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Newsmaker: Tim Vining / Protest organizer is pro at what he does

Monday, January 27, 2003

By Lillian Thomas, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Tim Vining has been a deep thorn in the side of everyone from Pennsylvania friars to Baton Rouge, La., politicians, but people don't seem to hold it against him.

Tim Vining, executive director of the Thomas Merton Center, encourages fellow anti-war protesters during yesterday's rally in Oakland. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Now the executive director of the Thomas Merton Center and organizer of the weekend's Regional Convergence Against the War, he has been a Franciscan brother, a lawyer, a public transit activist, an openly gay teacher at a Catholic school for girls, and a host to the homeless.

In Baton Rouge, he aggravated then-Mayor Tom Ed McHugh enough to elicit some loud and angry words reported in news articles, but McHugh bears no grudge.

"He's a professional activist, obstructionist, whatever you want to call it," said McHugh, now head of the Louisiana Municipal Association. "I can tell you that we certainly had different viewpoints. But actually, for people with diverse views, we got along good. He was always a gentleman."

Vining's stubborn vision of change and extensive rabble-rousing credentials come packaged in a genial, well-spoken personality that brings people to his causes and keeps him on decent terms even with staunch opponents.

He is from Cutoff, a small town on Louisiana's biggest bayou. The youngest of five children -- "that's small for a Cajun family" -- he was bright from the start, always with an eye for how to get a rise out of people.

 
 

Name: Tim Vining

Date of birth: Dec. 16, 1963

Place of birth: Cutoff, La.

Residence: Bloomfield

In the news: Vining, executive director of the Thomas Merton Center in Garfield, organized the weekend's Regional Convergence Against the War.

Quote: "I want to make visible the experience of all people who are silenced, who are scapegoated, who are marginalized, who are oppressed."

Education: Bachelor's degree in philosophy, Louisiana State University, 1984; master's of divinity, Regis College, Toronto, 1990; Juris doctor, Louisiana State University School of Law, 1995.

Family: Partner Stephen Donahue.

   
 

When he was 5 or so, he would greet visitors by identifying himself by his mother's term for her unexpected fifth child: "Mommy's little diaphragm." He graduated from high school at 16 and started as a pre-law student at Louisiana State University, but switched to philosophy as he became more interested and involved in religious life.

He joined the Franciscan Friars of the Sacred Heart Province in Loretto, Cambria County, after college. During his time with the Franciscans, he studied theology at Regis College in Toronto, earning a master's degree in theology. At Regis, a Jesuit institution, he was the first non-Jesuit to win a scholarship that was based on academic merit.

"He was one of those gifted people," said the Rev. Joe Monahan, chaplain at Mercy Hospital, who studied with Vining in Toronto and spent several years with him in the Franciscan community in Loretto. "I think the community had big plans for him, to get a doctorate in theology in Europe."

Those plans foundered on Vining's questioning of some Catholic teachings and his feeling that life as a brother in the Franciscan community was not leading him to his vision of Franciscan ideals.

And, he fell in love -- with Stephen Donahue, a fellow Franciscan who had already decided to leave the community. Vining left before taking his final vows.

"I felt I needed to leave to live with integrity," Vining said, both in his personal life and in his spiritual life, where he sought a life more directly linked to the poor.

The Franciscans agreed.

"Was I kicked out or did I leave?" he called to Donahue in the Merton offices, where Donahue volunteers, mostly on public transit issues.

"You were kicked out," replied Donahue, a quiet and angular counterpoint to Vining's open-eyed, open-faced, open-voiced personality.

"Why did I get kicked out?"

"Just for being a pain."

"I was asking questions and challenging the community," Vining said. "I was a brother and I was going to get ordained. But I said until my sisters were ordained I didn't want to be part of it."

The departure was painful, Monahan said. "I think it challenged all of us. You try to live the life as best you can within the parameters. In a sense, we become kind of comfortable. It challenged my own commitment to community."

The three have remained friends.

Vining and Donahue went to Baton Rouge, where Vining began to study law at Louisiana State University. They opened their home to homeless men, housing 12 to 14 at a time in the tradition of the Catholic Worker Movement. They called it Solidarity House, and the residents would prepare dinners where there were often 30 people.

"They were living the Franciscan life that they weren't able to live while with us," said Monahan. "He walked the talk."

Vining also taught a social justice course at St. Joseph's Academy, a Catholic girls school.

When he finished law school, he practiced for about two years, mostly labor law and criminal defense. But Vining and his quest for justice were not a good fit with the criminal-justice system.

"You've got to change people, not win. I wasn't comfortable with the adversarial system -- that's why I made a terrible lawyer," he said.

He doesn't mind being adversarial in dealings with institutions and people he thinks are standing in the way of justice, though. In Baton Rouge, he was in the news over public-transportation issues -- he wanted the city to commit more resources to transit -- and tangled with McHugh on several occasions.

"He handles himself well. He is an attorney; he knows how to act in the political world," said McHugh.

For all his fluidity and organizing skills, Vining said he sees himself as a misfit. That experience of not fitting in, and of being pressured to change, is the bedrock of his activism, he said.

And though he's the only one of his kind in the family, he said he realized that the way his mother led her life formed his approach to his.

"My mom was the kind of woman who never cared what people thought of her. That's very typical Cajun. And she had no filtering system -- what was in her brain came out of her mouth. She worked at a pig grill -- that's a diner -- and she would meet all these women there. And when there was a woman who was unmarried and pregnant, she would bring her into our home," he said. "There were always one or two women with children living with us when I grew up. It just seemed natural.

"So it seemed natural when a homeless guy Steve and I had gotten to know in Baton Rouge was sick with bronchitis, that we'd invite him to sleep on our couch. He stayed for two years. I was never taught to fear people."

The Merton job brought Vining and Donahue back to Pennsylvania in 2001. Both of Vining's parents had died and they wanted to be close to Donahue's family in Loretto.

The 39-year-old activist thinks he's found a home at the Garfield center for peace and social justice, where he and his vision are embraced.

"I was on the personnel committee at the Merton Center," said Pete Shell, a longtime activist who is vice president of the center's board. "I got to know him during the search, and he was by far the best candidate. He has experience doing organizing, grass-roots work."

In the 17 months Vining has been there, the center has recruited more members, particularly younger members, and increased its visibility, Shell said.

"I think he gets along well with people. He's helped revitalize the center. He's very energetic, I've found," Shell said. "We certainly like to stir things up."


Lillian Thomas can be reached at lthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3566.

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