Thursday, July 21, 2011

Here's to Frida Berrigan and Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer: Love, Not War

July 15, 2011
Frida Berrigan and Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer
from The New York Times Society Pages


AFTER breaking up with a longtime boyfriend in the summer of 2009,
Frida Berrigan decided she wanted her entire life to change.

By February 2010, she had quit her job as a senior program associate
with the Arms and Security Initiative, a research group based in SoHo
and focused on military policy. She moved out of her apartment in Red
Hook, Brooklyn. She started running, partly because it helped her
think about what to do next.

"You need time to let something new blossom," said Ms. Berrigan, now
37. "None of us do U-turns. We're kind of like boats. You don't turn
on a dime, and if you do, you don't stay turned."

Seeking a contemplative place, she signed up to work and live in the
Lower East Side headquarters of the Catholic Worker Movement, whose
mission is to help the poor and homeless. Ms. Berrigan's bedroom there
was so small, it could not fit a bed, only a sleeping bag.

"No bed bugs!" she said cheerily. She cooked and served lunch to the
homeless, and provided them with everything from fresh clothes to long

Ms. Berrigan has bright blue eyes that rarely dart around when she is
in conversation. Although she often discusses serious topics - banning
nuclear weapons, the conditions at prison camps - she has a way of
treading across them very lightly, like a deer.

Ms. Berrigan is the eldest child of Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth
McAlister, a Roman Catholic priest and a nun who left their callings
and founded Jonah House together in 1973. Jonah House, which still
exists, is a Christian-based community of peace activists living,
sharing meals and planning antiwar protests together in a Baltimore
town house. Mr. Berrigan, who died in 2002, was known for dramatic
acts of civil disobedience, as when, as part of the Baltimore Four, he
poured blood over draft records in the Baltimore Customs House to
protest blood lost in the Vietnam War.

Ms. Berrigan and her two siblings grew up in Jonah House, reading the
Bible at night (as well as Dickens and Shakespeare). She attended
marches with her parents, shopped for clothes in thrift stores and
recycled everything, even plastic bags, which the Berrigans washed and
hung to dry.

"We had this pretty extreme life," Ms. Berrigan said. "We were poor,
we didn't have any nice stuff, our parents were going off to jail all
the time."

In some ways, life at the Catholic Worker was like Jonah House. The
work was intense and purposeful, which she loved. She planned to stay
for years, until she started spending time with Patrick
Sheehan-Gaumer, an old friend and a fellow member of the War Resisters

They had always liked each other, but never been unattached at the
same time. "We definitely had a spark," he said. "Our eye contact had
something more than normal."

Mr. Sheehan-Gaumer, now 29, is a caseworker for the Fatherhood
Initiative at Madonna Place in Norwich, Conn. A single father with
joint custody of his 4-year-old daughter, Rosena Jane, he helps
troubled fathers become better fathers. He is soft-spoken and
mild-mannered, yet magnetic. He resembles a character from a Walker
Evans photograph, with a bushy black beard, short hair and eyes that
shine abnormally bright.

"Patrick has an ability to relate to people that boggles my mind,"
said Rick Gaumer, his father. Mr. Gaumer was a founder of the New
England chapter of the War Resisters League with Joanne Sheehan, Mr.
Sheehan-Gaumer's mother.

The couple had their first real date on Valentine's Day 2010. They
went to Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg, but mostly talked. "She's
smart, she knows herself, she has a ridiculous vocabulary," he said.
"She can out-talk most people in any debate simply by using words no
one else can understand."

He described their chemistry as "off the charts."

On their next few dates, they took long walks around New York. She was
always amazed by the quirky things he pointed out. He brought her to a
cemetery on the Lower East Side, for instance, just to show her the
peculiar name - Preserved Fish - of a person buried there.

"I wanted to dig into this new life I'd planned for myself at the
Catholic Worker," Ms. Berrigan said. "But from the beginning, Patrick
was just so solid and forthright and honest and a lot of fun. Those
qualities just overwhelmed me."

Occasionally, Rosena joined them on their outings. "Falling in love
with Patrick also meant falling in love with Rosena, and falling in
love with a family," Ms. Berrigan said. "That was really easy."

Still, their courtship was slow and old-fashioned in many ways. They
saw each other only on weekends. He wasn't allowed in her room at the
Catholic Worker. They rarely talked on the phone. They communicated via
handwritten letters and packages.

"Every week, I'd get a very tiny envelope in the mail, an old love
card," she said. "He probably got them at a flea market." She added:
"One time, he sent me a bag of couscous. It was from Turkey, and it
was called Frida couscous. I just got this sense, 'Wow, he's out there
in the world thinking about me.' "

Soon, they wanted to spend all of their time together.

"From very early on," she said, "I would look at him and think: This
is someone I want a family with. This is a person I want to grow old
with. This is the person I want to struggle with."

After four months of dating, he formally proposed to her in his own
informal way. "I said, 'I don't have a ring, I don't have a plan, but
I want to marry you,' " he remembered.

She recalled: "I said yes because Patrick makes me feel really happy
and safe and inspired all at the same time. I said yes because I learn
a lot from him, and not just about the Red Sox." She also said yes
because he never tried to take her out to big fancy dinners or buy her
expensive things.

"Part of our vows to one another is wanting freedom, and part of being
free is living simply and not being encumbered by stuff," said Ms.
Berrigan, who moved in with Mr. Sheehan-Gaumer last November. "That is
something I learned from my family. You really don't need a lot of
stuff to be happy."

They definitely do not own a lot of stuff. They bought furniture from
the Salvation Army and Craigslist. "Our couch was 40-something
dollars, which was actually more than I wanted to pay," Mr.
Sheehan-Gaumer said. "I was looking for a $25 couch." They do not have
a TV. They buy food from the "get rid of it" discount bin at the
supermarket. They purposely keep their incomes below taxable level so
they do not "give money to the Pentagon," Mr. Sheehan-Gaumer said.

Ms. Berrigan now mainly works with Witness Against Torture, a
loose-knit group of volunteers trying to shut down the military prison
in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. She continues to practice Catholicism; he is

They wrote their own vows and said them twice, in two very different
ceremonies. The first was a big, communal "union party," as they
called it, on June 11 at Camp Happyland in Prince William Forest Park
near Manassas, Va. The weekend-long celebration emphasized simplicity,
frugality, peace and chores. Three hundred friends and family members
pitched in, cooking meals and decorating the pavilion where the
wedding took place with sunflowers, Christmas lights and strings of
paper peace cranes.

Their second ceremony, the official one, happened on June 27 at All
Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London, Conn. The
bride wore a long gray dress, a short veil pinned to the top of her
head, evoking the look of a nun, and a necklace that was so simple it
was practically invisible. The bridegroom, who wore a $10 three-piece
suit he found at the Salvation Army, said to Ms. Berrigan, "I feel so
lucky, so privileged and ridiculously happy to have your love." There
were no guests, just their friend and officiant, the Rev. Carolyn
Patierno, pastor of the church.

About their future, Ms. Berrigan said: "I have a sense there's nothing
we can't do together. Except shut down Guantánamo or end war. If
you're going to be involved in seemingly futile undertakings, you
might as well do it with someone you love."

No comments: