One of the Pacific Northwest’s clearest activist voices of hope and resistance fell silent last weekend. The Reverend Bill Bichsel, known to most simply as “Bix,” died in hospice care in Tacoma’s’ Hilltop neighborhood, just blocks from where he was born 86 years ago; and where for over three and a half decades he housed and fed the poor in a Catholic Worker enclave known as Guadalupe House.
To say that Bix was unique would be an understatement. He was the second youngest of seven children, entered the Jesuit novitiate right after the Second World War, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; later becoming an ordained priest and joining the Industrial Workers of the World: affiliations that he embraced and that guided his life of service to the poor for over half a century. Bix comforted the men, women and children that our economic system treats as unneeded surplus labor, seeing them as valued human beings worthy of love, work, and compassion. He confronted the brutalities of capitalism, and struggled against American militarism in ways that took serious Christian teachings about caring for the poor. He lived a life that connected Jesus’ life and teachings in the sermon on the mount with the lives and teachings of Eugene Debs and Joe Hill.
Bix had an impressive criminal history. He was arrested for protesting at various landmarks of American militarism: the US Navy Trident submarine base in Bangon, Washington (multiple times), for chaining himself to the door of Tacoma’s federal courthouse, blocking the entrance to the School of the Americas (multiple times), these and other acts of civil disobedience lead to dozens of arrests, and convictions with two and a half years spent in various jails and prisons. In his last years, he became an active protestor of South Korea’s construction of a massive naval base on Jeju Island, South Korea, servicing American Navy ships—traveling in his last protest trip to Jeju Island in a wheelchair due to ill health.
I did not know Bix long, and many knew him far better than me; but he left impacts on me that will long remain. I first met Bix a few years ago after one of his friends emailed me asking me if I’d be willing to offer testimony in his defense for an upcoming trial. Bix and other protesters then faced serious federal trespassing charges for blocking the entry to the Trident missile base at Bangor, Washington. I met Bix and his friend for coffee in Olympia and talked about his case and what I might offer—Bix explained to me that he’d seen some of my work on CounterPunch and Democracy Now and he wanted to know if I might offer some “expert testimony” as an anthropologist studying the militarization of American culture, testifying about the cultural madness that has taken over our society, causing us to think that nuclear weapons were something other than a threat to life as we know it, and obscuring the madness of mutually assured destruction.
Bill “Bix” Bischel at home in Tacoma, Washington.
At the end of our meeting, I told Bix that I was willing to testify on his behalf, but that I was a little worried that if I said the wrong thing, or gave testimony that was not well received, I might be responsible for him and his co-defendants being found guilty and sent to prison. He smiled and told me not to worry about that, that I’d do just fine. But his friend went further, telling me I shouldn’t worry: Bix wanted to go to jail. In the end, the Judge did not allow Bix the pleasure of a necessity defense and the parading witnesses speaking about our militarized political economy (Bix had arranged for former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, and others to also testify), the judge also denied Bix and his codefendants the jail time he’d desired. But this introduction to Bix led me to connect some students to his world, and to speak at several regional events he organized.
A year and a half ago, I drove a class of my first year seminar college students up to visit Bix at the Guadalupe House, hoping to do some volunteer work in his garden or around his home–but he instead fed us cookies and talked to the students about his work and life. Bix told us about the stories represented on the murals on the side of the home where he and other members of the Catholic Worker community lived–stories about regional tragic-heroes Chief Joseph and Chief Leschi. He told my students about people living in Guadalupe House, stories that put faces on the structural evils of our society, and that gave shape to his own call of serving the poor; his message stressed the importance of this charge, regardless of one’s religious beliefs or lack of beliefs.
My favorite moment of the trip was when we were sitting inside his home. Looking out the window at some of the upscale condos encroaching on the Hilltop neighborhood, I asked Bix if he was worried that the Catholic Worker enclave would eventually get crowded out with the coming gentrification. His face brightened has he said, “Don’t worry, we do our part in keeping property values down!”
And now Bix is gone, and we have lost our local saint. I know little of how beatification is achieved, but would hope St. Bix’s miracle might be recognized in his unflinching love of caring for the poor with a simplicity and honesty that was itself a miracle in a society so marked by predatory capitalism that it trains us all to see a certain logic in punishing or marginalizing behaviors of compassion and caring. Bix saw others, regardless of status, as brothers and sisters—a real miracle in a society increasingly criminalizing compassion.
David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.