Send in the Clown

Carl Kabat has a sacred mission that could land him in jail -- and outside the priesthood.

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."

Father Carl Kabat specializes in prayer.
Anthony Camera
Father Carl Kabat specializes in prayer.

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.

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