This Memorial Day weekend, activists will gather in remembrance of Blase Bonpane, a former Maryknoll priest turned peace activist. By the time of his death on April 8, just shy of his 90th birthday, Bonpane left behind a legacy of peacemaking, especially in war-torn Central America during the 1980’s and founded, alongside his wife Theresa, the Office of the Americas. That lifelong commitment to justice is set to be the focus of a public memorial in Bonpane’s honor on Sunday at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, a favored sanctuary among local leftists.
Born on April 24, 1929 to Italian immigrant parents, Bonpane’s family moved from Cleveland, Ohio to Los Angeles eight years later. Out west, he attended USC and played on the school’s football team. Bonpane left behind the Marine reserve to pursue a priestly life in 1950, a few months before the onset of the Korean War. The Maryknoll Order dispatched him to Guatemala in 1967 where his life changed forever.
“I do not intend to become accustomed to the poverty and destitution of these poor people,” Bonpane wrote in his journal that year. “I do not intend to become accustomed to their sickness, ignorance, to the constant injustices they receive. I do intend to do whatever I can to change these evils.”
That meant bearing witness to the U.S. government’s role in ravaging Guatemala and speaking out against it in a 1968 Washington Post opinion piece. The Maryknoll Order, sensitive to the Guatemalan regime’s claims that U.S. priests and nuns conspired to help communist rebels, expelled Bonpane.
Formally out of the priesthood, he returned to Los Angeles and began his post-church life of activism. In 1983, Bonpane helped found the Office of the Americas and earned a doctorate from UC Irvine a year later writing a dissertation on Liberation Theology and the Central American solidarity movement. Around that same time, he appeared on The Hot Seat With Wally George and denounced U.S. intervention in Grenada. What followed became OC media lore. George, the show’s combative conservative host, accosted a seated Bonpane and grabbed him by the shoulders.
“It was a little difficult for a long-standing boxer to not respond, but I thought that would be a terrible thing to do, so I looked at his desk, and I saw there was no one near it and that no one would be harmed, so I just flipped the desk over and walked out,” Bonpane recalled in Taylor Hamby’s 2013 Weekly cover story on the show. “After the security men ushered me to my car, I went home, and the following morning, Wally called and said, ‘Blase, we have a terrific thing going here. We can do this all over the country.’ I said, ‘Wally, you’re a charlatan, and there will be no further interviews, thank you.'”
George doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Bonpane, but the gospel-like toppling of his desk serves as a metaphor for the late activist’s half-century dedication to public media, hosting World Focus on KPFK-LA 90.7 FM faithfully on Sundays. He interviewed leftist luminaries and preached the virtues of peace over the airwaves. The North Hollywood station is where I first encountered Bonpane when working as a radio producer there a decade ago. Congenial, Bonpane always sported a white guayabera and a smile when greeting me with a resounding “San Román!”
That’s how I’ll always remember him.
Bonpane penned an autobiography Imagine No Religion in 2012 and returned to OC where he packed the Unitarian Universalist Church in Anaheim for a book talk. The tome recounted Bonpane’s remarkable life that saw him leading peace marches against U.S. involvement in El Salvador’s bloody civil war to fighting alongside Cesar Chavez for farm worker rights in California’s Central Valley.
In a Los Angeles Times obituary by former Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano, Martin Sheen, a longtime friend, called Bonpane one of his heroes and “irreplaceable.” For the Bonpane family, he was all of that and “dad,” too.
“Dad dedicated his life to the cause of peace and justice,” said Blase Martin Bonpane, his son, in a family statement. “He made real, significant change in our world, and he inspired many others to fight injustice at home and abroad. He was the cornerstone of our family, and we will miss him and honor him. But we will also be guided by the word he shared with us during a particularly painful emergency room moment: ‘Exultet,’ which is Latin for ‘let us rejoice.'”
And there’s good reason to rejoice. Blessed are the peacemakers, after all.
A Memorial for Blase at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 3300 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, Sun. 4 pm.