Tuesday, September 18, 2012

For Anne Montgomery

 Last Saturday I went to a funeral, and had the most unexpectedly inspiring experience.

For about a week I was aware that Rebuilding Alliance was helping to host a visitor from Scotland, a former member of the Christian Peacemaker teams in Hebron. She was traveling all the way to the Bay Area to attend the funeral of a friend, who had also been a Christian Peacemaker, and a well-known peace activist. Donna suggested I attend, and I thought it would be nice to meet some fellow activists. 

The senior center where the memorial service was held was in the middle of a very nice Catholic school compound in Atherton, CA, just a few minutes from where I'm staying. Donna and our visitor Maureen and I went in, and people were congregating in the chapel. We perused the tables full of Sister Anne's pictures and memories from her travels. Seeing her passport sitting on the table gave me a bit of a pang. She had lived in Palestine, so she must have Israeli stamps in there. I could think of a few experiences we'd shared...I wonder how she'd handled the border crossing.

I hadn't done my homework, otherwise I would have been aware of the importance of Sister Anne. After the first ten minutes of the service I'd learned that some of her dear friends couldn't make it to the service because they were still in jail for their last act of civil disobedience.

She was a Plowshares activist. Even though I had never met her, or heard of a Plowshares action, I knew generally what this meant.

I flashed back to my first demonstration.

One weekend in New Orleans my friend Dan explained to me what the School of Americas was, and why it was important to know about. It's a U.S. military school that trains Central and South American military units in "security work." Essentially it's a school in how to sequester, interrogate, torture and oppress civilians. I was very curious to know more, so a week later I hopped in a car with Dan and Sister Kitty, a local nun, and headed to Fort Benning, Georgia for the annual School of Americas protest.

It was an experience I'll never forget. I learned that there were so many Catholics and Jesuits there because this protest was a commemoration of the murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador, by militia men trained in Fort Benning. Outside of the Fort gates, and in a large conference center that night, the event was more like a human rights...well, conference. Whether it was abolishing the death penalty, or workers rights, or veganism, or sustainable development, or wouldn'tcha know it, Gaza, there was a cause or three for everyone.

I made it to three events that night, and all three blew me away. The first was a performance by a man who had been taken in Columbia. He enacted his arrest, and torture, and release, and loss of family, and everyone was spellbound, because it was sad and comedic and heart wrenching all at once. This was a truly beautiful and talented man. The second event I went to was Skip Shiel's presentation of photos from Gaza. The room was packed and the audience was already very in tune with what Skip was saying. He announced the March to Gaza on New Years, and I was so inspired by the outpouring of support I saw for that venture to break the siege in Gaza. The third event was about legal counsel, should anyone get arrested at the protest the next morning. That was a little unnerving for me. It was the first time I'd ever contemplated doing something that might get me in trouble with the law. Of course I'd studied Martin Luther King Jr. and civil disobedience, but I'd never really contemplated that that was something I would want to do.

Towards the end of the Q & A, one older women shot up her hand and asked, "what if you're on parole in Washington D.C.?" I don't remember the answer to that, but that was the first moment I thought, "wow. that nun is intense."

The day of the protest blew my mind all over again. Thousands of people marching slowly towards the area where there was no marching permit, with gigantic 30-feet high puppets representing the six Jesuits towering over us...a woman was singing out names and ages like "Antonio Alvarez, twenty-two years old!" and everyone would respond in a minor key: "Pre-sen-te!" They are present.


So I was harkening back to that experience through much of the service, as I realized I was in a room with many Catholic activist octogenarians. The man who lead the service was clad in a pastor's robe and Chacos. He described his last Plowshares act with Anne, how they and three others cut through the fences at a nuclear storage facility in Tacoma, Washington and walked as far as they could get get into the base before they were apprehended.

He recalled that one time they were camping on Guantanamo Bay and they'd brought a tent with no bottom, and the winds were about to lift the tent off the ground, and Sister Anne reached up and grabbed the top and kept it from flying away. 

He talked about her work in Harlem, and Baghdad, and Hebron, and I noticed that the word Palestine felt at home in that space. The word is usually heated, for better or for worse, and it here it washed over me like water. A few people shared stories about traveling with her in Palestine, and how at home they felt there, and how the Palestinians living in "Area H2" knew and loved Anne.

This was a wonderful group of people. Me and someone's granddaughter were the youngest there by decades, but I told people that I knew the causes close to Anne's heart, and hearing I'd been in Palestine, everyone just beamed.

I had this serious wish, listening to all the testimonies after the service, to record and translate them into Arabic. Especially given the recent upheaval over the latest Muhammad video, I wanted my friends in Palestine to know that they have allies here.

 A little footage from the post-service story-telling...

I'll leave off this post with some links about Anne, should you wish to know more about her:

Peace Activist Sister Anne Montgomery Dies at 85
Counterpunch-Parting with Sister Anne Montgomery
Daily Gazette- In heaven there are no nuclear weapons, so rest in peace, Sr. Anne!