On April 5, 1977, Jim Forest received a phone call that his friend and collaborator Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, had been kidnapped by the Argentinian government. The most likely outcome was death. From his office in the Netherlands, Jim and his staff worked to free Adolfo. They nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize as a publicity stunt to embarrass the Argentinian government. Within hours, hundreds of papers picked up the story, and fourteen months later Adolfo was released. Expecting nothing more to come of this, Jim thought he had received a prank call the next summer when the Nobel committee called to inform him that Adolfo had won the prize.
Not wanting to waste this opportunity, Jim arranged for a meeting in Rome with Pope John Paul II. At this meeting, their goal was to ask the pope that Arturo Rivera Damas be appointed as the permanent successor to the recently assassinated Óscar Romero. Pope John Paul went on to grant their request.
Jim was born November 2, 1941, to two communists. Though Jim was at times embarrassed by his family’s outsider status, he attributed his upbringing to teaching him about the plight of the poor, something that paved the way to becoming a Christian. As a child, he also learned about the horrors of war when a minister at a local Methodist parish hosted two victims of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had come to the US for reconstructive surgery. Peering at their silk veils, Jim came to learn that hospitality to those in need, those suffering, was far more important than politics. Despite his many encounters with political events over the coming decades, he always kept in mind that it was people who ultimately mattered.
It is unsurprising then that in 1960, while serving in the Navy, Jim would find a kindred spirit in Dorothy Day. Dorothy was a former communist and Catholic convert who founded the Catholic Worker movement, a network of houses of hospitality that served the poor and promoted peace. Shortly after discovering Dorothy’s writings, Jim visited Dorothy’s community in Manhattan.
Before long. Jim had become a Catholic himself, which complicated his military career. After his conversion, he applied for CO status. Jim was discharged as a conscientious objector and went to live at the St. Joseph Catholic Worker community in Manhattan.
Together Dorothy and Jim published the Catholic Worker paper, protested war, and offered hospitality to all who knocked. Through Dorothy, Jim met his two other mentors, Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. After a brief stint in jail for protesting nuclear weapons, Jim visited Merton in Kentucky, thinking of moving on from the Catholic Worker to become a monastic. Instead, Merton told him the Holy Spirit had other things in mind for him.
By 1967 Jim had founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship with the support of Berrigan and was working at the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Through his work with FOR, Jim became acquainted with Vietnamese Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh. Thầy, as his friends called him, is partly responsible for introducing the idea of mindfulness in the United States. The first conversation Thầy and Jim had was whether psychedelics were a shortcut to enlightenment, a question which the Zen master took surprisingly seriously. Jim assisted Thầy with his most famous book: Miracle of Mindfulness, published in 1975 with an afterward from Jim.
On September 24, 1968, Jim and thirteen others, the Milwaukee Fourteen, broke into the Brumder Buiding in Milwaukee, liberated thousands of draft cards, and set them on fire with napalm. At his trial, Jim did not shy away from the charges. The fourteen chose to represent themselves, with Jim taking the lead. He sought to prove that the war in Vietnam was illegal and immoral. They wished to admit as evidence a range of legal opinions against the war in Vietnam, and a number of religious texts, including the New Testament. The judge rejected this, saying that admitting the New Testament as evidence “may create substantial danger of undue prejudice” in the jury. Jim was sentenced to what he has long called his thirteen-month “sabbatical” in prison.
In 1977, he and his family settled in the Netherlands as he took over operations for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. With the war in Vietnam over, Jim began to turn his attention to ending the Cold War. In truth, Jim has never seen a conflict he did not try to peacefully end. Jim traveled to the Soviet Union to promote East-West integration. Jim saw the Russian Church as a natural partner in this work. Over the course of the ’80s, Jim made many trips to the Soviet Union, writing about the experiences of Orthodox Christians there. This resulted in Jim being invited by Metropolitan Philaret of Minsk to come to Moscow in 1987 for the conference, “For a World without Nuclear Weapons, for Mankind’s Survival,” at which Mikhail Gorbachev was to speak. A year later, Jim was in Moscow again for a signing of a treaty between President Reagan and Gorbachev. During this event, Jim made a pilgrimage to Boris Pasternak’s grave only to discover a freshly laid set of flowers. Locals told Jim that the flowers were put there by Nancy Reagan, who had just left. Jim snapped a photo and mailed it to the First Lady, who responded with a letter, thanking him.
That same year, Jim took a step across the Iron Curtain, and joined the Russian Orthodox Church himself. Where others saw enemies, he saw fellow humans on the journey to God. Jim would go on to write “It is not so much belief in God that matters, but love of God, and similarly love of others, including love of enemies.”
Jim went on to run the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and write many biographies and theological works. He passed away January 13, 2022.
Read Jim’s contribution to Public Orthodoxy: “Pope Francis’s Challenge to All Christians: End the Death Penalty”
Nicholas Sooy is a doctoral candidate in the philosophy department at Fordham University.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.