This February marks the 3-year anniversary of the passing of Father Bill Bichsel of Tacoma. He continues to be remembered as an exemplary advocate for human rights, racial justice and anti-war causes.
Father Bix (full name William Bichsel) was born in 1928 and raised in a large Catholic household by a railroad engineer and a mother who fed the homeless and unemployed during the Depression. He naturally took the side of the poor, homeless and oppressed.
Bix has been described by those who knew him as a humble, self-deprecating man, often dressed in denim, without a clerical collar, always on the move. Instead of becoming tired and old in his later years, he traveled the country and the world witnessing for peace and human fellowship.
Arrested 46 times, he spent about 2.5 years in prison. Few people will say we can eliminate nuclear weapons and war, but Bix said we can, and many of us came to believe him and dedicate ourselves to the task. In 1988, Bix made waves on the Tacoma evening news, arrested for challenging Reagan administration support for military juntas and their death squads in Central America; he’d done so by interrupting a speech of then Vice President George W.H. Bush.
Jesuit Fr. John Whitney, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Seattle, recalled being with Bichsel that evening at Seattle University: Bischel shouted, “What about the poor?” at Bush a number of times, Whitney said.
“Bush responded by turning to the audience and saying, ‘Boy, you get all kinds of nuts around here, don’t you?’ I am not one who finds yelling out questions to be my thing, but Bush’s response was so patronizing and arrogant toward a Jesuit whose methods were not mine but whose point was certainly reasonable that I got peeved. At which point, I stood up and yelled, ‘Why don’t you answer the question?’ Repeatedly. I was removed by our security people, and Bix, as was his desire, was arrested.”
While he acknowledged the importance of talking about problems, Bix asked us, in his unimposing, gentle way, to do something about them. At the G Street community on Tacoma’s Hilltop, less than a mile from where he was born, Bix helped create institutions of care and compassion that continue today. He strongly identified with Martin Luther King Jr., and he wove Native American beliefs into his liturgies.
As his friends and colleagues held vigils during the week that Bix lay dying in February 2015, an elderly African-American woman recalled, “Father Bichsel was the first white person I knew who stood up for black people.” After a lifetime of work for peace and justice, his greatest gift to his community was to know how to use his knowledge, experience and energy in the service of others, with humility and grace.
Michael Honey is the Fred and Dorothy Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington Tacoma.