Even though his convictions have led him to take controversial stands for years, actor Martin Sheen told a group of Roman Catholics on Saturday how uncomfortable he feels being one of the most visible figures in the movement against the potential war with Iraq.
Sheen said he has received an avalanche of hate mail and been accosted on the street, accused of being a traitor for such activities.
In an interview before his talk, he said that after he helped lead the "Virtual March on Washington," which flooded the White House last week with thousands of anti-war e-mails, NBC television network executives asked him to explain his views on national talk shows. He said they feared the furor would hurt "The West Wing," the popular show on which he plays a fictional U.S. president, who is also a Catholic.
"Spirituality is not safe," Sheen said. "It leads you down uncharted waters. If it didn't cost you anything, you'd have to question its value."
He said his actions through the years have flowed from his lifelong Catholic faith as a "follower of the nonviolent Jesus" who regularly attends Mass and always keeps a rosary in his pocket. But the price he has paid, he said, is a rap sheet of 64 arrests over 17 years, along with widespread enmity.
Sheen's appearance highlighted the Los Angeles Archdiocese's annual Religious Education Congress, which drew more than 30,000 participants. Although conference organizers feared the actor's appearance might provoke protests, he was instead mobbed for autographs -- even by those who disagreed with his sentiments on the war.
Keith Morlock, a 27-year-old Azusa businessman, said he is a conservative Republican who supports President Bush because of the threat he believes Iraqi President Saddam Hussein poses to the world. But he sees Sheen's views as fully consistent with Catholic principles, especially since Pope John Paul II has opposed an attack on Iraq.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony embraced Sheen at the day's opening session and hailed him as a man of peace who has suffered "being imprisoned, being subjected to ridicule and all of the other things that happen to disciples of Christ."
Sheen said critics have demanded that NBC fire him from "The West Wing." The show's staff has been "100% supportive," but top network executives have "let it be known they're very uncomfortable with where I'm at" on the war, he said. NBC executives could not be reached for comment.
The furor "doesn't make me comfortable, but I must be doing something right," Sheen said in the interview. He added that he long ago decided it was more important to follow his convictions than to be on the "winning side."
In a workshop on spirituality and social justice with Father Michael Kennedy of Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, the 62-year-old actor spoke about everything from Christian meditation to his life-changing encounter with Mother Teresa and his long history of activism.
He told the group of 800 Catholics that his first arrest was in New York with Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, two Jesuit priests who he called major influences. The occasion was a June 1986 protest against the proposed "Star Wars" missile defense program championed by then-President Reagan.
Sheen's more recent arrest in 2000 at Vandenberg Air Force Base was also for protesting the "Star Wars" project. He says he trespassed on federal property to kneel and recite the Lord's Prayer.
In between, Sheen has marched with labor leader Cesar Chavez and protested U.S. aid to El Salvador. He asked Mother Teresa to enlist the pope's help in trying to end the Persian Gulf War. He has fed the homeless and hungry at countless soup kitchens. He has talked with the imprisoned in annual Good Friday visits to Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall along with Father Kennedy, a longtime Sheen friend and fellow activist.
Despite his fame and wealth, the actor, who was born Ramon Estevez, says he still connects with the poor and oppressed because many come from the same background he did: as children of poor immigrants.
His father was a factory laborer from Spain who rarely spoke outside the home to hide his broken English. But Sheen says he taught his son, above all, to speak the truth. The actor's mother emigrated from Ireland and died when Sheen was young, after 12 pregnancies and 10 children.
To help make ends meet, Sheen said, he began working at age 9 as a golf caddy in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. His social conscience, he said, was formed by being "a servant to the rich." He organized fellow caddies to strike for better wages -- and was promptly fired. It was his first lesson in the cost of commitment.
"I learned that when you speak for someone with no voice, you've got to be prepared to pay a heavy price," Sheen said in the interview Saturday on his way to the conference in Anaheim. "You think you're going to be celebrated, but the opposite is true."
The actor said his commitment to peace and justice issues was triggered after a spiritual rebirth more than two decades ago following several events: near-death from a heart attack while filming "Apocalypse Now," a visit with India's poor while filming "Gandhi" and a trip to Paris in 1981. He subsequently met Mother Teresa, who told him that "it was easier to deal with poverty and death in India than the lack of spirituality in America" -- a comment that profoundly affected him, he said.
Today, Sheen faithfully attends Mass in Malibu and Santa Monica, receives the Eucharist and surrounds himself with rosaries -- he keeps four on the rearview mirror of his Toyota van, repeatedly giving them out to those in need. The political liberal has said he has financially supported the pregnant girlfriends of his sons to help convince them not to have abortions.
"He is a man of great faith who puts his faith in action," said Kennedy, co-presenter of the workshop with Sheen. "He's a model of what it is to be Catholic."
Some Catholics disagree. Kennedy, whose book, "The Jesus Meditations," features a CD narrated by Sheen, said one couple from the Midwest called him to complain that the actor was "un-American." Sheen rejects such charges, declaring that "I love my country so much I am willing to risk its wrath."
Until he heard Sheen speak Saturday, Rick Marten, a 51-year-old software engineer from Santa Maria, said he suspected that the actor was simply spouting off about the war to enhance his celebrity.
In a dramatic exchange during the workshop, Marten stood up and tearfully told Sheen that he had a 25-year-old son, David, who flies B-1 bombers for the U.S. Air Force.
"I did not raise him to be a warmonger," Marten told Sheen. "I pray that when our citizen soldiers come home, they come as heroes" and do not suffer the ostracism that greeted many Vietnam War veterans.
Sheen assured him that he felt "as you do," supported the speaker's son and prayed for the safe return of all of the troops. Later, the actor said that six of his own brothers had served in the U.S. military, including two in Vietnam.
Then, as now, Sheen said, he opposed the war but supported the armed forces.
Marten was moved.
"After I heard him, I realized he was speaking from the heart and has every right to do so," he said. "I know he's a man for prayer and peace."