For more than 40 years, Tom Karlin has been active in life, peace and justice issues
It was 1979, and peace activists were descending on Bangor, a naval base on the Kitsap Peninsula, to protest its fleet of submarines equipped with Trident nuclear missiles.
Joining them was Tom Karlin, a Navy veteran who had been stationed there in the late 1950s. Now, he was carrying a banner with words paraphrased from the Book of Jeremiah: “I think thoughts of peace, not of disaster.”
At one point, Karlin climbed over the base fence with three other people. He expected the usual for trespassing on government property — a “ban and bar” letter prohibiting him from returning to the base. This time, though, Karlin was arrested.
He served four months in federal prison. But Karlin said his wife, Ida, got the “bigger sentence”: working full time and taking care of their three kids while he was incarcerated.
At left, Tom, his first wife Ida (now deceased), and their daughter Sarah take part in an anti-war demonstration in this circa 1975 photo provided by the Karlins.
That separation from his family made Karlin reconsider the type of activism that had guided his life for a decade. “That’s what led us to L’Arche and Habitat for Humanity instead of protesting and getting arrested,” he said.
For more than half of his 82 years, Karlin has lived out his Catholic faith by praying for the unborn outside abortion clinics, living at the Tacoma Catholic Worker house with those transitioning from homelessness, working for peace with the Catholic organization Pax Christi, supervising building sites for Habitat and serving on the board of L’Arche Tahoma Hope, a community supporting people with intellectual disabilities.
Deacon Denny Duffell, of Seattle’s Our Lady of the Lake Parish, has known Karlin since 1969, when they served with Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Alaska. “He’s been one of those people quietly always doing the work,” Deacon Duffell said. “It’s been getting-your-hands-dirty kind of work, serving the poor, and activist work.”
Karlin is an activist, but he isn’t rash or a “wild-eyed radical,” said longtime friend and Pax Christi member George Rodkey, a fellow parishioner at St. Leo the Great in Tacoma.
“He has a persistently positive, hopeful personality. He really exemplifies what it means to be a Christian man in so many ways.”
Instilling the works of mercy
Karlin, a grandson of Russian immigrants, was the 10th of 15 children who grew up on the family farm in Kansas in the 1940s and ’50s. His family was financially poor, Karlin said, but “my parents had a deep faith and that’s what they left us.”
That faith got his parents through the deaths of two children as infants. And they instilled in their children the importance of serving the poor, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and burying the dead.
“The corporal works of mercy [are] based on what Jesus spoke about — whatever you do to one of these,” Karlin said. “And that applies to every facet of our life, our activism too, and the grandchildren, and your spouse, even our enemies. No exceptions.”
His parents didn’t have a Bible at home, Karlin said, but they prayed the rosary with the family and absorbed the word of God through each Sunday’s sermon. “It might seem strange, but they were able to put [the Gospel] into practice more readily than people who have a lot of theological ‘head’ knowledge,” he said.
Karlin was just 19 when his father died of a heart attack, and he was the oldest son still living at home. “My mother needed help, so I was put in a position of leadership with my siblings that I didn’t ask for,” he said.
Feeling financially responsible for the family, Karlin joined the Navy after graduating from high school in 1956. During his first deployment, he received a “Dear John” letter from his high school sweetheart, which caused him to rethink his life’s plan.
He had dropped out of the seminary while a freshman in high school, but now he took the advice of his siblings, deciding to give religious life another chance. “They encouraged me to pray,” Karlin said — “whatever God wants me to do, I’ll be open to it.”
That led to seven years living the monastic life at the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Lafayette, Oregon. Karlin learned carpentry (which became his future career), acquired spiritual discipline and realized the importance of community for sustaining one’s faith.
“It wasn’t an easy life,” he said, “but you had a sense of solidarity, and that helps. The faith was so well articulated: We are the body of Christ, and we support one another.”
Tom Karlin, kneeling at far right, is about to be arrested during a May 2008 protest at Naval Base Kitsap at Bangor, home to the Trident nuclear submarine fleet. Photo: Courtesy Laura Karlin
Advocating for life
Plagued by bleeding ulcers, Karlin eventually was counseled at the monastery to “try something different.”
So he joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in 1967 and moved to Alaska. There, Karlin got his first taste of social activism, and “miraculously” met Ida, his future wife. They took to heart the pro-life/anti-war actions preached by Jesuit Father Jack Morris, JVC’s co-founder.
Tom and Ida married in 1971, moving to Eatonville to be closer to Ida’s family. It was Ida who first got involved in pro-life activities, joining a group called Pro-Lifers for Survival that Karlin said combined anti-nuclear views with support of life issues.
The couple’s interest in advocating for life was “an organic, growing awareness based on seeds planted years ago,” Karlin said. For him, those seeds included helping unload nuclear weapons while in the Navy.
As the years went on, the Karlins had five children. Ida worked as a nurse, Tom started a cabinet-making business, and they remained active in various peace and justice groups in Tacoma.
When the couple’s third child, Johnny, died at just 2 months old in 1974, Tom and Ida constructed his tiny coffin. It was a way “for us to share our grief, experience the gift of God’s presence, and deepen our relationship to the present and for life’s journey together ahead,” Karlin wrote in the book Bury the Dead: Stories of Death and Dying, Resistance and Discipleship, edited by Laurel Dykstra.
Over the decades, Karlin would build coffins for other family members and friends, including one for Ida when she died of cancer in 1994. Having his children and family members help construct her coffin “was an experience of the paschal mystery, walking together, experiencing the agony and ecstasy that’s been so instilled in us,” Karlin said.
Since Ida’s death, Karlin has continued their pro-life work. During a recent 40 Days for Life event — when participants focus on the sacredness of life by fasting and praying to end abortion — Rodkey and Karlin were praying in front of an abortion clinic. While Rodkey tried to figure out how to respond to two women who didn’t think they should be there, “Tom was engaged, smiling, and trying to find common ground with the women,” he said. “It took the wind out of their sails a little bit, and gave us a chance to convey our humanity, that we weren’t monsters.”
Tom Karlin, left, at a 40 Days for Life event. Photo: Stephen Brashear
Seeing Christ in every person, situation
In the early years of his activism, Karlin said, accompanying “peace prophets” such as the late Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen and the late Jesuit Father Bill Bichsel to rallies and protests helped him learn to see the face of Christ in every person and every situation.
After Karlin’s 1979 arrest, he started working for Habitat for Humanity, supervising construction sites around Tacoma. Around the same time, Karlin was asked to serve on the founding board of the L’Arche community; a few years later, he helped build a barn and greenhouse at their farm.
For Karlin, such work is indistinguishable from prayer. “Everything is our work and our prayer,” he said. “It’s communion with Christ, with each other.” And through prayer, he said, “we can imagine ourselves to be in solidarity with those who are suffering.”
These days, Karlin makes time each morning to pray with his second wife, Laura. They started dating about four years after Ida’s death, but had known each other for years through their involvement in Tacoma’s peace and justice community. They married in 2000 and moved into the Tacoma Catholic Worker Guadalupe House as resident volunteers. For the next seven years, they lived alongside people in need, providing them spiritual and emotional support.
“It was the most natural thing to do for him to build a life around the works of mercy,” Deacon Duffell said. “What could be more Catholic than that?”
For the past decade, Karlin has remained active in local and international peace projects. In 2005, he traveled to El Salvador to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of St. Oscar Romero. In 2009, he was part of an interfaith delegation that went to Japan to commemorate the 64th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “What really brought us together,” Karlin said, “is our desire to resolve conflicts with nonviolence.”
Karlin has passed on his love of social activism to his grandkids. “I enlist them to go on various vigils and rallies,” he said. “They’ve come along very readily.” Earlier this year, a couple of them organized a walkout at their high school to protest gun violence, Karlin said.
In 2013, more than 30 years after his 1979 arrest, Karlin was arrested during another protest at Naval Base Kitsap (formerly Bangor). This time, he received a $25 fine.
In a letter he wrote to the court for his mitigation hearing, Karlin explained his decades-long commitment to nonviolence and his opposition to nuclear weapons:
“They deter us from having health care for tens of millions of our people; they deter us from educating our children adequately; they deter us from reaching out in compassion to suffering people around the world,” Karlin wrote, and “they deter peaceful resolution of conflict the world over.”
Getting to know Henri Nouwen
In 1980, Tom Karlin didn’t know much about Henri Nouwen. “I knew he was a writer,” Karlin says of the renowned Catholic priest, author, professor and pastor.
But when Nouwen came to Tacoma that year to speak at an interfaith conference, Karlin was asked if he and his family might host Nouwen at their home in Eatonville.
“Henri told [the organizer] he could only come if he can have a couple of days at a peaceful, quiet place, because he’s very exhausted,” Karlin recalled.
Tom and his wife, Ida, invited Nouwen to stay in the poustinia, a small Russian prayer house, on their property.
“He just wanted to be in seclusion. Seclusion in a family of kids,” Karlin said, noting that he and Ida had three daughters under the age of 7 at the time. “What kind of seclusion is that?”
But Nouwen came anyway. A few days after his stay ended, Nouwen called and asked if he could return and stay for three weeks. “It was wonderful,” Karlin said. “We really got to know him.”
They stayed in touch over the years, seeing Nouwen when he had a layover in Seattle, and visiting him while he was staying at the L’Arche Daybreak community near Toronto.
When Ida was dying of cancer in 1994, Nouwen sent Karlin a copy of his book Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring.
“I’ve given that book to many people,” Karlin said.
Nouwen died two years later.
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