John Prendergast: A Larger-Than-Life Humanitarian With an Undying Mission

This Berwyn-raised human-rights activist has become a poster boy for peace in Africa. But has he made peace with himself?



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Awestruck by human suffering as a teen, Prendergast became obsessed with eradicating it—first in this country, then internationally, when he saw a TV special on Ethiopian famine in 1984. He now speaks of that eye-opening moment as a “conversion experience.” Soon after, he flew to Mali, which was as close as he could get to Ethiopia. Two years later, he upped the ante and bought a one-way ticket to Somalia.

JP’s parents were a virtual case study in goodwill. His father, Jack, once studied to be a Roman Catholic priest. Claire, his mother, nearly became a nun. They were forever charitable, but justice was their son’s calling. More to the point, he wanted to snuff out injustice before it could hatch. “I became angry at the relative wealth of [the Main Line],” he says now. “My father was a frozen-food salesman, not a brain surgeon. But it was clear that we were still privileged while others were homeless and struggling. I became furious.”

JP’s rage was fueled by his own sense of inadequacy. In Unlikely Brothers, he bluntly describes himself as a “lizard,” hiding his acne-scarred face behind long hair and books. Girls rejected him, and he figured he’d never be loved for who he was.

Home was hardly a refuge. With his gregarious public persona, Jack Prendergast expected his eldest son to be a perfect likeness of himself. JP writes of beatings, hiding spots, and ceasing to speak or even make eye contact with his father, a former Korean War sergeant.
 

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