In Memoriam: John Capillo

Last week Peggy and I received the very sad news that our long-time friend, John Capillo, had died suddenly on New Year’s Eve. Mercifully, there was no long illness. Stomach pains brought him to the emergency room. He was diagnosed with pneumonia, suffered septic shock, and suddenly was gone. He was 76 years of age.

For us, it was John’s second death. Years ago, Peggy and I said goodbye to him as he lay in coma in a Lexington (KY) hospital. We laid hands on him as we left his bedside then and thanked him for all his gifts to us and the world. But afterwards the unexpected happened. He was given a reprieve; he came back from the dead to live among us for several more years. It seemed entirely miraculous.

In any case, this time it’s final. And our world won’t be the same without this extraordinary man. He was a priest, a prophet, a teacher, storyteller, and a social justice warrior of astonishing accomplishment.

I first met John Capillo 40 years ago, when he and Terri and their new baby, Maureen, moved to Berea, Kentucky. One Sunday, the three of them showed up for Mass at St. Clare’s Church, where Peggy and I had been parishioners since our own arrival in town 5 years earlier. By then, we had our own daughter, Maggie, who was just about Maureen’s age.

Immediately, I learned that, like me, John had been a priest – ordained in New York’s Brooklyn archdiocese. That did it: we soon became fast friends – as did Maggie and Maureen. Peggy and Terri also shared a deep friendship.

At the beginning, John’s day job was carpentry. He had learned the trade during his first priestly assignment in Puerto Rico (or was it Guatemala? I forget.) John had showed up there to help rebuild after a hurricane or something. However, (as he told me early on) when he declared his do-good intention, an old man took him aside and said, “Padre, we know how to build houses. We need you to be our priest.”

And so, John did just that with the enthusiasm, commitment and insight that characterized his entire life. However, his desire to make the gospel relevant moved him to take chances with liturgy and edgy homilies that rendered him suspect to his superiors. The resulting conflicts with authority eventually drove him from the priesthood and into family life.

Nevertheless, John never did give up carpentry or building. One Sunday shortly after arriving in Berea, he came to Sunday Mass with bandages on his left hand. The previous week, he had cut off a finger with his Skill Saw.

Undeterred, at one point, he built a solar addition onto our house in Buffalo Holler about 5 miles outside Berea’s city limits. The project was designed by Appalachian Science in the Public interest. It caught John’s imagination, because, like Peggy and me, he and Terri were going through a “back to nature” phase. He thrived on environmental harmony, innovation, recycling and simple living.

In fact, years later John built an even more innovative structure for himself. It was made entirely from strong woven-plastic bags filled with dirt. John had done a study on the process and technology. And soon he was filling the required bags and carefully laying out the building’s perimeter. Layer after layer created outside walls, interior divisions, and then a roof.

Everything was laid out carefully to take advantage of the sun, but also to orient the house towards sacred energies John perceived as housed in the east, north, west, and south. He wanted to steep himself deeply in such emanations, even while asleep. The whole project expressed John’s deep and never-abandoned desire for enlightenment and unity with God.

Yes, I saw John as a kind of saint. He was. I’ve met few people like him – always on point, never caught up in trivialities, deeply interested in meaning, and counter-cultural to a fault. That’s the way prophets are.

That’s the way John was. He cared little about externals. His diet was simple; he always ate what was set before him. He didn’t drink liquor. His beard was scruffy, his hair unkempt, his clothes always nondescript. But his soul was absolutely luminescent.  His laugh was raucous and full of joy. His loud Ha-Ha’s punctuated every story he ever told.

And he told many. In fact, he considered storytelling his calling and avocation. He studied its technique. And he always used that skill to talk about things that matter – as explained in the books he devoured as the voracious reader he was. John was an inveterate book clubber. He also read my blog, commented on it often, and frequently had us talking shop at Berea Coffee and Tea. Conversations always revolved around God, politics, philosophy and family.

But John was no armchair philosopher. He was a fierce activist on behalf of El Salvador during Central America’s troubled 1980s. As he put it, he “went to school” there – learning from the people during his frequent visits about the destructive role U.S. policy played not only in Salvador, but throughout the colonial world of Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.

John was a deeply, deeply critical thinker. At one point, he spent a month in El Salvador with Peggy and her class of Berea College students as they worked with local residents struggling to overcome the disastrous effects of U.S. policy.

John’s greatest activist accomplishments came after he joined our mutual friend, Craig Williams’ Kentucky Environmental Foundation (KEF). It was and remains a grassroots organization committed to environmental justice. KEF’s main focus became delivering Berea’s Madison County from arrogant U.S. Army plans to dispose of World War II chemical weapons containing mustard gas and other genocidal poisons. The Army had planned to simply burn it all in a thoughtless incinerator near our homes, schools and local businesses.

However, with John’s help, KEF stopped the planners in their tracks. KEF mobilized the entire county and state to prevent that particular disaster from happening. It actually defeated the U.S. Army! Eventually, KEF linked up with similarly victimized communities throughout the United States and the world to work for and celebrate analogous accomplishments.

It was all truly heroic. And John was a huge part of all that. For years, KEF was his final regular job. And in that capacity, he mentored numerous Berea College students including our own daughter, Maggie, who had the privilege of working closely with him and Craig as a student-volunteer.

Here’s a list of some other ways I experienced John as activist, prophet, teacher, and friend:

  • Any of us organizers and educators could always count on John to attend and participate in meetings of any kind, anywhere if they addressed issues of spirituality, activism, critical thinking and/or critical living.
  • He was an advocate and friend of Berea’s and Madison County’s large Hispanic community often working as a translator for its members in court and in social services offices.
  • He was a frequent guest in my own (and Peggy’s) Berea College classes where he edified and provoked students with his informative stories and explanations about our country’s Central American wars and about the environmental dangers of incineration. He was so effective with students.
  • For years, John was a faithful and active member of the Berea Interfaith Task Force for Peace, which during the ‘80s was organized around nuclear disarmament and opposition to our government’s tragic interventionism in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
  • One January, the two of us taught a month-long Berea College course on environmental justice. The course took place in Alabama, where another U.S. Army incinerator threatened the local mostly African American community. The offering was called “Taking on the Military Industrial Complex.” You can imagine the conversations John and I had in the process.
  • Years later, John joined Peggy and me in Oaxaca for a month-long course with Mexico’s Gustavo Esteva — himself an extraordinary critical thinker – who deeply influenced so many of us through his seminars, lectures, prophetic example and books like Grassroots Postmodernism. John loved Gustavo.
  • John was there for me when I tried to start a home church.
  • He visited me at our lake house in Michigan last summer. We spent the entire afternoon on our back porch talking of our usual things – family, politics, church, theology, books. John was extraordinarily proud of his four children and of his grandchildren. I treasure that memory.

As I said, John Capillo was a saint. He was one of my closest friends. Unfortunately, he won’t be coming back from the dead this time (physically, that is). Peggy, Maggie and I will miss him. The world is poorer for his absence.

A Zapatista Prophet Comes to Berea Pointing the Way to a New World

Gustavo

Last month Peggy and I had a prophet in our home: Gustavo Esteva.

No doubt, the seer would be shocked by my characterization. After all, Gustavo says he’s an atheist. He’s a harsh critic of the Catholic Church — and all religions for that matter.

Gustavo was once an IBM executive, and an official high-up in the Mexican government. At one time he was also a revolutionary guerrilla. Now he calls himself a de-professionalized intellectual and itinerant story-teller. He’s the founder of an alternative university (Unitierra). He has authored more than 30 books, among them Grassroots Postmodernism and Escaping Education.

But I stick with my assertion: he’s a prophet.

In the presence of someone like that, you can imagine the transcendent conversations we had around our dinner table each evening during his ten-day stopover in our home. Sometimes dear friends were there with us. At others, it was just Peggy and I.  We talked of almost nothing else but politics, literature, spirituality and the direction of history.

Gustavo is from Oaxaca in Mexico.

Among his outstanding qualifications is his position as advisor to the Zapatista revolutionaries. Perhaps you remember them. They’re the Native Americans who on January 1, 1994 captured the imagination of Mexico (and many of us outside) when their lightly armed military forces occupied five Mexican towns around San Cristobal in the state of Chiapas.

They were protesting the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which they said spelled the death of their culture and way of life. Their courageous Indian Uprising made them instant international heroes. So did their eventual abandonment of armed struggle in favor of non-violent resistance.

On more than one occasion, Peggy and I have led students into Zapatista communities to experience their radically counter-cultural lives first hand.

According to the Zapatistas, women are leading the way they have embarked upon.  In fact, 60% of their army commanders are women.

The importance of women’s leadership was the heart of the extraordinary convocation Gustavo gave at the beginning of his “scholar-in-residence” stint at Berea College. It was a theme to which he returned often during his many classes and lectures there. Women are leading the way, he said, into the “other world” that is not only possible but required if our planet is to survive.

Our threatened survival is where Gustavo started. He said our world stands in a position of unprecedented danger. It is threatened by climate chaos, oligarchical governments, tremendous wealth disparities, an economic system that simply doesn’t work, schools and communications media that propagandize rather than inform, and by an emerging and universal police state with its system of perpetual war that (suicidally) defends the status quo. Under the present world order, the line between governments, the military, the police and the judiciary on the one hand and the criminals and thugs on the other has completely disappeared. Not a pretty picture.

During his general convocation, Gustavo held us all spell-bound as he outlined the seven principles to guide us out of the morass just described. They represent the North Star that guides the Zapatista movement as Native Americans once again mark out the path to planetary survival. The Zapatista principles call into question our entire way of life.

Here they are as Gustavo explained them:

    1. To serve others, not self. For Zapatistas, the goal of life is the common good, not the accumulation of money or power.
    2. To represent, not supplant. The Zapatista model of revolution is not the seizure of power (supplanting one government with its mirror image), but the representation of the majority without reproducing old relationships of domination.
    3. To construct, not destroy. The new order cannot be built upon violence.
    4. To obey, not command. However, the Zapatista model of obedience is not that of servant to master or of soldier to comandante, but of mother to her infant child.
    5. To convince, not to win. The Zapatista way centralizes respectful dialog based not primarily on logical argument, but supplementing logic with intuition derived from the experience of life.
    6. To propose, not impose. Imposition represents the violence rejected by Zapatismo.
    7. To go down, not up. For Zapatistas the geography of social discourse and action has changed. Old categories of left and right, conservative and liberal are no longer applicable. The new more relevant topography directs our gaze up and down, north and south – to recognize the gap between the one-percent and the rest of us.

Not surprisingly, not everyone welcomed that message of coöperation, non-violence, care and acceptance. During the Q&A following Gustavo’s principal address, a particularly articulate young man posed a question that must have been on the minds of many “exceptionalist Americans” in the audience.

“You’ve described a rather bleak world, Gustavo,” the young man said. “But surely you’re talking about a reality outside the United States. After all, here we enjoy extraordinary freedom and prosperity. That’s shown by the fact that so many foreigners are anxious to come here. Isn’t that true?”

Gustavo responded, “I have bad news for you, my friend. The United States you describe is fast disappearing, and is harder and harder to find. Your country with its pot-holed highways, homeless beggars, and falling bridges increasingly resembles what you call the Third World.

“And that’s the purpose of your politicians’ New World Order – to create a reality where we’re all racing to the bottom, while they enjoy the cream on top. Unfortunately, that cream is also fast evaporating. Soon the system benefitting the 1% will collapse entirely. (In fact it’s happening before our eyes.)  There is simply no exception to the collapse I’ve described. To save ourselves we have no alternative to a complete change of guiding principles. The Zapatista principles I’ve just described and which centralize women’s ways of knowing show us the way.”

That’s the way real prophets talk. They’re usually right. This time however the warning is planetary and universal.

Will we listen and adopt the Zapatista way?