photo by Tim Mantoani
To properly trace the life path of Father Bill Headley, C.S.Sp., Ph.D., it would be best to have a globe at hand. The wide-ranging career of the founding dean of USD’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies has led him to work in more than 80 countries toward peace and justice, always seeking collaboration and practical solutions to complicated issues. It’s been a journey with a decidedly circuitous route.
Born in Philadelphia, Headley felt called to the priesthood as a high school seminarian; after ordination, he hoped to be assigned to Africa. “But I ended up in a parish in Charleston, South Carolina,” he recalls. “It was 1964, an important moment in the desegregation era. Charleston is, of course, in the deep South, and the city had great racial tension.
It was early in my priesthood, and the justice work in Charleston was formative.”
After earning a number of graduate degrees — including a pair of master’s degrees in counseling and sociology and a doctorate from New York University in sociology — Headley again yearned to work overseas, and thought that spending a year at Harvard as a visiting scholar studying International Aid might help him achieve that goal. No such luck. “They said I was over-qualified for the kinds of work they had at that time,” he says ruefully.
But that setback led him to partner with the Maryknoll missionary group to establish a research and planning office, and ultimately to branch out on a global scale. “My work there set the tone for what I would do later — work intensively in a number of places for relatively short periods of time. Preparing research projects in different parts of the world gave me my first real exposure to overseas work.”
As a result of a gathering of his order in Pittsburgh, he was asked to return to the states from a research project in Hong Kong.
He was “somewhat reluctantly” elected as religious leader for the U.S. Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, a position which kept Headley in Pittsburgh for the next six years. When that obligation was completed, he received the customary privilege of choosing his next assignment.
“I chose Africa, working with refugees in close collaboration with the Jesuit Refugee Services,” he recalls. After a year there, he was bound for refugee sites in Cambodia or Zimbabwe. However, when he traveled to Rome to finalize the arrangements, Headley learned that he was, in fact, to be assigned to Rome as founding director of the International Justice and Peace office with his Congregation of the Holy Spirit.
“The issues we were facing were largely in Latin America,” Headley recalls. “I realized that new questions related to intra-state conflicts were rising, and I began to see that practical peacebuilding was one of the possible answers.” Since he was due for a leave, he chose to steep himself in the new discipline of conflict resolution at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. “After doing a visiting scholar post for a semester, I wanted to complement that with an Eastern experience. And when one thinks of peacebuilding in an Eastern context, one thinks of Gandhi, so I spent two months in affiliation with the Gandhi Peace Foundation in India looking at the Gandhi tradition of peacebuilding.”
He goes on to reason, “I didn’t want to just study this theoretically, I wanted to get my hands dirty, so I went to three areas of protracted conflict: Northern Ireland, South Africa and Israel/Palestine. I spent two months in each of those places, looking at what religiously oriented groups were doing to deal with conflict.” He hastens to add that while it might sound “like a bit of a grand tour, I lived simply.
I wanted to get as close to the ground as I could.”
Although Headley longed to return to Africa, he was asked to go to Duquesne University and establish a graduate program in Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies. “My experience in Africa suggested to me that there were a good number of people who were already there working at peacebuilding. So I focused on the bishops, the leaders in the Catholic system, and we invited those with a reputation for doing this kind of work to come and share their experiences from different countries.”
That decision led to serendipitous connections. “We gave them space to talk to one another, and it had a rippling effect through the campus itself. It had such a strong effect on students that on the occasion of the bishops leaving, the university established a scholarship program for African students, which the bishops distributed. This gave it an international flavor almost from the start.”
From Haiti to Kosovo to Nigeria, Headley continued to focus his efforts on using religious forces to expedite peacebuilding, ultimately attracting the attention of Catholic Relief Services, which brought him on board for seven years. There, his duties ranged from developing strategic issues to assisting a Latin American bishop whose life had been threatened to mediating disputes in West Africa. He most recently served as counselor to CRS’ president.
As founding dean of USD’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, Headley plans to put his vast experience to the test. “Peacebuilding is not simply the cessation of conflict; it is a fuller life, well-lived,” he explains. “While it has theoretical elements, there are also very practical skills and techniques.”
His plan is simple. “First, I’m going to listen. I’m going to listen to students, faculty, staff and the administration. I’ll look for new constituencies and engage people who are most knowledgeable. So if there are people working on the trans-border question who can be part of our program, I’ll talk to those people. I’ll do the same with the military.” He pauses, thinking. “There will be a lot of talking and listening in the beginning.
I need to hear more about the dreams and expectations of the USD community, and I need to let the rich environment of San Diego speak of its desire to contribute to world peace.”