Barely a week goes by when I don’t think about the nuns who were so much a part of my childhood.
I grew up in a working class neighborhood on the Southwest side of Chicago where most families identified closely with the nearest Catholic parish. Ours, St. Daniel the Prophet, was centered in the standard church, school, convent, and rectory buildings. The convent was home for several dozen religious women sent to us by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. Father Mulligan, the pastor, said Mass, heard confessions and paid attention to the Sunday envelope collection, but essentially the nuns ran the parish. They taught our classes, directed the choirs, organized church events, and supervised parish functions. We’d never heard of feminism, but we certainly knew that the nuns were in charge.
As youngsters, my friends and I would wait at the convent door to carry their books to school; we’d stay after school to wash the chalkboards, clean the erasers and carry their books back to the convent.
We grew to know them very well. And yet they were quite distinct from our everyday family life, almost exotic in an otherwise plain area. If nuns were taking a walk in our neighborhood, word would quickly pass along a street: “The nuns are coming!” Then people would sit out on their front porches, eager to share a good word with these women.
Once a year, the neighborhood held “Sisters’ Shower” in the church basement. At this event, people would donate all manner of kitchenware, cleaning supplies, and equipment to the nuns.
The donations were put to good use. When the nuns weren’t teaching us, or praying in church, or visiting our homes, we would generally see them doing chores. Show any Catholic who grew up in the fifties a bib apron checkered with tiny blue and white squares and count on immediate recognition—that’s what the nuns wore over their habits. Nuns at work. But were the nuns ever paid? Well, no. Ever? Never.
For me, the main role models during my formative years were women who never gave any visible sign of having even the slightest interest in accumulating personal wealth. I want to repeat that. They showed no interest in accumulating personal wealth.
They taught us an invaluable lesson.
What’s more, we knew that somewhere in Chicago nuns were taking care of poor people. And they were caring for poor people all over the world.
Sometimes a religious order will invite me to speak at their motherhouse where they care for nuns nearing the ends of their lives. I often cry when I visit these homes. Most of the nuns I meet in these places are elderly and frail. Many are dressed in pastel sweaters and pleated skirts, their hair carefully coifed. Some nod off during my talk. They promise their prayers. Always, before I leave, several will offer me their beautiful hands.
Where else can one find such simplicity, such sharing of resources, such long periods of reflection?
Ironically, I have found similar realities when incarcerated in U.S. prisons. In a life marked by living quite simply and sharing scarce resources, women in prison live behind closed doors, but they are also behind coiled razor wire. During nine months spent in a maximum security prison and three months in a minimum security prison, I never saw “the bad sisters.” I met women grievously harmed by inexorable war against the poor. I met women who posed almost no threat whatsoever to U.S. people, - certainly nothing compared to the menace of nuclear weaponry, weapons proliferation, and the industrial poisoning of air, water and ground accomplished by U.S. corporations.
I slept on the top bunk in a corridor lined by 16 bunks on each side. My bunk was closest to a bank of phones. I couldn’t help but overhear conversations of women making their weekly phone calls home. Once a woman’s call is connected, she knows what the person at the other end will always hear, a recorded voice saying: “This is a phone call from a federal prison. This phone call will be monitored. If you wish to accept this phone call, press ‘one’.” If you wish to reject the call, press ‘three.’ If you wish to reject all future phone calls, press ‘five’.”
The woman prisoner holds her breath, hoping the person she has called will press one. If a child answers the phone and gleefully shouts, “Mom!” this might cut the call because any voice level that goes over a certain volume automatically terminates the connection.
Sitting on my top bunk, here is what I often heard:
“Momma? Momma, hi, hey, you got it right. Boy, the last time when you pressed the wrong button, it was a mess on this end, but hey, we’re all right. Are the kids home?
Then I could tell that the line had been cut.
They’re out? A birthday party? Momma, I sent a post card, I thought we could set up this time, cuz you know it’s so hard for me to get at the phone here.
You mean, the kids really wanted to go to this party. Right. You’re right, Momma. Yes, yes, I do want them to have a good time. But, momma, I want to write them every week, but here’s my problem. I just don’t have any more stamps. I’m all out. Momma, could you put some money on my commissary account, cuz you know that’s the only way I can get stamps, and without stamps I can’t write. I’d love to write every single day…I know, momma, you’ve done everything you can.
That’s right, momma. Keep letting people know. . But, momma, I hate to ask you this, but, you know I‘ve got nothing but time here, and I could crochet hats and scarves and mittens, I could even do an afghan for grandma, but I just don’t have money to buy the yarn. Women here are tired of me borrowing all the time. Isn’t there somebody who’d want to help with buying yarn? I need money on commissary to buy that yarn. No, nobody can donate. Oh, momma, I’m sorry, I know money’s tight. I know how hard you’re trying.
But, momma, what about your brother? Wouldn’t he think of driving the kids to see me just once? --momma I’m dying to see them
Momma. Don’t be upset with me. I’m trying my best. I love you so much. Momma, tell the kids, tell them, …”
After that, a woman would make a hairpin turn, careening into a shower or a bathroom stall. She’d emerge, eyes red, face puffed, cheeks tear-stained, but somehow having found extraordinary courage to face the day, the week, the months, the year, … one fourth of the women with whom I was imprisoned were sentenced to eight years or more.
They are trapped… and there are no nuns to help them.
Each time I’ve stepped outside the gates of a U.S. prison, a “free” woman, I’ve known that I’m leaving behind a world of imprisoned beauty, a world unrecognized by the majority of people in the U.S. who accept a “throw away the key” mentality.
People drive past prisons all the time. The razor wire, tall fences and elevated guard posts may seem to blend into the landscape. Why trouble oneself about who lives inside those walls?
There are many reasons to be troubled about the fact that one fourth of the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails. Certainly this statistic points to realities about how the U.S. deals with poverty. The prison-industrial complex, the fastest growing new industry in the U.S., represents a war against the poor. I think our entire criminal justice system shows a callous disregard for poor people and a shameful readiness on the part of many people to earn great profits by working in this system.
We’ve nurtured a callous disregard for poor people all over the world. I’ve seen it function in Nicaragua, Haiti, and Iraq where people have suffered horribly because of U.S. policies that wage war against the poor in order to exploit resources in the lands where they live.
What do we gain from this attitude? Are we actually benefiting from U.S. policies that subjugate poorer nations to serve our colonizing demands? If the fundamental purpose of U.S. militarism is to project immense military might all over the world so that other nations will submit to serving our national interests, then why is the cost of projecting this military might so great that we can’t afford to improve conditions amongst the poor in our country. Why are we making less social progress? Why aren’t we seeing more benefits?
The nuns exemplified the main ingredients of an alternative to U.S. military dominance. They practiced simplicity, service, sharing of resources, and a reverence for all of life. They “exported” these values through their everyday witness.
Many people may believe that the nuns are history and that their values are fading with them. But I believe that they held a key to a door we could and should open if we’re to liberate ourselves and our children from the consequences of our over-consumptive and wasteful lifestyles. It’s one thing to point our fingers at powerful elites who make reckless choices that endanger our planet and our lives. It’s quite another to recognize that our everyday lifestyles are out of control in terms of a realistic future for the planet and next generations. As we deplete the remaining supplies of fossil fuel energy, we loot the stores available to our children and their offspring.
When I look for leaders who can help guide us toward radically changing our lifestyles and rebuilding our societies, I think often of several nuns who just emerged from prison after serving lengthy sentences for nonviolent direct action protesting nuclear weapons. Ardeth Platte, Jackie Hudson, and Carol Gilbert taught us, throughout the years they recently spent in prison, to care about their fellow prisoners and to make adult choices on behalf of “Mother Earth” and all her children. (see www.jonahhouse.org)
In the remaining days of January, 2006, several dozen U.S. activists will appear before judges who will almost certainly sentence them to prison for nonviolent actions protesting U.S. warfare. I think their confinement will help liberate more compassion in our world. (see www.stpatricksfour.org and www.soaw.org). In February, a sturdy group of Chicago young people working with Voices for Creative Nonviolence will undertake a 33 day electricity fast through which they hope to better empathize with people in Iraq, living under U.S. occupation, who endure constant outages.
Back in St. Daniel the Prophet parish, the school library shelves were filled with the lives of the saints and the lives of the nuns. I imagine that by now the pages are yellowed, the binding frayed. Perhaps the books haven’t been opened lately. Nevertheless, new chapters are being added. Prophets among us practice the works of mercy and make sacrifices to help end the works of war. If you hear that they’re walking through your neighborhood, rush to meet them. If you spot word about them on the internet, press “save!”
Kathy Kelly is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a Chicago based campaign to end U.S. military and economic war against Iraq. Email to: Kathy@vcnv.org