As a child, I organized softball games. In high school, I formed a chess club. As an undergraduate, I served in most of the elected leadership positions at our 90-person student co-op at the University of California at Berkeley (where I got my Social Sciences degree). My last semester at Cal, I was nominated and elected to serve as Co-Coordinator of the experimental 150-student Residence College. Those experiences provided me with a valuable sense of community.
My first taste of deep community, however, was the civil rights movement. In early 1964, I joined Campus CORE and became immersed in a series of Bay Area demonstrations protesting job discrimination — the Lucky Stores shop-ins, the Sheraton Palace sleep-in, and the Auto Row picket lines — as well as an occupation of an Oakland welfare office protesting forced workfare. Those actions focused on winnable demands, involved negotiations that led to compromise, and were victorious. In all of those efforts, I was a foot soldier.
Singing and chanting on picket lines induced an altered state of mind. Putting one’s body on the line and being arrested or risking arrest provided a deep sense of solidarity. The perspective that we white folks were not merely acting for the sake of people of color, but were also acting to save our own souls, made the civil rights movement even more profound.
We knew that the conventional career path was not sufficient. We sensed that we needed to overcome our deeply flawed social conditioning and become more compassionate and nonviolent individuals. For African-Americans who were involved in the movement, that perspective was integrated into their life by their involvement in the Black Church. For many white activists in the movement, including myself, that commitment to self-development was largely implicit. We did not talk about it much. But the movement’s nonviolent philosophy placed in us the seeds of a commitment to ongoing personal growth.
For me, that commitment bloomed the next year. Working as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital opened my heart and an article in Look magazine about the Esalen Institute and the human potential movement inspired me. I soon became immersed in sensory awareness exercises, massage, encounter groups, and psychodrama. Having been a timid, emotionally repressed young man, I steadily became more in touch with my feelings and better able to express them.
During those years, I began to explore my spirituality, inspired by contemporary theologians such as Paul Tillich, who re-interpreted the Bible into contemporary language in a way that made sense to me. I then became intrigued with the “coffee house ministry” that had been initiated by Judson Memorial in Greenwich Village in New York City and Glide Church in San Francisco. which launched the Intersection Center for the Arts.
So when I applied to the Pacific School of Religion (PSR) in 1967, I dedicated myself to organizing “communities of faith, love, and action.” I envisioned such community centers as places that would support political activism as well as personal and community development. I wanted to integrate “the personal and the political.” That has been the central thrust of my life ever since.
During the summer following my first year in seminary, after having been elected Chair of the students’ Education Committee, I decided to push for major changes in the school’s educational philosophy. Though PSR was just one block from the University of California at Berkeley, at that time it was a very traditional, isolated “ivory tower.”
As it turned out, other students that year held a similar intent. We formed the New Seminary Movement, wrote our manifesto, and tried to take over the school. The confrontations that resulted led to several of us being expelled, only to be reinstated by the Board of Trustees. The elderly President resigned and soon the Board hired a new, younger President who helped to transform the school into a much more relevant, community-oriented institution.
The next year Glide Church hired me as an Intern Minister and I moved into the Alternative Futures in the Ministry commune in San Francisco, a project for seminarians modeled after the Residence College. When after two semesters that project ended, many of us stayed together as the Alternative Futures Community, lived in a network of several households, ate a common meal once a week, and conducted intensive weekend Urban Plunges that explored the intersection of personal and political liberation.
In 1971 three Alternative Futures members helped to organize the 1971 May Day demonstrations against the Vietnam War in San Francisco. At an early meeting, I proposed that we try to nonviolently shut down business in the Financial District in conjunction with the national demonstration that planned to shut down Washington, DC by tying up the bridges. The planning committee accepted my idea. But as soon as our action began, a police riot created enormous chaos.
Since the federal government had charged antiwar demonstrators with conspiracy, a felony with the threat of long prison terms, my fellow organizers and I were fearful. Some of them quickly left down for several days. But I suppressed my fear, only to have it erupt into full-blown madness following an LSD trip two weeks later.
My housemates had me committed to a local hospital, where I was heavily drugged and released three days later. My extreme paranoia persisted and a few weeks later I decided to reach out to the most powerful man I knew: the psychiatrist who had been my former boss in Dallas and had become a friend in the interim. He admitted me to the same hospital where I had worked. Two weeks later, he discharged me, gave me a mild prescription, told me to stop taking the drug in a month or so, and advised me to return to San Francisco rather than stay with my parents. Shortly after my return, I got jobs as an office clerk, a convalescent hospital orderly, and a mental health worker in a crisis clinic.
When I learned of the formation of Madness Network News, a publication that was inspired by the work of R.D. Laing and produced by a team of mental health professionals, former patients, and others who were opposed to oppressive psychiatric practices, I helped mimeograph the first issue and became a co-editor. I felt obligated to use my experience on both sides of psychiatry to promote more beneficial alternatives. In 1974, Glide Publications asked us to produce the Madness Network News Reader, an anthology of material from the newsletter and new material.
When we completed that book, I proposed to Leonard Roy Frank that we organize a political-action group to push for reform. He readily agreed and we formed the Network Against Psychiatric Assault (NAPA), which opposed forced psychiatric treatment and promoted self-help alternatives.
(To be continued)