Jim Harney, 1940-2008

Jim Harney, 1940-2008

Guided by the principles of liberation theology, he devoted his life to the pursuit of peace and social justice.


On December 26, 2008, the world lost a global citizen. Jim Harney was a self-described “townie” from the Cambridge-Somerville line north of Boston, son of a longshoreman who liked Father Coughlin. He died at home in Bangor, Maine, where he had lived for nineteen years. In between, he travelled the physical world and the moral universe–learning, teaching and, most importantly, bearing witness to the contradictions of our time.

Groomed for the priesthood, Jim was ordained after Vatican II, a time of change in the church and the world. By May 1968, he was standing in a public square in Milwaukee around a bonfire of 10,000 draft files. Jim and the thirteen other believers who took their moral opposition to the Vietnam War beyond symbolic protest became the Milwaukee 14. Jim served eighteen months in federal prison, much of it in solitary.

After prison, Jim left the priesthood but maintained the moral calling. A trip to the Dominican Republic in 1973 led to a career as a photojournalist: on returning to the United States, his photos and stories drew attention among the Catholic left and beyond. Within a few years, he became fluent in Spanish, skilled in photography and immersed in the peoples movements of Central America.

Jim’s life-long mission to experience, understand and communicate the stories of those at the bottom of the planet’s economic system took him to many places: Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Iraq and Haiti. He connected oppression in the North and the South, spending time in Detroit, West Virginia and far northern Maine. But Central America, especially El Salvador, remained at the heart of his work.

Jim resonated with Archbishop Oscar Romero’s stand in San Salvador against the US-backed military regime. From 1977 on, Jim was never far from El Salvador. He photographed the massacre at Romero’s funeral. He lived with rural resistance communities, sometimes in flight and sometimes under aerial attack. He always returned inspired and humbled. He shared his experiences with passion, eloquence and increasingly professional images. He played a big part in building a domestic movement against US intervention and in solidarity with the peoples of Central America.

Following the tenets of liberation theology, he began to more deeply understand and preach the systemic roots of the violation he witnessed. He was in Seattle in 1999 to support and document the uprising against the World Trade Organization. His time in Argentina following that country’s economic collapse accelerated his study of international finance. Jim was the first person we know who predicted our current meltdown.

Each trip led to many slide presentations and discussions. In auditoriums, classrooms, or kitchens, Jim’s artistic, technical and facilitation skills grew. People on his journeys trusted him with their photographic images, and people seeing those images would open their hearts, sharing their deepest questions, thoughts and feelings.

Jim’s last subject, emigration, took him to the northern and southern borders of Mexico, where neoliberal economic policies produce a brutal forced migration. After a diagnosis of terminal cancer, he decided to spend his final months on a well-publicized “Walk in Solidarity With the Undocumented.” Starting in Boston, he walked to Warwick, Rhode Island, stopping in New Bedford, site of the region’s largest immigration raid, speaking in churches, schools, homes, and in front of a prison holding undocumented immigrants.

He died surrounded by family and community, including members of Posibilidad, the organization he helped create. His last post to the Posibilidad web site, explaining the “financial global tsunami” concluded:

“We need to speak about it in such a way that folks we know in our communities can begin to story tell about it in their daily lives, articulate how financial instruments now in vogue do dirt to the poor; then organize so that we get to the structural violence and sin that favors capital over labor, wealth accumulators over wage earners, things over life.”

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