I first encountered the writings of Jim Forest in the summer of 1969. It was during the height of the Vietnam War. I was 19 years old. The previous December I had dropped out of Fairhaven College in Bellingham, Washington, and sent my draft card back to the Selective Service System with a lengthy note revoking all my ties with the system.
During the next seven months I embraced the hippie lifestyle, hitchhiking to California, traveling to Mexico, and living in a communal house in Washington. During this period my parents forwarded letters from the draft board declaring me “delinquent.” I was aware that I ran the risk of going to jail.
In June I had a “born again” experience, and got involved with the so-called “Jesus Freaks.” During a Bible study in August, I was confronted with St. Paul’s statement in Romans, “Be subject to the governing authorities.” I realized that I needed to get right with the Draft Board, so I sent them a letter letting them know where I was, but also asking for an application for conscientious objector status. (I had been raised in a liberal Protestant denomination where Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, and even Jesus, were presented as role models of non-violence. In 1965, at age 15, I had decided that the Vietnam War was wrong, and that Fall I participated in the first antiwar march in Seattle. I had also spoken out against the war at my conservative suburban high school where I was branded a “communist.” And as a budding folksinger, I had sung at an antiwar event sponsored by the Students for Democratic Society [SDS] when I was still 17 years old.)
I knew that I had to make my defense before the draft board on religious grounds, so I went to the American Friends Service Committee bookstore in Seattle, where I found two pamphlets that I found compelling. One was Blessed Are the Meek: The Christian Roots of Nonviolence, by the well-known Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. The other was Catholics and Conscientious Objection, by Jim Forest, then co-chair of the Catholic Peace Fellowship (revised and Orthodox Christian version available here).
Although I was not a Roman Catholic, I found Jim’s quotes from the New Testament and from the Early Church Fathers, including Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and Basil the Great, proof that the Christian faith, from its very beginning, was to be one of peace and non-violence. With the information I gleaned from both Jim Forest and Thomas Merton, I applied for CO status. I made my defense before the draft board with Bible in hand, and was granted I-O (conscientious objector status). After appearing for my physical to do alternative service, my status was changed to 4-F (medical deferment) for health reasons, and I never had to serve.
For the next 30 years my spiritual sojourn took me through various expressions of the Christian faith, from Pentecostal and Charismatic to Fundamentalist and Pietistic, eventually settling down in Evangelical churches where I became a worship leader, choir director and praise band leader. I had even taken a year off to study at a respected graduate school of theology in Canada, contemplating a call to the ministry. (In the end I decided to devote myself to music.) I had left the “Jesus Movement” in search of the New Testament Church, but had slowly been absorbed by Evangelicalism, including its involvement in flag-waving Religious Right politics.
In 1997 I heard a lecture about the Eastern Orthodox Church and realized that, despite my love for Church History, I knew nothing about Orthodoxy. I attended my first Great Vespers service that evening, and sensed immediately that this was something I needed to investigate. After a two-and-a-half year inquiry (while still leading music on alternate Sundays at my Evangelical church) I was received into the Orthodox Church during the Feast of the Nativity in 1999.
There were some books in our parish bookstore by a Jim Forest. It took me a while to realize that it was the same Jim Forest that had written the pamphlet that had helped me in 1969. The first book by Jim that I read was Praying with Icons, which was helpful, since I was just beginning to incorporate icons into my prayer life. In it he writes:
When distracted during the Liturgy, I find it helpful to gaze at the Pantocrator (“ruler of all”) icon that, in Orthodox churches, is just to the right of the royal doors in the center of the iconostasis. The icon reminds me that I am truly standing before Christ. It helps bring me back to reality, back to the present moment, back to the consciousness that I am always in the presence of God and that each choice I make, each word I speak, every moment of attention or inattention, has significance and has something to do with the person I will be when I am raised from the dead at the Last Judgment: a person in communion—or out of communion.(Praying With Icons, 56)
I struck up an email conversation with Jim. He was gracious enough to give me thoughtful replies. However, one exchange had to do with “the right to bear arms,” since I was still under the sway of what Jim called “The Gospel of John Wayne.” Jim gently scolded me, essentially stating that there is no place in Christianity for “a good guy with a gun.” I wish I still had a copy of that email exchange. In his article online Jim states:
The big problem with the Gospel According to John Wayne is that it hides from us the troubling fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person—also the uncomfortable fact that there is no such thing as a completely good person.”(The Gospel According to John Wayne)
Thanks to this interaction with Jim, I gradually returned to a more pacifist, and I believe more consistently Christian, position.
In 2011, my wife and I went to my homeland, the Netherlands. It was my first time back at age 61, after emigrating at age 3. Knowing that Jim lived in Alkmaar, and also attended St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam, I emailed Jim to see if we could meet him after liturgy the Sunday we were in town. He agreed. After the service we chatted briefly in the courtyard of the church. I had no agenda other than to thank him for his role in my life.
In the past decade I have read many more books by Jim. In them I have come to understand more about what happened with the Christian peace movement in the 1970s. I came to understand better the role of Thomas Merton in the movement, and also about their mutual connection with the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh. I was inspired by one of Jim’s stories to write a sobering song about a conversation when Merton asked Nhat Hanh, “What is the war like?” Nhat Hanh simply replied, “Everything is destroyed.”
Because Jim mentioned him with respect, I have also read several books by Thich Nhat Hanh. Through them I have learned more about mindfulness, how to sit quietly and listen to my breath, how to walk and eat with attention, how to pay attention to my surroundings. And even though I am not a Buddhist, all of these lessons have helped me be more attentive in my prayer life.
Perhaps my favorite book by Jim is The Ladder of the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”) have been among my favorite passages in the Gospels since childhood. The first time I attended Divine Liturgy I heard them sung in the service and felt like I had come home. In his book Jim draws on the lives of the saints, Scripture, and everyday life, to bring each beatitude to life.
In 2016, I retired from 39 years in education in Washington State and moved to New Hampshire. When I found out that Jim would be speaking at the Voices of Peace Conference in Toronto (jointly sponsored by Church of the Redeemer, The Henri Nouwen Society and the Basilian Centre for Peace and Justice) on April 28, 2018, I decided to make the 8 hour drive to hear him and visit with him one more time. As it turned out, he was speaking three days in a row, before the conference at St. John the Compassionate Orthodox Mission, and after the conference at Church of the Redeemer. At each session he spoke about a different aspect of “Climbing the Ladder of the Beatitudes.” Jim starts his book with:
With only a little effort, all the beatitudes can be memorized. Once learned by heart, we carry them within us for the rest of our lives a short summary of the teaching of Jesus Christ: the whole gospel in a grain of salt.(The Ladder of the Beatitudes, 1)
Since reading the book and hearing Jim speak on the topic, I have set the Beatitudes to an ancient melody, and I sing them virtually every day as part of my morning prayers.
I have many things I am grateful for, but pointing me to the Early Church Fathers and learning to anchor my life on the Beatitudes are probably the biggest lessons that Jim has taught me.
On January 13, 2022, we learned of the death of our beloved friend, Jim Forest. Then I “attended” his funeral on January 20 in Amsterdam via YouTube. At the conclusion of that service I was moved by the words of his son, who commented that Jim was often too busy for his children because of his writing, speaking and peace work, but that they got him back when Jim became a grandfather. That’s when I realized that Jim was much like my own father, hunched over his typewriter, publishing newsletters, or else helping immigrant families get settled in the United States. But when my father became an Opa, he found time to play with his grandchildren, and also enjoy tea and talk with his own children. I’m sorry that I was one of the many people that Jim’s family had to share him with. However, I rejoice that they got him back during the later years of his life.
Just over a week after Jim passed, we learned that Thich Nhat Hanh had also passed away. In many ways it seems fitting that these two men leave this planet during the same month. For me their lives were intertwined, even though Jim had not seen Nhat Hanh for many years. In his book Eyes of Compassion: Learning from Thich Nhat Hahn, Jim writes:
Finding mentors and learning from them was essential in the process of growing up, but finally I had to let go of my mentors and uncover my true face.(Eyes of Compassion: Learning from Thich Nhat Hahn, 132)
I have considered Jim Forest to be one of my mentors, but I will let him go to be in the presence of the Lord. I, too, need to uncover my true face. May his memory be eternal.
Volkert Volkersz, folksinger and songwriter, is a former music teacher and school librarian in Washington State. He retired to New Hampshire in 2016. Currently he is the program coordinator at the Dublin (NH) Community Center. He attends Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church (OCA) in Claremont where he serves as a lay reader, singer, and assistant choir director.
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.