After serving a nice, safe congregation in Northern Virginia, in 1967 I was called to a congregation adjacent to the campus of the University of Chicago. I had no idea what I was being asked to take on nor how my life would be forever changed by what I saw and did there.
About the second month, I was visited by a dozen students who asked me what I was going to do about ending the Vietnam War. I didn’t have a clue about what I was to do but knew I had to do something. But to do anything might have violated my notion that obeying the government was a religious duty. Some years later, I was asked the same question by a 90-year-old YWCA staff member.
The answer to the students came in a storm! Under my leadership, our church building was to be the focal point of anti-war activity. In short, I became the chaplain of the anti-war students. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was one of the more gentle and reflective groups we welcomed. We opened a coffee house, a lunch service and a rallying point, and welcomed 300 to 800 persons in the building every day. When the students occupied the administration building of the university, the church became the action center. At midnight we held services for any students who had burned their draft cards, had refused induction, were about to leave for Canada, or had agreed to be inducted in the armed forces.
During the ‘68 Democratic Convention, I was gassed along with a significant number of students and others who had organized the protest. I was as close to being a confidant of the Chicago 8 as anyone. As such, I was called before the grand jury, which indicted them. Two young undercover FBI agents, who had infiltrated our student group, identified me. As a result I was named an unindicted co-conspirator. My job, at which I was less than successful, was to keep the demonstrations as peaceful as possible. As time went on, I became more and more convinced that the students were right and that the war was both immoral and illegal. My phones were tapped and pictures were taken from a tower at the university of everyone who entered our church building.
I was called on one occasion to come to the marvelous Museum of Science and Industry on Chicago’s lakefront. I arrived to find in the lobby a U.S. army exhibit composed of a helicopter where anyone — including children — could sit in the pilot’s seat and fire missiles at a panorama depicting huts in Vietnamese villages, which would explode. I was outraged, and in two hours a group of students and others had closed and blockaded the museum and shut down Lakeshore Drive. The next day, the Army removed the exhibit and those who had been arrested were released.
Since childhood I had a high view of the authority of others — parents, teachers, governments. The Vietnam War convinced me that there is a higher authority which superseded all the traditional authoritative sources I had previously honored and respected. It is the authority of conscience. More than any other event in my 85 years, the Vietnam War forced me to look at the question of authority and re-evaluate to whom and to what I owe my primary allegiance.