Peace Through Poverty
The simply rich life of Charles Gray
BY KERA ABRAHAM
Most people spend their lives trying to gain wealth. Charles Gray spent his trying to get rid of it. He went from involuntarily poor to unwittingly wealthy to voluntarily, joyously, rebelliously poor. In his last decade he took up a simple middle class life, and on July 8 he died of bone cancer at his home in northwest Eugene at age 81.
|Courtesy Sylvia Hart.|
Gray was a peace and social justice activist, an accredited political sociologist and amateur statistician, a husband three times over and a great-grandfather. But he was most widely known for living 18 years on less than $100 per month — an amount he figured every human could consume to sustain an economically fair, environmentally sane planet.
"He proved that it could be done, and he did it with grace," said Gray's good friend Karen Irmsher. "He always had pretty things around. He would take a leaf he found on the ground and put it under glass. You never got the feeling that he felt in any way impoverished by what he was doing; in fact, he felt enriched. He felt freed."
Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography first prompted a 16-year-old Gray, the son of poor apolitical Methodists, to declare himself a pacifist. He promptly joined an interfaith peace ministry, and when he was drafted for World War II a few years later, he refused duty as a conscientious objector. But Gray and his girlfriend, Leslie Brockelbank, later made their own contribution to the peace effort while they attended the UO, organizing a food drive for hungry Europeans.
Gray married Brockelbank at the tender age of 20, and on their wedding night, the bride informed the groom that she had inherited about a million dollars. "I was very innocent," Gray said with a mischievous grin, lying in bed at home about a week before his death. "I didn't realize that my wife had a lot of money."
Rather than rejoice at his good luck, Gray felt burdened by the wealth. He had begun to suspect that the uneven distribution of money was at the root of all injustice, and as the years went by he struggled for a way to justify his own comfort.
In the mid-1940s the couple relocated to Denver, where Gray finished his bachelor's degree in political science at the University of Colorado. He also studied carpentry, part of what he called an effort to "mix work with my hands with work with my head."
As his two children, Howard and Mary Jane, grew up, Gray dug his hands into the peace and civil rights movements. These were the dark days of the McCarthy era, when Gray came to define pacifism on economic and social as well as physical terms. Reading the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., he was deeply moved by the connections between war, violence and racism. He joined the World Federalists, who called for a United Nations strong enough to disarm the world's superpowers, and Gray and his brother-in-law founded Colorado's first chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Gray also hooked up with the Congress of Racial Equality and protested in Denver-area restaurants and theaters with a racially integrated activist group. In the mid-'50s, with financing from his wife, Gray helped build homes in white neighborhoods and deliberately sold them to African American and Hispanic families — "causing a few uproars," he remembered with a chuckle.
When the Cold War arms race kicked into high gear around 1960, Gray, then 35, took leadership roles in demonstrations against missile bases and nuclear plants, calling for disarmament. He also resumed studying at the University of Colorado, where he would earn a Ph.D. in sociology.
In 1963, as the build-up to the Vietnam War escalated, Gray and his family took off by sailboat and landed in New Zealand, remaining there for more than three years. The parents returned to Eugene in 1966, but their children, by then young adults, stayed with the Kiwis. "That was a sad thing for everybody," Irmsher recalled.
Being an empty-nester only made Gray more radical. In the late '60s he linked up with several local peace organizations and threw himself into the Vietnam War protests. He began refusing the federal taxes that, according to his calculations, contributed to war. To illustrate his point, in 1970 he painted a bar graph of the federal budget on a three-block stretch of the UO campus from the bookstore to Johnson Hall. The military spending was the longest bar, far surpassing the money allocated to human needs like welfare and education.
Gray and Brockelbank converted their home into an office for activism. Shunning insurance companies, they created the Friend in Need fund, a collective savings account that a small group of contributing members could draw from in emergencies. They also founded the Energy Conservation Organization to organize against proposed nuclear power plants in Oregon.
Gray and his friend Peter Bergel bonded over their horror at nuclear proliferation, and together they hatched a political comedy street theater troupe called "Doctor Atomic's World Famous Medicine Show and Lending Library." They toured Oregon in a VW van, educating the masses and campaigning against nuclear power construction in Oregon. The effort may have had some effect: Of the dozen-odd nuclear power plants proposed for the state, only one was ever built, and that was decommissioned after 16 years. "We take full credit, of course," Bergel joked.
|Gray at the WTO protests in Seattle, 1999.|
The IRS eventually came looking for those missing war taxes, threatening to seize Gray and Brockelbank's small coastal hotel. The couple reluctantly settled, paying interest and penalties — a hefty chunk, given Brocklebank's inheritance. Gray felt like he'd just donated to the war chest. "We decided that probably the most effective way to avoid the tax burden was to reduce our income," he said.
So in 1976 Gray and Brockelbank co-founded the McKenzie River Gathering, a nonprofit philanthropy organization dedicated to funding nonviolent social change efforts in the Northwest, using half of Brockelbank's fortune — about $500,000 — as seed money. "That was an attempt to liberate ourselves from our wealth," Gray said. "It was the only way to live nonviolently."
Today, the MRG celebrates its thirtieth anniversary and a total of $9.5 million in grants.
Even after halving his bank account, Gray was still uncomfortable with his comfort. "If you live on more than your fair share of the world's wealth, you're likely to be exploiting somebody to get there," he reckoned. He wanted to live at a consumption level closer to the world's poor majority.
He calculated what he felt was an environmentally and socially sustainable level of world consumption and divided it by the world's population to come up with a World Equity Budget (WEB) — less than $75 per month in 1977. Gray committed to living on that amount, periodically adjusted for inflation and other factors, at age 52, when may of his peers were plumping up their retirement accounts.
His wife would not join him. Brockelbank declined an interview, but according to Gray's writings, she preferred a philanthropic approach, arguing that where you spend your money is more important than how much you spend. "We couldn't come to agreement on our philosophy, and we separated," Gray said. "That was the hardest part of living on my equal share."
He moved into a 7 by 12-foot trailer and, for the most part, stopped buying stuff. He did carpentry, gardening and other odd jobs about 50 hours a month at a rate of $1 to $2 an hour, giving him more time to dedicate to activism.
For the next 18 years Gray remained on the WEB, which increased to about $100 per month by the late 1990s. He approached it like a game of willpower, whittling his expenses down, counting every penny and taking joy in his own frugality. In the first few years, in Eugene, he managed to reduce his expenses to $21 to $32 per month. Then he moved to Portland and pushed them even lower, reaching an all-time low of $13.16 in 1979.
"The WEB was my special thing, and I did it with pleasure, almost a vengeance," he wrote in a 1989 essay published in Aisling magazine. "I enjoyed keeping the graph of my expenditures and seeing the line getting ever closer to zero."
But not even that freed Gray's conscience. For awhile in the '80s, he tried applying a dozen social-ecological criteria to every purchase he made. He later began working charity into his tiny WEB budget, donating 10 to 20 percent to social justice causes as "reparation payments to the victims of the Empire and to movements for social change," as he wrote in a 1989 book about his life on the WEB, Toward a Non-Violent Economics.
Some of his acquaintances may have thought Gray had gone off the deep end, but his good friends supported him. "Most of us look at what we should be doing and what we are doing, and they're worlds apart," said Gray's good friend Pam Fitzpatrick. "His view of what he should be doing and what he was doing was closer. He was living the change that he wanted to see."
Gray learned to survive on next to nothing. He gardened, plucked fruit from neighbors' trees and gleefully took to Dumpster diving, taking advantage of what he called the "Great American Garbage Can." He shunned the corporate health care industry, suggesting that simple living — bike riding, relaxing, letting go of the fear of death — will keep most people healthy most of the time. He denied himself coffee and chocolate, which he loved, except when friends offered it to him. He squirreled a savings out of his WEB for special things, like a dinner out with friends and even a trip to New Zealand to visit his kids.
He swore off cars and pledged his allegiance to the bicycle. When he moved from Portland back to Eugene in spring 1980, at age 55, he reluctantly let Brockelbank shuttle half of his possessions in her car and hauled the other 90 pounds 120 miles on his bike trailer. When someone later stole Gray's bike, he pulled a little cash from the Friend in Need fund, gathered used parts, and built a new one with help from the folks at Eugene's Center for Appropriate Transportation.
Gray knew that his lifestyle ran counter to the American way of life, but he desperately wanted others to see the joy in his poverty, the community blossoming from it, and join him on the WEB. If everyone did it, he told me, "Gracious, that would be wonderful. It would all be green. There would still be fish in the sea; there would be trees on the mountains."
Only one person took that leap with him. Gray had just spent a cold and lonely winter in a church's barn in Portland when he met Dorothy Granada, a nurse who would become his second wife, in 1980. "She and I hit it off because we both felt that the nuclear arms race would destroy humanity," Gray said.
Granada gave up her three-bedroom Portland home, her car and her well-paying job to adopt the WEB. Gray, for his part, gave up a decade of polygamy — officially announced when he joined the sexual revolution in 1971 — "for pragmatic reasons," as he wrote in a timeline of his activism. The two moved to Eugene together and took up residence in a small room off River Road, riding their bikes everywhere. They later built a little cottage, which a friend dubbed "The Condo-Minimum," with scrap lumber and recycled materials, for a total cost of $100.27. Gray remembered those as happy days. "The WEB meant a liberation of time because we needed so much less to sustain ourselves," he said.
Gray and Granada funneled that time into their peace work. On August 6, 1983 — the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima — the couple and nine others began a hunger fast to stop nuclear proliferation. Gray went without food for 40 days and Granada for 38, drinking only water. "That almost took us off the planet," Gray said.
But just as the activists were near the point of death, the Soviet Union shot down a U.S. plane that had strayed off-course. That threw off the disarmament movement, and the activists ate. Gray would continue to occasionally starve himself for various causes until his death.
In 1985, at age 60, Gray went to post-revolution Nicaragua with Granada to act as a witness, protector and liaison for victims of the Contras. They stayed in a refugee community for six months, doing public health and carpentry work as volunteers for Witness for Peace. Four years later they returned for three more years.
"I felt a sense of community in Central America, even with all the death squads and the butchery," Gray said, his eyes misting. "It was so inspiring what [the Sandanistas] did early on. But then the Contras would march right in with machine guns. They destroyed schools and clinics that the Sandanistas had built after the revolution."
On the dusty streets of a refugee camp Gray met Paul Dix, a photographer who was documenting the atrocities of the Contras during the Reagan era. Between trips to Nicaragua, Gray toured the U.S. with an exhibit of Dix's photos and Nicaraguan poetry. "He's kind of my guru," Dix said of Gray. "There was no ego involved with his work at all. He believed in a more just society, and that's what he practiced."
Back in Eugene in 1992, separated from Granada, Gray began working with the Committee in Solidarity with the Central American People. He joined the steering committee for Amigos de los Sobrevivientes, a therapy center for torture survivors, and helped organize weekly vigils demanding closure of the School of the Americas, the U.S. training grounds for brutal Latin American military leaders. He also started serving on the environmental and social concerns committee of the Eugene Friends Meeting.
|Sylvia Hart and Charles Gray. Courtesy Sylvia Hart.|
There he met his third wife, a fiery activist named Sylvia Hart, and they married in 1997. But Hart was a philanthropist, not an ascetic like Gray, and they hit an impasse: Either she had to move into his travel trailer or he had to move into her house. The strife was reminiscent of Gray's split with Brockelbank — but this time he caved, moving into her modest northwest Eugene home and getting off the WEB after 18 years.
"She dragged me kicking and screaming back into the middle class," he joked. "But I've still maintained my preference for simple living."
Hart, sitting beside Gray's bed, had heard that before. "Of course that's very Gandhi," she said. "Charles and I differ on this."
"Sylvia is very much a philanthropist," Gray explained. "In order to be together, we are always making compromises."
Hart gave a tight smile and excused herself from the room.
She later clarified: "He has been all his life kind of a public man, and his public image was so entirely about the WEB and giving away a fortune and simple living. It was all true, it was all genuine, and it's wonderful. He's done a great deal. But he also had many years of middle to upper class living. He knew about property and investments. I view him a little differently because he was my husband and partner."
Was it tough living with such a hard-liner? "He had a wonderful combination of strength and sweetness, and he evolved a lot as he grew older," Hart replied. "We just about never fought. We negotiated."
Even after re-entering the middle class in his seventies, Gray kept up his work as an activist, biking most everywhere he went. As a member of the Homeless Action Committee, he led campaigns to end the city's camping ban and to save existing affordable housing. He joined EarthFirst! protest vigils at oil company corporate offices and anti-logging protests at Warner Creek. He gave presentations on the WEB and participated in civil disobedience at the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. With Hart he worked for farmworker rights, and together they joined the Zapatista Caravan from Chiapas to Mexico City in 2001, when he was 76.
As Gray lay in bed, his loved ones buzzing in and out of the room, I asked him how he managed to live such an austere life without judging those around him. "I feel that people have to find their own path," he replied. "I get angry about the maldistribution of the world's wealth, but I try to accept people where they are. Maybe they'll move in a new direction.
"I don't envy you," he added — referring, I think, to my X-Y generation. "I see humanity in a very dark place. Because of the power of the corporations and the power of the media, I see us rapidly destroying this planet that is a very beautiful place.
"What a joke the Creator played on us, huh? Humanity's gifts come with a price, and take what we can get is what we've been doing. Greed, violence, a high-consumption lifestyle: I just think it's all a crock. I despair along with the rest of us. I'm not very optimistic, but that doesn't mean it's all over. It's not that people aren't fighting back, but it's an uphill battle." He spoke slowly, focusing through the morphine.
"I feel that there's a lot more to life than our bodies, and I think that the thing that is eternal is our love for each other," he continued. "Even in the most awful situations, you see this wonderful love — people rushing out in to the battlefield and saving each other. That's the other side. That's what holds us together — people's love for each other, people's mutual aid. I see hope in the small things; I find joy just sitting on a riverbank. As I face my own death from bone cancer, I try to focus on the love that's all around me.
"Love is eternal. Guns, they just rust."