[This piece was originally published in the Lent 2011 issue of La Amistad, newsletter of the Amistad Catholic Worker.]
by Mark Colville
Three months ago, the world shifted and the ground underneath us shook. Father Tom died. I was walking down the hall to open the front door for my brother and his family, arriving from New Jersey to join us for Thanksgiving dinner, when the call came from Guatemala. He had gone to sleep peacefully at Casa Juan Gerardi the night before after writing to some friends, and then he went to God. Luz and I spent a few moments sobbing on the back stairs, and then returned to our guests, thinking it best not to share the news until the next day. A mentor and friend for over thirty years, Tom never failed to leave me with a challenge, and three months later, I’m still struggling to find my footing on a ground he no longer walks.
Luz and I travelled to Guatemala City with Leticia Cotto and Tom’s sisters for the funeral, which was a kind of whirlwind experience among friends and neighbors he’d shared his life with, from several different countries. It was the kind of funeral one wants to attend, because you know that the person being mourned lived such a beautiful, remarkable life that grief simply cannot rule the day. After the mass, everyone clogged the streets and walked behind the hearse, singing songs of hope all the way to the cemetery.
I wrote down these thoughts at the time:
“Father Tom Goekler was an apostle among the poor. He was a single-minded, single-hearted and tireless advocate for the betterment of people’s lives, literally all over the world. He was a monk who chose to dwell in the noisiest, most crowded and stress-ridden places, practicing radical nonviolence, praying constantly and carrying the simple loving presence of God. He afflicted our consciences with a clear and unbending sense of justice and morality, as well as a coherent analysis of the movement of evil in the world. And he moved us- sometimes literally!- from where we were at to where we had ought to be. Father Tom stood firm on principles that we often overlooked or thought unimportant, because his vision of right and wrong was never abstract; it was always rooted in his love for specific people and his desire to shoulder their burdens and be a part of their liberation. “
Thirty years ago Tom told me something, a piece of ancient, practical, spiritual wisdom that he’d first learned in Latin at the seminary. I must have needed to hear at the time, and it has since become a foundational understanding for my life in a Catholic Worker house. It is advice I’ve been leaning heavily on these days, and a kind of a mantra for every time I answer the door:
“You cannot give what you do not have.”
That pretty-much covers everything, from a piece of bread in the pantry, to a hot shower or a safe and warm place to sit awhile, to a bit of serenity, to an experience of being valued, loved and listened to. “We love because Christ first loved us (1John 4:19).” You cannot give what you do not have.
The Amistad Catholic Worker began with a vision that came out of the love with which Father Tom engaged the world, a love profoundly deepened by his encounter with Dorothy Day. He gathered us here in 1994, he gave us a house, and he willed this community of faith into being. In his life as a priest, by his preaching and example, and as a friend, Father Tom taught us how to love more effectively, in our context of empire, violence and nuclearism. And so we dedicate this issue of La Amistad to Father Tom’s memory, with one eye fixed on celebrating his life and the other on continuing the struggles that remain.
Please see page 8 for a report on Casa Juan Gerardi, the Catholic Worker house Tom left behind in Guatemala. Also, a eulogy given at Maryknoll, NY, can be found on our website: amistadcw.wordpress.net. Thanks…~