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Network for Peace through Dialogue

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February 26 2014

Peacebuilder Series

Tom Milton, Professor at Mercy College

Tom Milton, author of eight novels featuring characters who are seeking peace and social justice, talked about this work as he opened the Network's ninth living room dialogue on peacebuilding. Writing these books, he told dialogue participants, has become his life's mission, and he believes he can be more influential with words than with physical protests.

Not that he has never participated in those. As a young adult he joined civil rights actions in the South, allied himself with Cesar Chavez's migrant workers movement in California, was a part of nonviolent anti-war protest during the Vietnam war years, and later on was tear-gassed in protests against a military dictatorship in Argentina. These experiences and the inspiring role models he met along the way underpin his writing.

Tom grew up in a middle class section of St. Paul, Minn., a place he described as "a fairly peaceful world." Against this background, the poverty and distress he later encountered in his travels was all the more stark. The first shock came when he was sent as a teen-ager to spend a summer in Montana helping a young priest build a church on a Blackfoot Reservation. It was his first look at real poverty. By the end of the summer, the priest, one of the important role models in his life, had converted him to Catholicism along with 30 of the Blackfoot.

Although he had the option of staying in graduate school and seeking a deferment, Tom enlisted in the Army during the Vietnam war. He was the only white person in a platoon made up mostly of Puerto Ricans, bringing him face to face with the effects of racism and poverty once again. Once out of the Army he joined a Catholic peace group at a college in St. Paul. A courageous young woman he met there who gave her life trying to end the war is the heroine of one of his books.

After his years of social activism and Army enlistment, Tom's family urged him "to get an honest job." He did – but it probably was not what his family expected. He took a job with a bank that sent him to Argentina during the early days of a civil war. There he lived in a slum where he was introduced to liberation theology. Many priests were assassinated during that conflict, one shot 100 times with a machine gun.

No doubt his family was relieved when he returned from Latin America and settled down at last to a job teaching business at Mercy College where he has stayed for 28 years. However, his interest in social justice has remained acute. At the college, he has met students who have inspired his writing, undocumented Mexicans and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, for example.

A complete list of Tom's books can be found on his publisher's website: here.

Following Tom's presentation, dialogue participants were invited to reflect on any aspect of Tom's story that resonated in their own lives.

Several participants recalled occasions when they were exposed to poverty and/or injustice in other parts of the world and the effect it had on them. One told of going to Nigeria and finding a level of poverty way beyond anything she had experienced in the U.S. Water was as good as gold there. She suggested that immersion in such a place is a sure way of transforming a person's understanding of lives unlike their own. It would be a good thing for many U.S. teen-agers, for example, to find out what life is like away from video games and texting, she said. Others agreed that such exposure can be eye-opening.

One participant reflected on the story of the young woman who lost her life protesting the Vietnam war. She said she often has felt that fighting oppression, injustice or war required being ready to risk her life and that having that feeling has held her back. She hasn't been ready to die for her beliefs. At the same time she often feels guilty for not having the courage to put herself in harm's way to fight for justice.

Other participants brought up different kinds of feelings, for example the difficulty of dealing with their own anger, outrage or hopelessness when working with people who have been marginalized and oppressed. One mentioned that it was helpful in her case when she met another person who was doing some good work helping veterans who had been gassed in the first Gulf war. The work of that man gave her hope and inspired her. Another participant said that he had worked though similar feelings by writing plays on such topics as the financial crisis and homelessness.

A participant who leads a peace organization said that sometimes her group is charged with not being activist enough, for not being out in the streets enough. She thinks the more effective way to peace is through education, writing and legislation. She points out that those Republicans so influential now did not get their power by agitating in the streets. They got it by infiltrating the media and other institutions.

During the discussion, many examples came up of ways people have used their talents and resources to make a difference in lives right around them. A number of people in the group were teachers who cared deeply for their students. It came about that at times just listening to another person and being attentive to the feelings underneath their words is all a peacebuilder can do to make a difference. And in that moment it can be enough.

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