As the staff person who organized its campaigns, it’s fitting that Gabriel McMorland is taking the helm of the Thomas Merton Center.
Forty-five years after its modest start in a South Side storefront, the Merton Center in Garfield remains relevant because of its campaigns for social justice, says outgoing executive director Tony Lodico, who is leaving his hometown to follow his partner to Chicago, where she took a job.
“Our main organizer has stepped up,” Lodico says of McMorland. “What makes us relevant, primarily, are our campaigns, whether we’re combatting Islamophobia or the things we’re doing with immigration, such as the Keep Martin Esquivel-Hernandez Home Campaign,” he says. He’s referring to the fight to allow Hernandez, 36, an undocumented immigrant construction worker, to remain in Pittsburgh with his family.
McMorland, who also has managed the Merton Center’s intern program, oversaw recent campaigns for affordable housing, public transit access, and encouraging the city to divest from fossil fuels. His succession as executive director became official at the center’s annual fundraiser on June 26.
“This is my office, but I don’t spend much time in it,” he tells a visitor on a recent afternoon in Garfield after touring the center’s East End Community Thrift shop a few doors down on Penn Avenue. “I really want to promote awareness of the shop—let more people know about it,” he says. “There’s a real need for this.”
Though it has ups and downs with membership and finances, the Merton Center remains a central hub for people committed to peace, human rights and social justice. A five-year strategic plan for the center expires this year, though its list of strategic initiatives likely will continue. There’s still a need to build membership, stabilize finances, improve the center’s organizational capacity, and develop education, training and networking resources.
As a coalition-building organization, the center encourages people to learn and work together in the pursuit of peace and justice. Merton, a Trappist monk and social activist from a monastery in Kentucky, wrote more than 70 books on peace, justice, spirituality and pacifism before his death in 1968.
New members on the Merton Center board have helped it to reach one goal of building a strong, diverse governing board. Its three-member staff includes long-time office and project organizer Sister Mary Clare Donnelly, and it is seeking someone to handle communications full time.
“There’s a perception gap,” Lodico says. “When I came here, I thought I was going to be the youngest person, in general, but many times at 35 or 36, I’ve been the oldest person. Sometimes it’s a lot different than people think. We definitely have long-term members and supporters, but there’s a young generation of folks working and leading at the center, and that’s our future.”
As a 501(c)(3), the center acts as a fiscal umbrella for many smaller organizations that promote its mission of peace, environmental justice and economic justice, say Lodico and McMorland. Many of the projects the center takes on are labors of love for those who volunteer.
“It works well for small groups that don’t want to do their own finances or just want a place to meet,” says Lodico. “Some groups with more activism and social awareness, a lot of fiscal sponsors out there are afraid of picking that up. These projects want to be under a nonprofit designation . . . that allows for people’s donations to them to be tax deductible, or for them to seek foundation funds.”
Molly Rush, who co-founded the Merton Center in 1972 with Larry Kessler as a protest of the Vietnam War, recalls the years of long campaigns against nuclear disarmament and peaceful demonstrations against hunger, racism, poverty, apartheid, and exploitation of workers.
In the 1980s, when Rockwell and Westinghouse were among the Downtown corporations, a small group of eight or 10 committed people protested weekly outside the corporate offices with leaflets denouncing nuclear weapons and war.
“For 10 years we were there, every week. We did civil disobedience, we did nonviolence training for it,” she says. “We always told them when we were coming. We were arrested a number of times, but the activities were always based on nonviolence—that idea of communication, dialogue, respecting the opponent but making it very clear where we stood.”
In some ways, time hasn’t changed the Merton Center, says Rush. It still draws new people—young people seeking to change the world—and relies on grassroots funding from its members, rather than big grants from funders.
“People say, ‘Oh yeah, just another organization,’ but I think we’re unique,” Rush says. “We support so much and promote other organizations when they come to us. I don’t know anyone in the city who duplicates what we’re doing.
“Issues come and go, but sometimes they continue—racism, peace, opposing wars and militarism.”