The Thomas Merton Center began in a store front office on the Southside in 1972 to protest the continuation of the war in Vietnam. Working with a human needs coalition to reverse federal cutbacks, the Center raised funds for medical aid to Indochina and for the Bach Mai Hospital, and it provided information for schools and religious education programs on racism, poverty, and war. The Center provided seminars on contemplation and nonviolence and on simplicity in lifestyle, and it celebrated a simple Christmas by supporting workers in third-world cooperatives with its Giving Tree alternative holiday shop.
As Larry Kessler, founder of the Thomas Merton Center, put it in 1973: “We’re trying to get this group [ordinary Americans] to understand that peace and justice can be a way of life…that it’s for everyone…”
During the 1980s, the River City Campaign challenged local nuclear weapons producers, Rockwell and Westinghouse, with weekly vigils, leaflets, and civil disobedience actions. They also protested during the construction of Carnegie Mellon University’s Pentagon-funded Software Engineering Institute. Members of the campaign and Westinghouse officials engaged in two years of dialogue about the corporation’s participation in producing first-strike nuclear weapons. During that same time period, Pittsburgh delegations traveled to Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador as part of the Witness for Peace efforts.
Through the years, the Center has educated and organized against world and local hunger, exploitation of workers, militarism, and racial discrimination in Pittsburgh. Members have been arrested protesting the B-1 bomber, nuclear weapons, and apartheid in South Africa. They have organized fasts and vigils. The first Pittsburgh chapter of Amnesty International and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank were organized by Thomas Merton Center staff members.
Since the Center’s beginning, thousands of people from diverse philosophies and faiths have found common ground in the nonviolent struggle to bring about a more just and peaceful world community. Through protest as well as ongoing projects, the regular involvement of Thomas Merton Center members has been the backbone of our work. Members and staff of the Center have supported and initiated many projects that have made tangible differences in the struggle for social change.
Today, the Thomas Merton Center is located at 5129 Penn Avenue in Garfield (next door to our old location, 5125 Penn Avenue, pictured to the right) and has expanded to include over twenty organizing campaigns and projects. It serves as a valuable resource for dozens of social justice and peace groups within the region. Our monthly newspaper,The NewPeople, is a key source of information for activists on current actions, campaigns, and events. Our website provides an up-to-date action calendar, and we send out a weekly electronic newsletter to let people know what’s going on and how to get involved.