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'Where You Stand Is What You See'

Tim Vining, who turned Garfield's Thomas Merton Center into a social-activist mecca, is moving on but won't be silent

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Tim Vining, 41, became executive director of The Thomas Merton Center, on Sept. 4, 2001. A week later, the Garfield social-justice organization was thrust to the forefront of local activism with the government's reaction to the attacks of Sept. 11.

 

 

Born in Cut Off, La., Vining was a pre-law student in Louisiana State University at 16, then a brother in the Franciscan Friars of the Sacred Heart Province in Cambria County, Pa. He earned a master's degree in theology from Toronto's Regis College and an LSU law degree before coming to Pittsburgh. Vining turns over the Merton Center reins to Jim Kleissler on Aug. 1.

 

"I wanted to take a break from the intense activism," he explains, by entering a doctoral program in the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Sociology. Under an assistantship with professor Alan Irvine, Vining will help teach a course on "how people who have wealth and power maintain their wealth and power. Part of the course is a look at Pittsburgh. It's not about how people work hard. You'll be hearing about it."

 

Losing your Cajun identity helped inform part of your activism.

My grandfather didn't speak English. My mother's generation spoke French and English. I used to call [Cajuns] the swampbillies -- one of the last groups that became white in this country, assimilating to lose their language. I remember at Louisiana State University, raising my hand to ask a question and the entire room of students laughing. I remember that day forcing my accent out, being ashamed ...

 

I've often thought of that when I think of race relations in this country. Race is this whole construct invented to separate people. I think it's real important for us who have been lumped together as white to recognize what we gave up: our survival skills. That's one reason fascism can take hold in this country. I don't think white people have an identity.

 

Oddly, that's the neo-Nazi argument.

But you ask what it means to be white and they're not going to tell you the cultural stuff. They'll tell you it's supremacy. Especially in Louisiana, especially as David Duke gained a foothold, the only ones talking to whites about being white were the racists. We have to engage in those conversations with white kids and white adults, beyond just preserving the food and the music. We have to deal with the fact that we have benefited from racism. Cajuns who didn't speak English were offered jobs in the oil fields when our black brothers and sisters were on the sidelines. My parish, Lafourche, went in one generation from being the state's poorest to the richest.

 

Did you find Pittsburgh as racist as its reputation?

Yeah. You hear people call it the Up-South. My reflection on moving from the South to Pittsburgh -- I haven't moved. The difference is, people deny it. In the South, we immediately jumped into the conversation. David Duke will tell you it's about race, and he is right. His analysis is wrong. Here in Pittsburgh, it's so not talked about, and it's so present. The segregation is as deep as anything I've seen.

 

Leaving the monastery was a kind of antidote to suppressing your own heritage.

It meant being true not just to myself but to my values. I came out as a brother, realizing I was gay and having to deal with the church's institutionalized homophobia. I was at a [church event] and was asked, "Brother, why aren't you going to be ordained?" I answered, "I won't be a priest until the other half of the church can join me behind the altar, and I won't participate in the heterosexist, patriarchal structure." It was in 1988. Ronald Reagan had not talked about AIDS for eight years. The gay community was being decimated. I'm a chaplain [in Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C.] and I'm beginning to visit guys who were dying of AIDS. [One] said, "Why do we have to be on our death bed for the church to get compassionate?"

 

Why, when a gay couple is living their life with integrity and being honest with who they are, the church excludes them, but when they're dying of AIDS, we set up hospices? Once they're lepers and totally marginalized we can show compassion? But in this case the church was doing the marginalizing. It was the experiences of gay men on their deathbeds, holding their hands with their partners -- they wanted me to pray rosaries with them. I was having more trouble with that than they were ... coupled with the experience of falling in love with another brother [Stephen Donahue, now also a Merton activist]. Love makes you do totally irrational things. A gay guy reads [Pope Benedict's] autobiography and says, "My God, he's one of us." I just have this fantasy of him falling in love with a guy and being converted by the power of love that he can't deny, which I think is stronger than the Catholic Church. Then the next pope would be a lesbian, and we're really there.

 

Just as I came to where I am [by] trying to integrate my values with what I am, others [at the Merton Center] are doing it too. I can distinguish between the institution and the faith. People say, "What about Santorum?" He's no better a Catholic than I am. He doesn't listen to the Pope on the death penalty, the war or anything, only abortion. I'd love to have Santorum in here and have a debate about our Catholicism.

 

How can you leave activism before Santorum's re-election bid?

It's not about Santorum; it's about what Santorum represents. Obviously, I will spend the rest of my life fighting against most of what he represents. It's the wedding of religion with the state, which is called fascism. It's his extreme intolerance of people who are different, whether they are working mothers, gays. ... We need to challenge with as much fervor those institutions and powerful people who are funding him. Even if he's your man on all the issues, what about all the crazy stuff? I think Santorum is of the ilk of David Duke -- we just don't have pictures of him with a hood.

 

You've applied for residency in Canada.

Steve and I have lived with homeless guys and committed to voluntary poverty. I've done that because I believe where you stand is what you see. Partly [the choice of Canada was prompted by] U.S. imperialism. But I don't want to grow old in this country as a gay couple, especially a poor gay couple. The level of violence in this country I'm getting more and more concerned about. The silence of the churches in this country scares the hell out of me. It's most important to continue the resistance to pressure from the U.S. to destroy the [Canadian] social safety net.

 

You've doubtless been a target for anti-progressives and for law enforcement over the years.

We had no stance on the Terry Schiavo case, but it generated a flood of hate mail here at the Merton Center. They always begin, "Dear Faggot." Some of the [letters] were kind of humorous. You can tell they were [from] an old guy because they use the terms "lesbo," "communist." The scariest is when they send mail to the house, saying they know where you live, you better watch your step. I have no doubt that for most of my adult life I've been under surveillance. I'm more fearful of being bashed in the middle of the night when no one's looking.

 

Are protests really effective?

If the objective is to educate the American public, I don't think a protest is the most effective. It establishes us as a source between the protests. If all we did was go in the streets every six months and yell and scream against the war, that's not building a movement. There's a lot of members of the Merton Center who don't go to protests. There's got to be a lot of different tactics.

 

If the world complied with your vision, what would it look like?

A rainbow Amish community. I don't see a Stalinist-type revolution, but I do want no disparities of wealth, a world where what's most important to people is living together in peace, taking care of each other and having radical acceptance of each other. So I think of the Amish -- without the sexism and the religion.

 

What is the most important work of the Center since 2001?

Breaking the silence, that there is opposition to this war in Pittsburgh. The high point was January 2003, when we had 5,000 people in Pittsburgh, protesting against the war. We had the second-largest civil disobedience in the country when the war started in March, after San Francisco.

 

But most important, I believe social activism is about connecting people who might be divided by the powers that be. It's done by building relationships. I think people are going to remember this time in the Merton Center's history [as] bringing together the seasoned activist of the Vietnam era with the younger activist coming out of the global-justice movement.

 

You remember four years ago, May Day [in Market Square], when those kids got arrested? [Merton Center officials] didn't know these kids were going to do it. They didn't know the message. Sometimes the kids didn't know the message. A flag went up -- why wasn't the Merton Center seen as a resource?

 

And your personal accomplishment?

When I came to the Merton Center ... it was Pittsburgh's best-kept secret and it was getting old. The name "Thomas Merton Center" is becoming more of a household name around Pittsburgh. The second big accomplishment -- I've always tried to value the leadership of young people. So I think the Merton Center is going to be around for a while.

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