive activism, for which he risked arrest and imprisonment, until his death in 2015.
William Bichsel was born in Tacoma on May 26, 1928. His family lived near the intersection of 27th Street and G Street, by the train tracks. In his early years, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, homeless men often slept near the tracks. Bichsel remembered how his mother provided breakfast every morning for three or four of these men: "She would make the same thing all the time. Usually it was fried potatoes, bacon and eggs, and homemade bread" (Honey interview). Bichsel's family was Catholic, but his mother would cook this meal even on Fridays, a day when Catholics were not allowed to eat meat. When Bichsel accused her of committing a sin, she assured him that God wouldn't mind -- feeding the poor was more important than following the prohibition against meat.
It is clear that the example of his mother's generosity was a formative lesson for Bichsel. He dedicated his life to helping people who were poor, ill, and disadvantaged, and he wouldn't allow rules or laws to get in the way of doing something he believed to be morally right.
Bichsel attended Bellarmine Preparatory School, a Jesuit-run high school in Tacoma, and joined the Jesuit order upon his graduation in 1946. It took Bichsel 13 years to complete the rigorous education and training required of a Jesuit Scholastic, or priest in training. He spent most of that time in Washington and Oregon, but also studied theology in Frankfurt, Germany. On June 29, 1959, Bichsel was ordained in Berlin, Germany, becoming The Reverend Father William Bichsel, SJ. His ordination took place on the border between East and West Germany, where two years later the Berlin Wall would be built.
Bichsel returned to Washington in 1959, and in 1961 he began working as the assistant pastor at St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Spokane. In 1963 he moved across the street to Gonzaga University where he became Dean of Students.
Bichsel found Spokane to be a conservative town, and even reactionary. Wealthy, pro-military members of the community defined public opinion. He began to develop his own pacifist stance, and spoke out publicly in order to provide a political counterpoint to prevailing attitudes. He also began to see connections between conservatism, money, and racism. At one point, wealthy backers of the university asked Bichsel to expel a black male student who was dating a white female student. Bichsel defended the interracial couple, bringing himself into further conflict with Spokane's conservatives.
After three years at Gonzaga, Bichsel decided to move to a more liberal city. In 1966 he enrolled in Boston University to study for a Master of Arts in Psychology degree.
Boston in the late 1960s provided a fertile ground for Bichsel's political growth. He protested against the Vietnam War, joined peace groups, and participated in draft-card burnings. He also attended sensitivity training sessions that would help him understand his own cultural biases and help him become more vulnerable. He said that, through those sessions, "I became more sensitive to our military might, our influence abroad; and at the same time I was becoming more attuned to the civil rights movement" (Havnaer interviews).
Once he had earned his master's degree in counseling, Bichsel began working with drug addicts and the mentally ill as an intern at Boston State Hospital. He had always felt drawn to the mentally ill due to his own struggles with depression. He had hoped to stay in Boston to find a job in rehabilitation, but his provincial, or Jesuit superior, wouldn't agree to fund another year in Boston. Instead, Bichsel had to return to Washington in 1968. What followed was one of the most difficult years in his life.
Bichsel's provincial assigned him a teaching position at Seattle Preparatory School, a private Jesuit high school many of whose students came from upper-class, wealthy families. Bichsel found it difficult to fit in. His students were conservative and their parents even more so. The school's culture made it very difficult for him to continue his work for social justice. The clash between Bichsel's values and those imposed on him by what he saw as the opulent, conservative environment he was working in began to take a toll on his well-being, and led him to begin compromising his own beliefs. His students did not respect him and he resorted to corporal punishment in the classroom to keep them in line. He began drinking heavily, and he entered into a romantic relationship with a woman, in violation of his vows of celibacy. He considered leaving religious life, and even contemplated his own death, though knew he lacked the courage to actually commit suicide.
From his turmoil Bichsel drew a lesson that would guide him in the next phase of his life: "I developed an affinity to people's suffering ... becoming more aware of my own fragility and emotional and mental distress, I found I wanted to support other people" (Havnaer interviews).
Though unaware of his troubles, Bichsel's provincial contacted him in March 1969, to request that he take a position at St. Leo Church in Tacoma starting that summer. Bichsel jumped at the chance to escape Seattle Prep, and managed to leave the school about a month later, before the school year was even finished. His move to Tacoma freed him from the conflicts he had felt at Seattle Prep, and also forced him to end his romantic relationship. He continued to question whether being Jesuit was his true calling, but he also began to feel like he was regaining control over his own life. He had hope that St. Leo was place where he could act on his beliefs.
Return to Tacoma
St. Leo Church, located at 13th Street and Yakima Avenue not far from Bichsel's boyhood home, has been a fixture of Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood since the first years of the twentieth century. The Hilltop area west of downtown Tacoma has long been a place where new immigrants to the city have established themselves, and its demographics have changed over time. By the 1960s it had become the center of Tacoma's African American population. However, the congregation at St. Leo remained mostly white, and many of the congregation's members no longer lived nearby. When Bichsel arrived in 1969 he saw that St. Leo was disconnected from its neighborhood, and immediately moved to address the problem. He started a conversation about race within the church, and reached out to African American community leaders. His efforts spurred the creation of a community center for youth later that year.
In the summer of 1969 Bichsel began to talk with Willie Hadley (1938-2002), an African American community organizer, about the needs of the Hilltop neighborhood. Hadley told Bichsel that the children of the neighborhood needed a place to go swimming. As Bichsel began exploring the possibility of building a swimming pool, he discovered a row of vacant houses just a block away from St. Leo. Holy Communion Episcopal Church owned the houses, and Bichsel got permission to use one of them as a youth center, which was named in honor of Martin Luther King. Soon, 40 or 50 local children gathered a few times a week at the house on the corner of 14th and Yakima, where they were bused to swimming pools in other areas of Tacoma. Eventually the Martin Luther King Center would expand its youth programming and also offer access to low-income housing.
The success of the Martin Luther King Center led Bichsel and a core group of volunteers to inquire about other vacant houses in the neighborhood. Over the next few years this group, through St. Leo, borrowed funds and purchased several more houses, renovated them, and made them available for community projects. The projects the group created or supported included services and drop-in spaces for the mentally ill, employment services, emergency shelters, a food bank, a farmer's market, a L'Arche community for people with mental disabilities, a clothing bank, living space for Jesuit volunteers, and meeting spaces for various labor and activist groups.
Bichsel's role at St. Leo proved controversial. His focus on community projects succeeded in bringing St. Leo into a closer relationship with its community, but also caused conflict within the congregation. Some feared the mentally ill people he was inviting into their community. Others disapproved of his growing ties to the African American community. Bichsel spent less and less time at St. Leo. Instead, he devoted his time to the Martin Luther King Center, and to his increasing involvement with anti-Vietnam War protests, his support of Native American treaty fishing rights, and the civil rights movement. Everything came to a head in 1976, when, for the first time, he was arrested for acting on his beliefs in peace, equality, and nonviolence.
In 1976, the United States Navy had begun to build a Trident submarine base at Bangor in Kitsap County on the east shore of Hood Canal northwest of Bremerton. The base was hugely controversial. It promised to bring many jobs to the area, but would also house one of the largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the country. During its construction, the base was the focus of ongoing antinuclear protests. One large protest was held on the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, on August 8, 1976.
During the protest, organizers called for volunteers to help carry the Trident Monster, a life-size, 600-foot-long replica of a Trident submarine made of rope and bamboo, onto the construction site in an act of nonviolent resistance. The volunteers would trespass onto federal land, breaking the law in order to show the strength and conviction of their opposition to nuclear weapons. They would put their bodies in the way of the construction of the base, risking their own freedom.
The call for volunteers was followed by half an hour of silent contemplation and Buddhist drumming. During that time Bichsel felt a sense of purpose emerge from within. He realized that he wanted to join the volunteers in stepping onto the base. He wanted to act on his belief in the evil of nuclear weapons. He wanted to take a stand, and to perform an irrevocable action. He likened this moment of revelation to the discovery of a gift, a grace that is available to all of us, if only we are at the right place and in the right mindset to recognize it. His doubts and fears faded, and his urge to act grew stronger. When the drumming ended, Bichsel, along with 70 other volunteers, stepped onto the base, and was arrested.
Bichsel's arrest had immediate repercussions at St. Leo. Though the congregation had come to accept him, many still found his actions troubling. At this time St. Leo was led by a team of priests, including Bichsel. After a meeting of the leadership team, Bichsel chose to take a sabbatical. He spent the next six months hitchhiking around the country, and then a year and a half working as a community organizer in Seattle. He returned to Tacoma in 1979, and, though he always remained closely connected with St. Leo, he never rejoined the church's leadership.
The G Street Community
The idea of community remained at the forefront of Bichsel's mind as he reestablished himself in Tacoma. He believed that social-justice-based community building was an important way to enact his nonviolent values, alongside his antinuclear protest work. Through St. Leo, Bichsel gathered a group of volunteers and gained access to two houses on G Street, one block away from the Martin Luther King Center. This was the beginning of the G Street Community and Guadalupe House, which later became the Tacoma Catholic Worker. The G Street Community invited people with and without mental illness to live together, provide mutual support, and foster understanding. The community was based on ideas of radical equality and community, liberation theology, and, like a L'Arche community, attempted to break down the dichotomy between giving and receiving help.
Bichsel moved into one of the G Street Community houses in 1979 and lived in the community for the rest of his life. The creation of the G Street Community was the culmination of his desire to work closely with people with mental illness, who he said brought out the best in him, and helped him put his ideas into practice. He saw the G Street Community and, later, the Tacoma Catholic Worker, as acts of resistance against our materialist culture and our fear of the poor, the mentally ill, and those who don't fit easily into society.
Ongoing Nonviolent Activism
Bichsel's dedication to the G Street Community did not diminish his involvement in nonviolent peace activism. In 1980 he served four months at the federal prison in Lompoc, California, as a result of his arrest during the 1976 act of resistance at the Bangor nuclear submarine base. In 1984 Bichsel was arrested again at the Bangor base when he and eight others knelt on train tracks in an attempt to stop a train from delivering nuclear warheads. In 1988 Seattle Police arrested him at Seattle University, a Jesuit school, for disrupting a speech by then-Vice President George H. W. Bush (b. 1924). The charges were later dropped.
In the mid-1990s Bichsel became involved in protests at the School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning in Georgia. The school, run by the U.S. Defense Department, was a combat-training facility for soldiers from many Latin American armies, and its graduates became known for committing atrocities in their home countries. Located in Panama for many years, the SOA was moved to Fort Benning in 1984, and peace activists, noting the abuses committed by its graduates, campaigned for its closure.
Bichsel received national attention for his role in efforts to close the SOA. Military police arrested him several times during nonviolent protests at the school. He served four months in federal prison following a conviction in 1995, and a further year as the result of a second conviction in 1997 -- his longest incarceration. After his 1997 arrest at the SOA, Bichsel said, "We will keep coming back in greater and greater numbers until Congress shuts down this School of Assassins" ("Seven Arrested ...").
Bangor, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki
Protests did continue at the SOA (and Congress eventually responded by renaming the facility, a change activists called cosmetic), but after his imprisonment for the Fort Benning protests, Bichsel returned to Tacoma and largely re-focused his energy on the Bangor nuclear submarine base. Only 40 miles from Tacoma, the base now housed almost a quarter of the nuclear weapons in the arsenal of the United States. Bichsel regularly protested at the base with the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, but felt that he could do more. In 2008, Father Stephen Kelly (b. 1949), a veteran activist, came to Tacoma and proposed holding a protest action at the Bangor base, which he and those who joined him chose to align with the international Plowshares Movement. Beginning in 1980, Plowshares activists had used nonviolent resistance and symbolic acts of property destruction based in Catholic imagery to protest against nuclear weapons. Kelly's proposal would grow into the 2009 Disarm Now Plowshares action.
Five activists participated in Disarm Now Plowshares: Father Bichsel, Father Kelly, Sister Anne Montgomery (1926-2012), Susan Crane (b. 1942), and Lynne Greenwald (1949-2014). They group met regularly for a year, to plan logistics and to examine their own intent through prayer and discussion, to be sure they were acting from belief in pacifism and not for personal gain or notoriety.
In August 2009, during that year of planning, Bichsel joined a group of 18 people who traveled to Japan and took part in the Journey of Repentance. Participants visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, met with Japanese peace activists and survivors of the atomic-bomb attacks, and participated in memorials of the bombings. The trip had a profound effect on Bichsel. Visiting places that had been devastated by nuclear bombs, meeting people who had lived through that horror, and seeing the effects of nuclear war with his own eyes deepened his commitment to pacifism, and his opposition to nuclear weapons.
Disarm Now Plowshares
The Disarm Now Plowshares participants kept their plans secret so as not to implicate supporters, but did seek some outside support and guidance. Although the Jesuit order had not always approved of Bichsel's actions, and he knew many Jesuits disagreed with them, he asked Father Patrick Lee, his provincial at the time, for support. On October 23, 2009, Father Lee responded with a letter of commissioning, placing the weight of the Jesuit order behind the planned action in a bold statement of support that put Lee at risk of criminal charges.
The Disarm Now Plowshares action took place on November 2, 2009. The five activists cut a hole in the fence at the Bangor base and walked through the forest and alongside roads until they reached the storage area for nuclear weapons. There, they cut through two more fences and began to walk toward the weapons-storage sheds. They were only 10 or 15 yards away from the structures when armed security forces rushed toward them with guns raised. All five were forced to the ground, handcuffed, hooded, and arrested.
They expected to be immediately detained but, to their surprise, were charged and released. As he awaited his trial date, Bichsel continued to protest against nuclear weapons. In July 2010, he traveled to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where guards at the facility arrested him during an action at the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Complex. He was taken to Blount County Jail, charged with trespass, and given a court date in Tennessee, which would soon seriously complicate his life.
The trial for the Disarm Now Plowshares activists began on December 7, 2010, in federal district court in Tacoma. All members of the group pled not guilty. Citing precedent from the Nuremburg trials, the activists sought to argue that nuclear weapons were illegal under international law, and that they were morally bound to resist illegal laws that allowed the U.S. to possess nuclear arms, but the judge barred such evidence. On December 13, 2010, the jury found the five guilty. Though Bichsel was disappointed, he never wavered in his belief that he had done right. He felt like he had fulfilled a calling, and upheld a higher law by living out his beliefs.
Imprisonment and Transfer to Tennessee
On March 28, 2011, at the U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Bichsel was sentenced to three months in custody, followed by six months of house arrest. He was taken immediately to the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, just north of Tacoma. However, he still faced charges stemming from his arrest at the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in July 2010. A court date had been set for May 9, 2011, in Tennessee, and the prison system was authorized to send him there to stand trial.
Traveling by prison transport plane would be difficult for anyone, but it took a particularly harsh toll on Bichsel, who was then 82 years old. Prison transport flights aren't direct routes. His journey began in SeaTac, Washington, on April 19, 2011, and took him to facilities in Pahrump, Nevada; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Atlanta, Georgia; and Knoxville, Tennessee, before he finally arrived at the Knox County Sheriff's Detention Facility on May 3. During that time Bichsel required daily medication to treat a potentially fatal heart condition, but that medication rarely traveled with him. His poor circulation left him freezing cold and in pain, often unable to walk or sleep. His friends and colleagues who watched his slow progress across the country wondered if he would survive the journey.
On May 11, 2011, a federal jury found Bichsel guilty of trespass at the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Complex. In an act of compassion, the judge agreed to allow Bichsel to serve out the last six weeks of his Plowshares sentence at the Knox County Sheriff's Detention Facility, rather than forcing his return to SeaTac.
On May 26, 2011, Bichsel celebrated his 83rd birthday in the detention facility. There were no visiting hours that day.
Bichsel completed his Plowshares sentence on June 24, 2011, and returned to Tacoma shortly thereafter. On September 12, Bichsel was sentenced to a further three months in custody for his actions at Y-12. He reported to Federal Detention Center in SeaTac on the morning of November 10, 2011, after having been given a grand send-off by friends and community members in Tacoma. He completed his sentence on February 9, 2012, and walked out of the detention center at 10:15 a.m. that morning. When his friend Theresa Power-Drutis picked him up, he immediately asked to be taken to the Bangor submarine base, but, instead she bought him a latte and took him home.
On June 2, 2012, Tacoma's Scandinavian Cultural Center and Pacific Lutheran University awarded Bichsel the Greater Tacoma Peace Prize for his service to the community, including his antinuclear activism and the Disarm Now Plowshares action. The prize included a trip to Oslo, Norway, where Bichsel attended the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.
Bichsel also found inspiration in an international peace movement on Jeju Island in South Korea, where resistance communities of both religious and secular activists were attempting to halt construction a new naval base. On September 23, 2013, Bichsel traveled to Jeju Island with Gilberto Perez, a friend and Buddhist monk from Bainbridge Island. Bichsel found the spirit of resistance on Jeju Island to be a perfect example of the kind of nonviolent resistance he had practiced all his life. This island community engaged in resistance as a way of life, not just a philosophy or an occasional action. Bichsel was particularly moved by the daily mass that held at the protest site, on the side of the road. It was presided over by the Bishop of Jeju, as well as priests and nuns in full regalia. He of course joined the resistive action, and sat with the South Korean activists in chairs blocking the construction site.
His traveling companion Perez wrote in a letter that "Bix becomes like a young teenager when he is resisting the empire ... very funny and happy with all ... A baby Buddha" (Eiger, "Bix and Gilberto ...").
An Activist to the End
Even as Bichsel's heart condition continued to worsen, sapping him of strength and endurance, he continued engaging in nonviolent resistance. He was arrested again at the Bangor base on on March 4, 2013, and in April 2014 he held an Easter mass in front of one of the Bangor base's gates, in the style of the roadside masses he had witnessed on Jeju Island.
Bichsel passed away on February 28, 2015, surrounded by friends and loved ones at Jean's House of Peace, his home in the Tacoma Catholic Worker.