Friday Dec 01

EXCERPT - Altar to an Erupting Sun


The novel, Altar to an Erupting Sun, tells the story of a lifelong campaigner and activist Rae Kelliher and her formation by several social movements.  The book begins in 2023, at the end of Rae’s life after decades working as an organizer.  As she turns seventy, she is facing down a terminal illness.  With only months to live, she engages in a shocking violent act, taking her own life and the life of a fossil fuel company CEO who she believes is responsible for delaying society’s response to climate change.  This is not a spoiler, as this provocative action occurs in the first four pages of the story.

The novel jumps forward seven years, exploring the considerable blowback and impact of Rae’s action.  But then it shifts back to 1973 and the people, movements, and ideas that influence Rae Kelliher.  The book is part activist historical fiction.  Climate activist Tim DeChristopher wrote, “Altar offers a moving history lesson on several decades of social movements through the life of a character who is a loveable cross between an activist Forrest Gump and a modern-day Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”

Starting at age 19, Rae is part of organizing efforts to stop construction of several nuclear power plants in New England, stop US invasion of Nicaragua, and an effort to close down the School of Americas in Georgia.   Later in her life, Rae becomes active in an effort to stop new fossil fuel gas pipeline in her Boston neighborhood.  This excerpt, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” from the middle of her life, describes her involvement with a real community organization, City Life/Vida Urbana, which is celebrating its 50th year (see Rae joins City Life when she learns about her own eviction and is soon participating in eviction blockades.

We Shall Not Be Moved

Jamaica Plain in the 1990s is a lively neighborhood and Reggie and Rae are happily installed in its cultural and political life.

They look for a slightly larger apartment, calling landlords and touring the neighborhood. There are still pockets of affordable places and a few old-school owners who keep their rents low. These are the apartments with pull-string light switches in the middle of a room and shag carpeting from the swinging 1970s.

Rae and Reggie rent a top-floor apartment in a classic Boston triple-decker on a busy cut-through street called Paul Gore. Their landlord, an old-time townie named Rena McCarthy, keeps their rent low in exchange for their shoveling and putting out and bringing in the trash bins. Rena doesn’t own a car and walks to Mass every Sunday to Our Lady of Lourdes, down by the Haffenreffer Brewery. The ornate church was built with the patronage of James Michael Curley, the infamous “rascal king” mayor of Boston in the 1930s and 1940s.

Abutting a large community garden plot, Rae keeps a couple of raised beds for kitchen herbs and several productive tomato plants. At the bottom of the hill is the Stonybrook Orange Line T station, a subway that rolls downtown in one direction and out to the Arnold Arboretum at the other end. On top of the subway line is Southwest Corridor Park, a prize from a 1970s community-organizing effort that successfully stopped the construction of a planned highway that would have ripped the neighborhood apart, funneling cars from the suburbs into downtown. Instead, there are skateboard parks, tennis courts, a bike path to downtown, and large fields for impromptu Frisbee throws and soccer matches.

Rae loves the annual rhythm of seasons and events. She volunteers to help produce festivals and fundraisers. Each May, a community arts organization called Spontaneous Celebrations organizes a parade and festival called Wake Up the Earth. The festival, founded in 1979, is a celebration of the stopping of the highway. Each year, at one of the concert stages, local residents tell the story of the successful opposition.

Rae joins the organizing committee for the festival. More people march in the Wake Up the Earth parade than watch it as spectators. There are kids on decorated bikes, a variety of marching bands, baton twirlers, and school and civic groups. Rae loves to march in the parade with the brass band she has joined. But after arriving at the finish, she runs back up to watch the other marchers process into the park. The festival runs all afternoon, with four performance stages, bountiful food booths, and information tables for every possible cause, civic group, and cult in the area.

Rae becomes friends with Femke, the founder of Spontaneous Celebrations. Femke tells her the story of recently walking on the Southwest Corridor and seeing a man spraying chemicals on the grass. Femke, an immigrant from the Netherlands, asked him what he was doing. “Killing the dandelions,” he replied.

“What is the chemical?” she asks. She writes down the name and goes to the library to look it up. “Why is the city spraying toxic chemicals on the grass where the children play?” she complained to Laura, the librarian at the Connelly Branch.

Together, Femke and Rae launch a petition urging the city to stop the spraying. At an after-school program, hosted by Spontaneous Celebrations, the children create huge towering dandelions out of cardboard, colorful paper, and broomsticks. Rae wears a bright yellow pantsuit with a dandelion head crafted out of cardboard and paint. Later that week, they march into the City Council chamber, garnering additional publicity. They win a ban on the use of pesticides in the park.

The next Wake Up the Earth parade is led by a marching section of children with enormous dandelions. And at one stage, Rae organizes a group of children to present Femka with a bundle of dandelions, picked from the park. “This is the most beautiful bouquet of flowers I’ve ever been given,” says Femke in gratitude.

Rae and Reggie walk everywhere: down the Muddy River to Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox; through residential streets to the Arnold Arboretum; to the shores of Jamaica Pond for a lap or two walking on the perimeter path; and the scenic route over Peter’s Hill to Roslindale to visit friends who live there. They walk to the Arborway Video store, which often has one-dollar video rentals on Tuesday nights.

For the two of them, the “walking life,” as Reggie calls it, is one of the important ways they stay connected with one another. They talk things out, sometimes argue, and keep one another apprised of their inner thoughts. It’s also a way they stay connected to the life of the neighborhood and get some exercise.

On Sunday mornings, they often walk to the Unitarian Universalist church in the center of the village. The minister, a friendly man named Terry Burke, welcomes them on any terms. Many in the congregation were born into other faith traditions, and Terry navigates a wide liturgical territory between mystical and rational, prayerful and brainy, science and spirituality. Rae is drawn to the music and joins the choir, enjoying the fellowship of the singers.

The ancient church sanctuary has colorful stained-glass windows on its south side. One window has the family name “Green,” and Rev. Terry tells them that Emily Green Balch sat in these pews and was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for founding Women’s Strike for Peace, a pacifist group that opposed US entry into the First World War. There are frequent forums and events at the church that bring people together.

“I kinda liked going to church when I was a little girl,” Rae says, kicking a pebble on one of their walking adventures.

“I was a reluctant altar boy,” says Reggie. “That’s why I’m drawn to you. You smell like incense.”

“Sandalwood? Oh man, good thing you didn’t know me in my Montague Farm days. I bathed in patchouli.”

“I totally associate that smell with the hippie girls.”

“That was me. That is me, I guess.” Rae feels compassion for her younger self as well as joy for the day-to-day levity of their life together.

After a year of attending First Church, Reggie and Rae sign a century-old membership book, formally joining as members of the congregation.

Together, Reggie and Rae like to check out the local joints. On their Franklin Park walk they pass Doyle’s Cafe, a pub that is a haven for local politicos. And Green Street Station, which is a punk-rock music venue. Not far from their house is Brendan Behan Pub, a dimly lit establishment that pulls a good pint of Guinness.


One weekend, they attend the grand opening of Bella Luna, a new pizza parlor a few blocks from their house. The four owners are community activists who started the restaurant with the modest hope that at least their own children would never go hungry.

Their decision to locate Bella Luna in the Hyde Square section of Jamaica Plain is to lift up the neighborhood with a new business, employ local people, and press the city to sweep up the syringes in the adjoining parking lot. Bella Luna is an instant success, and within a year they expand to a neighboring storefront with a defunct bowling alley in the basement. Reggie likes the Menino pizza, named for the city’s current mayor, with its combination of pepperoni, sausage, and peppers. Rae looks forward to the Wednesday-night karaoke where she tries her hand at being a crooning lounge singer. 


Rae’s sense of neighborhood well-being is disrupted one day by news that they might have to move. Their landlord, Rena, is taken to a nursing home after a bad fall on her stairs. Her nephew comes by with a real estate agent, explaining that they will be putting the property on the market. There are few affordable places for Rae and Reggie to move to.

Rae joins a local group fighting evictions, City Life / Vida Urbana. On Tuesday evenings they have a legal clinic and meeting to help tenants. At the first session that Rae attends, Maria, one of the organizers, explains that when someone gets an eviction notice and doesn’t do anything, they will likely lose their home. But if they join with others to organize and fight the eviction, their chance of staying put greatly increases.

New tenants facing eviction are invited to the front of the room to tell the group about their situation. There are about forty people on Rae’s first night. The first to step forward is an older Haitian woman named Carline Desire whom Rae recognizes from the neighborhood. Carline explains that she has paid rent for decades, but the absentee owner of her two-family house failed to pay the mortgage. Now the building is being foreclosed on by Advent Mortgage, an Atlanta-based company that refuses to communicate with her. She holds up the unfolded paper with tears in her eyes. “I have lived here for thirty years,” she weeps. “I have raised my family here. I have paid my rent. And now I’m about to lose my home. I have prayed for help and God led me here.” Listening to her story, Rae is touched, and she feels a flash of anger at a system that would put a dignified woman like Carline at risk.

The organizer, Maria, stands next to her. “Carline, do you want to fight for your home?”

Carline ponders the question, appearing to Rae to search inside for some untapped reservoir of strength. “Yes,” she mouths.

“Carline, we can’t hear you,” says Maria gently. “Do you want to fight for your home?”

This time there is no hesitation. “Yes!” Carline yells, removing her thick glasses to wipe away tears.

“Then here, Carline, take this sword.” Maria hands her a large dragon-slayer of a plastic sword. “Carline, do you want these people to help you?”

“Yes,” she says, looking at everyone in the room over her reading glasses. “I need your help,” she says, whispering again.

Maria turns to the group. “Will you stand with Carline? Will you pledge to fight with Carline to keep her home?”

Rae stands up and raises her arms.

“Yes!” shouts everyone in the room. Several of the group step forward, a form of secular altar call, and stand beside Carline. Rae joins the group at the front of the room. Maria hands one of them an enormous shield made of papier-mâché. “We will stand with you!” she says.

“We will stand with you, Carline,” the group yells responsively.

Rae feels herself growing attached to this group. She returns each week to the organizing meeting, both to weigh her own options and to honor her pledge to stand with some of the other tenants. Each week there are new people facing eviction who are brought into the group with the sword-and-shield ritual. And there are updates from the negotiations with banks, landlords, and the city of Boston. Rae sits next to Carline, striking up side conversations and becoming friends with her.

Carline invites Rae for a visit and they sit on her porch, surveying her section of the neighborhood. All the neighbors know Carline and stop by to see how she’s doing. One neighbor brings her a box of doughnuts.

“I can’t eat these,” she says. “I’ll take them to church.”

Carline points out all the people and animals and offers small tidbits of harmless gossip about everyone. “That cat is named Birdy because she’s always hunting the little songbirds. I yell at her.” Carline laughs heartily. “That lady there, Mrs. Donahue, grumpy old Irish lady. She got all these sons with trucks that come by to help her. Always double-parking like they own the street. Two of them in and out of jail.”

Rae hopes to live in a place long enough to know everyone’s business, like Carline.


A few weeks later, Carline gets another eviction notice, this time with a specific date and time. The foreclosing mortgage company wants the property empty, probably so they can resell it at a maximum price. They are not negotiating. Carline continues to pay her monthly rent, putting it into an escrow account.

“Should I begin to pack?” says Carline at another one of their porch-sit coffee dates. “I don’t want them putting my furniture out on the street.”

“We need to ask Maria,” says Rae.

At the next meeting, they discuss Carline’s eviction date, set for the following week.

“You’re not going anywhere,” says Maria, with a firm grip on Carline’s shoulder. Rae is impressed with her certainty. “We are going to stop the eviction. And hopefully they will negotiate before that. They don’t know yet how serious you are about staying.”

The days pass and all the communications with the mortgage company falter. The day of the eviction arrives. Rae walks over to Carline’s house and finds more than sixty people standing in the street with signs, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “No Eviction Zone,” “Keep Families in Their Homes.” “Advent Mortgage: Carline Lives Here.”

Maria stands next to Carline on her porch with a large megaphone.

“Thank you for coming today,” says Carline, visibly moved. “Thank you for standing with me.”

Rae sees many of the neighbors she has met on Carline’s porch in attendance.

Maria organizes the ten volunteers who have agreed to risk arrest to block the front porch. Rae has not joined this group, but is intrigued to witness the process.

At 10:00 a.m., the constable drives up, parks, and walks toward the porch. The crowd parts to create a path for him, but they chant, “We Shall Not Be Moved.” A large moving van turns onto the street, but when the driver sees the crowd blocking its path, he turns around and leaves. Everyone cheers.

Maria talks to the constable, explaining the situation, that the foreclosing mortgage company has not negotiated in good faith with Carline to keep her in the house. The constable returns to his car, talking on his mobile phone, and then he drives away. Again, the assembled crowd cheers and dances in the street. This is the power of organized people, thinks Rae.

“Today we stopped the eviction,” says Maria in the megaphone. “We will not permit Carline to be evicted. If they come back, we will come back!”

After the crowd disperses, Rae asks Maria, “Is that how it usually works?”

“Usually our threat of a blockade brings the finance people to the table long before this happens,” she says, pointing to the crowd. “But sometimes they have to see that we’re serious. And, to be honest, sometimes we can’t stop an eviction. But we can raise holy hell.”

Two days later, they learn that Advent Capital is negotiating with Carline—and that the city of Boston is getting involved to help Carline buy her home.


Rae goes to another eviction blockade where the owner is a faceless shell company incorporated in Delaware, with no apparent individual to negotiate with. Forty people surround the house, but the police wade in and arrest the protesters. At the last minute, Rae and the state representative from the neighborhood, Liz Malia, join the protesters and are swiftly handcuffed and put in a police van.

“I guess I’ll be late for work,” says Liz Malia, keeping up a friendly banter with the police. Her work in this case is going to the State House. “I wasn’t planning to do this, but I couldn’t stand watching this woman lose her home.”

“Same with me,” says Rae, enjoying the company of a dozen veteran protestors who start singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

Two hours later, they walk out of the District 5 police station with citations and a court date.

“My first arrest in Boston,” Rae tells Reggie at dinner, describing her spontaneous joining in with their representative, Liz Malia.

Reggie smiles. “Sort of like losing your virginity.”

“Much better,” Rae retorts as she stirs her bowl of soup. “I know, I’m a White girl doing civil disobedience, not a Black man minding my own business.”

“True. But your multiple arrest record might prevent you from getting appointed a judge or whatever.”

“Hmm. Maybe I should have finished college instead of becoming a one-woman crime wave.”

CHUCK COLLINS is the Director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies where he co-edits Altar to an Erupting Sun is first novel. See more about the book at and is available from