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Nukes and Nuns

Olga Bonfiglio

I first met Sisters Carol Gilbert and Ardeth Platte at a gathering for young nuns in March 1980. Their task was to help us understand the ways in which the Gospels called us to work for justice in our communities and our world.

Carol and Ardeth were two of the three nuns who were convicted and imprisoned in July 2003 for breaking into the N-8 Minuteman III nuclear missile site in Colorado and symbolically spilling their blood on it. A Denver federal court sentenced them to 30 and 41 months, respectively.

Back then I didn't care much for their message. It contradicted my own uncomplicated understanding of the world and questioned the purposes and practices of the U.S. government. What they said seemed convoluted, overwhelmingly, and just plain nutty.

The next time I saw the sisters was 27 years later. They had come to my town to give a presentation about their arduous trial.

The nuns' protest at the missile site was not an off-the-cuff act. They are members of Plowshares, a worldwide peace organization that calls attention to the dangers of militarism and seeks the dismantling of all nuclear weapons. The sisters' hammers and wire cutters served as symbols of disarmament and referred to Isaiah 2:4 which reads: "They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks." This time I found the nuns truly inspiring and courageous.

So what had transpired to me during those 27 years that caused me to change my outlook toward these nuns-and indeed the social justice movement? Quite simply, I witnessed people's struggle for truth and justice.

I first learned about this struggle when I visited Nicaragua in 1985 as I stood on the blackened ground of the port of Corinto where several huge oil storage tanks had once sat before they were blown up by the CIA. Ronald Reagan wanted to neutralize the Sandinistas, who were deemed Communists, in order to clear the way for comfortable trade arrangements U.S. corporations had been enjoying under the deposed dictator Somoza.

In 1986 in Lima, Peru, I saw how desperate peasants tried to make a life for themselves after they left their mountain farms, which had been run over by armed insurgents. These people came to the city to sell plastic combs, laundry buckets, and toys. They were part of the city's rapid six-fold increase in population which until the 1980s had been stable for 300 years.

My trip to Cochabama, Bolivia, during the Christmas 1985 was delightful. I stayed with a congenial family who taught me in Spanish language. However, two images stick in my mind from that trip. One is of the poor peasant woman on New Year's Day who was sleeping on the street with her child by her side. Her head poked up for a minute when my companions and I walked near her and then went back down. Sleep often helps to forget hunger. Another woman I saw wore a cracked, light brown, faux leather jacket. The calculator that dangled from a chain on her wrist helped her figure out the exchange of dollars to bolivianos. The Bolivian economy was so inflationary that one dollar would get you one million bolivianos; 750,000 bolivianos would get you a Coke. And speaking of coke, I saw the coca fields. Turns out that the reason the peasants cultivated it was because the world demand for cocaine earned them enough money to feed their families.

As I flew across the ocean to the former Soviet Union on April 26, 1986, little did I know that a nuclear reactor was melting down in a small town called Chernobyl. Little did the people of the Soviet Union know either, especially those who were participating in the festive May Day celebration in Kiev on May 1, just 50 miles from Chernobyl. I witnessed how the Soviet government didn't care enough to tell its people that they were in danger. I also witnessed how the U.S. embassy not only denied me or my fellow travelers any help but refused to acknowledge that there was an emergency.

The Nuclear Weapons Freeze of the 1980s came from Americans' response to the Reagan administration's decision to escalate the country's weapons of mass destruction stockpile. As I helped circulate petitions on the street corners of my city, an old man yelled at me: "You people don't know what you're doing," he said. "We have to keep the U.S. safe with these weapons."

All of a sudden and out of the blue in 1991 we were at war with Iraq in tiny country known as Kuwait, a place where the oil flows. Although the war didn't last but 100 hours and ended in our victory, thousands U.S. soldiers became sick from Gulf War Syndrome. It was later learned that the depleted uranium applied to the tips of our rockets was such a lethal substance that just touching the remains of blasted vehicles affected our soldiers-thousands of them.

In 2002 the United States began the Afghanistan War and in 2003 it launched what would become the Iraq War and Occupation. Both of these military actions were responses to 9/11-yet another means of gaining control of that precious Middle Eastern oil. The U.S. military still uses depleted uranium only the rockets it fires are not confined to the desert. They are being launched in cities where hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians live.

These experiences changed me. I learned not to trust political leaders' motives, especially when they decided to stomp into a country "to save it from evil dictators." I also came to understand that our government cared more about corporate profits than people, including the American people. This was the same message that Sisters Ardeth and Carol had delivered 27 years before and they, together with Sister Jackie Hudson, subsequently put their lives on the line for that message.

Most people have not had the opportunities I did to learn these lessons about social justice. Somehow, those of us who have been enlightened must find ways to share the truth with those who are not exposed to it.

One way to start is to view the new film about the Sisters Ardeth, Carol and Jackie Hudson titled "Conviction" by Brenda Truelson Fox of Boulder, CO. It illustrates the sisters' commitment to disarmament and the price they paid as a result. Former president of the U.S. National Association of Evangelists Ted Haggard and anti-nuclear weapons advocate Helen Caldicott, MD, are featured. Copies of the 43-minute film are available through the website Zero to Sixty Productions:

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is Contact her at

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