This was written in a hurry, pouring out of me before we ended 2008. I have not edited it beyond a cursory look or two. Please accept as is...
I met the Reverend James Bevel in a nondescript, drafty room owned by a vegan restaurant on the south side of Chicago, a large space used for catering events. Reverend Bevel was a slight, slim man, with a graying beard, yarmulke-like cap and black Nehru-style jacket and slacks. This, I would come to know, was his standard uniform. He had an elegant, almost regal bearing, and as he greeted me that day, I had a hard time meeting his eyes, which were steely and intense. He did not smile as we met: this was serious business to him, the meeting of people.
It’s a little complicated how we came to know one another, but the purpose was simple and very ambitious: we aimed to build a vegan movement based on the same principles of Gandhian non-violent resistance as was at the foundation of the civil rights movement. Reverend Bevel had a group of activists he worked with on the south side of Chicago, all African American, nearly all women, and the idea was to bring his group together with my group of mostly Caucasian vegan activists. That day at the restaurant, many of us met for the first time: I met his daughter, who must have been around four at the time, his peaceful, gentle and much younger wife, Erica, a fiery and articulate associate named Valencia, another attractive young woman who was deeply dedicated to Reverend Bevel, among others. One common denominator of all “his” people – and we never did figure out a name for this group, so my husband and I referred to them as Bevel’s flock or group or acolytes – in addition to their race, was that they were all deeply religious people.
I was familiar with Reverend Bevel for some time before we met. I had read David Halbertstam’s excellent book, The Children, an exhaustive history of the civil rights movement, and James Bevel was stitched throughout, from the beginning until the end. By all accounts, he was a frustrating, difficult man to work with: headstrong beyond reason, he would remain steadfast in his views and behavior, no matter how emphatically or frequently he was asked to change. Despite his refusal to “play nice with others” his brilliance as a strategist was undeniable and he was respected as a, if not the, chief architect of the movement. His name is not better known for a few reasons, part of which is due to his divisive nature, which turned people away, and the politics of personality. Dr. King had a much more agreeable demeanor.
As a strategist, though, Reverend Bevel was unparalleled. It was his idea, over Dr. King’s reservations, to put children in the frontlines, specifically using this to dramatic effect in Birmingham, Alabama, where he organized children to march to city hall, bringing attention to segregation in a much more resonant way than it would have been with adults in their place. The public saw the excessive use of force used against the peaceful children – attack dogs and spraying hoses – and many who were sitting on the fence couldn’t help but be moved. This was one of the first examples of using the relatively new television medium to sway public opinion on a social justice issue, and he did so brilliantly. He also organized the march from Selma to Montgomery after a young civil rights activist was killed by Alabama state troopers, and the violence that was unleashed against the marchers ultimately helped to turn the tide: then-President Lyndon Johnson insisted that the Voting Rights Act be passed by Congress and it was. Reverend Bevel worked alongside Dr. King as his equal, and he was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Director of Direct Action and Nonviolent Education. Despite the reputation that preceded him – as a sex addict (he is rumored to have fathered between sixteen to nineteen children), as a loose canon – given what I knew about Reverend Bevel from The Children, I couldn’t wait to meet the man.
That first day at the vegan restaurant, he gave a presentation to our group, hinting at his skills as an incendiary orator, and he laid out his philosophy about what he felt had led the world astray: he drew a box on a sheet of paper with the letter F on each corner, arrows, leading from one to the next. To him, the root of every human-created problem on earth was what he called the “Four F’s”: Fornicating, Flesh-eating, Fighting and Fantasy-telling. To Reverend Bevel, if you engaged in one of these F’s, you set an inevitable chain-reaction in motion, leading to self-debasement, disengagement and violence. Fornication (which, by his definition, meant sexual relations for reasons other than procreation) led to flesh-eating and on and on, an endless cycle of depraved behaviors, a creating of hell on earth. As he described the “Four F’s”, I had a most bizarre cognitive dissonance: on the one hand, I was entirely unconvinced of his point-of-view and frightened by his fundamentalist convictions; on the other hand, I couldn’t stop listening. I was enthralled. Afterwards, as people were packing up to leave, he walked over to me and asked me point-blank about my faith. I blinked a few times. My faith? Yes, he said impatiently, what is your religion? Well, I was raised as a Jew, I told him, but now I’m more of a pagan. A what? He looked at me disapprovingly, those dark eyes appraising me. A pagan, I repeated. He nodded his head slowly and walked away. Later, John explained to me that to a fundamentalist, paganism means something very different than to a nature-loving feminist. I felt very naïve to not have anticipated this.
Despite this gaffe, we agreed to start meeting to try to get our vegan movement off the ground, my group of assorted, atheistic activists, and his group of very devout community organizers. We met every Friday night for a year at a gym near Greektown, discussing movement and the history of democracy and what it means to be a citizen in the mirrored aerobics room, plates of food on the long table in front of us.
Reverend Bevel and his flock would appear with giant rectangular pans bursting with food, freshly prepared: seitan made from scratch, casseroles, layer cakes. There was always an abundance of food. Early on, I said something to Erica, Reverend Bevel’s wife, staggered by the sheer amount of preparation that must have gone into their offering, just one meal of the week. Well, she said with a subtle smile, we do like to eat. (This left a lasting impression on me: Ever since this year of meeting with Reverend Bevel and the others, I always prepare way more food than I figure that we’ll need at a potluck. Social gatherings around food with meager offerings, bowls barely filled, always are a little depressing: let the platters runneth over.)
The year we met Reverend Bevel, which John and I came to call Our Year Of Potlucks (in addition to this group, which we came to call The Roots of Peace, we had a monthly EarthSave Chicago vegan potluck), was something that had my closest friends scratching their heads. How could I, an avowed feminist, a rejecter of fundamentalist values, willingly choose to spend time with people who looked to the Old Testament for moral guidance? I couldn’t explain it then and I am no closer to understanding it now. At times, I worried that I was being drawn into a cult; Reverend Bevel told us matter-of-factly that he wanted us to adopt their way of living (in other words, embrace the “Four F’s”). As he said quite solemnly to John, he had never had a white brother and he very much wanted one. This didn’t happen – we could never, ever make the sort of leap of faith he required – but we enjoyed the group for what it was: an opportunity to learn from someone who was a master at building movement, who understood how dynamic and fascinating it is to dig complex networks of democratic channels into communities, to be an engaged citizen. As the year progressed, our group whittled down to a core of five or six of us: many of the activist friends I brought along, though initially fascinated, eventually found Reverend Bevel’s dogmatic proselytizing to be an insurmountable obstacle to accept, and they understandably jumped ship. Once it became clear that John and I were not going to adopt his principles and become acolytes, Reverend Bevel lost interest in pursuing us. We parted amicably: he had other uses of his time, others to reach, more embracing of his views, and we were ready to move on as well. We saw Reverend Bevel and his group a few more times before they moved from Chicago to a farming community in the south, and it was always warm and friendly. The last time I saw Reverend Bevel, fittingly, it was at a crowded, boisterous potluck. He walked up to me and told me, with almost a childlike vulnerability and shyness, that he loved me. I told him that I loved him back.
I saw flickers of his famous temper, coupled with his vulnerability, throughout our time together. One time in particular, he became incensed at being interrupted by someone and jumped to the conclusion that the person was saying something that he was not. No matter. Once he was ignited, he just couldn’t undo it, and the string of expletives that issued from his mouth – almost like a Satanic possession had occurred for two terrifying minutes straight – shocked me, even as someone who is hardly traumatized by a curse word or two. But it was something that he did when he finally calmed down – the women in his group remained unfazed, reassuring the rest of us in soothing tones that this was merely Reverend Bevel speaking his truth – that made an impression on me: he looked at me with an expression full of shame and embarrassment, his head lowered, eyes fearful, almost like a child afraid of being punished. I had seen that look before, and I recognized it. It was the same way my father would look after one of his drunken tirades, after yet another violent transgression against me, against my family. Reverend Bevel, in his own way, was like my father. He and my father both had demons they struggled with their whole lives. Both aspired to overcome these demons, and both were rendered powerless to do so. I cannot know why someone like Reverend Bevel – someone who was so charismatic and brilliant – was unable to beat his demons.
Reverend Bevel passed away on December 19, 2008 of pancreatic cancer. I got a simple message from Erica that he has passed, that he was now, as she put it, an ancestor. In the two or more years leading up to his death, he was being criminally pursued by one of his daughters for sexually abusing her: the statute of limitations had not worn out. According to this daughter, there were other daughters with similar stories, and she was mainly pursuing this because she was concerned for James and Erica’s young daughter, now entering the age where he had begun his incestuous behavior with her, which he considered to be part of her “religious education.” He was convicted of incest and was granted an appeal bond; he died shortly after.
On hearing that Reverend Bevel was up on criminal charges for incest, I have to say that I was not shocked. Without going too much into it, I should just say that he reminded me of my father for a reason. Because I can well imagine the shattering horror that is incest, and because I am at my core a feminist, it makes it very hard for me to not write Reverend Bevel off as a depraved, manipulative, cruel monster. It’s very tempting and it’s understandable why someone would do this. That aspect of him is part of the picture, an essential part of the picture, but it’s not the whole one. Even sexual predators have three dimensions.
The memories of Reverend Bevel I will cherish are many: knowing him enriched me, made me a more committed, thoughtful person, and I think that I gave him back this gift. I will remember singing with him and our group after Friday night meetings, as it was Reverend Bevel’s conviction that all movements needed song, so John brought his guitar and sheet music. He had a beautiful, resonant singing voice, and he clearly relished creating music. I will remember his smile, his easy laughter, once he let his guard down. I will remember his depth as he spoke, his sense of humor, his wisdom. I will remember how dynamic it felt for a time when we were all together, rolling up our sleeves to dig into what we saw as our work: the work of compassion, using the model of Gandhi and King. We were invigorated by the work and each other.
So despite his deep flaws and misdeeds, I will continue to love Reverend Bevel. Sometimes you can’t explain why you love someone, and I wrote this whole piece trying to explore that very question, coming to the conclusion that sometimes you just do. In loving him, I have forgiven him. In forgiving him, I have forgiven my father. In forgiving my father, I am expanding myself. In expanding myself, I am a better person.
I am grateful to Reverend Bevel for making me a better person. I hope that he has found peace, and I hope this for his children as well.