The Thomas Merton Center is about to lose its entire full-time staff -- and some fear it's in danger of losing its way as well.
The Garfield-based group has focused on peace and social-justice issues for 38 years. In that time, it has led countless demonstrations, and most recently helped spearhead protests against the international G-20 summit in September. But the center has fallen on hard times. April 16 will be the last day for Communications Director Melissa Minnich, Administrative Assistant Miles Dinnen and Leah Samuel, who edits the Center's quarterly newsletter, The New People. All began working there in 2008.
Merton Center board president Michael Drohan says the move was a financial decision. He hopes the organization will be able to "recall the staff after a period of restructuring and greater financial stability. The staff provided a great service."
Even so, the center was hurting. Drohan reports that the Center faces a $14,000 deficit by May without taking any action.
In its last available IRS filings -- which cover the year 2008 -- the Merton Center reported revenue of $326,941 and expenses of $303,438. Its balance sheet has been crippled by problems with its three-story headquarters at 5125 Penn Ave., which the Center purchased a quarter-century ago.
Drohan says the heating costs alone ran to $1,800 a month.
"The building was just pulling the organization down," says board member Charles McCollester, a recently retired labor historian who is among the center's newest board members. "The electrical system is really dangerous and there are all kinds of leaks."
The organization left its own building in January, and has been renting a structure half the size at 5129 Penn, while trying to sell the former headquarters.
To the Merton Center's departing staff, though, the layoffs represent a self-defeating move.
"If you get rid of the staff right now ... it's just letting all of that [momentum/organizing] go," says Minnich. "Some folks who are on the board, they are so focused on money, they are missing the point of what's out there and what's happening out there." As for the financial straits, she says, "At least to me, you did this to yourself -- and the staff gets to pay for it."
But more than money is at issue, staffers say. To them, the Merton Center is caught between a generational rift, concerns about gentrification and disagreements about the role of civil disobedience in the 21st century.
"I think we don't really understand the newer activists as well as we could," says Leah Samuel, who describes herself as middle-aged. "They're not going to be like we were. I don't know that today's young activist cares that much about some dead white monk" -- the Trappist Thomas Merton.
"There's some tough times ahead for the Merton Center," Samuel adds. Without the staff, "I'm afraid that the folks who are going to remain there will not be able to keep things going as well as we all hope they do."
"I don't know how many people have come to me and said, 'What happened to The Merton Center? I'm not giving money anymore,'" says Molly Rush, a veteran organizer who founded the center. "And I'm talking about radical folks who have been out there for years on the line."
Rush stepped down from the center in 2005, but returned to the board in November. Many former loyalists, however, have not come back: Rush says center membership has shrunk from 1,100 in 1999 to about 400 today. Members pay $45 a year (with discounts for low-income members).
Much of the problem, she says, stems from the increasingly contentious role of the anarchist Pittsburgh Organizing Group (POG).
Beginning in 2003, POG has joined with the Center for staging anti-war demonstrations and conferences. POG was one of the center's affiliates; like other like-minded groups, it has relied on the center for a mailing address and logistical support. Two POG members have even sat on the Center's 12- to 15-member board.
But unlike more traditional antiwar groups, POG does not pledge non-violence in its street actions -- and Rush says that put off some members who believed in non-violence. "I think we have to be sensitive not only to groups like POG but to long-term members," says Rush. But there "was no chance ... to discuss what TMC was about" at board meetings. It was just, "'We want a flat organization'" without a director setting policy.
Alex Bradley, a POG member who once volunteered and interned at the Center, maintains that just the opposite happened: "Based on my direct experience, the Center seems to have flourished most financially, and in its community involvement, during the years when people friendly to anarchists and their ideas ... were involved."
Bradley blames the Center's troubles on a "mismanaged power grab," in which Rush and others tried to assert control over an institution that was moving in a new direction. He dropped his own Center membership two years ago, "because I was fed up at the board's utter disregard for the participation of the general membership."
The dispute with POG boiled over this March, after the Merton Center moved into its new building. 5129 Penn is owned by the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, a community-development group that Bradley and others have criticized as an agent of gentrification in the area. In an open letter explaining the split, POG argued that "[t]he BGC works closely with the local police," and faulted it for participating in pre-G-20 meetings where police "talked about the need to tackle 'the anarchist problem.'" With the BGC as a landlord, the statement asserted, TMC could no longer be "a safe space in which diverse strands of social struggle can interact." (Rick Swartz, head of the BGC, disputes such allegations, saying they work with police to make sure their response to violence in the community is appropriate.)
But the statement also praised the Center for "help[ing] to build unity," and acknowledged it "has come under attack for listing us as an affiliate because of our refusal to condemn all instances of property destruction and because of our upholding the right to self-defense." It also noted a generation gap played a part: "Issues such as ageism ... have occasioned sometimes painful moments of growth on both sides."
"I'm wondering if the Center can survive," says Rush, who chokes up while discussing the group's future. "If the center isn't there, I hope to God something will replace it. ... I've never seen it like this in 38 years."