“…This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrines.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine. …”
Words by Lloyd Stone set to O, Finlandia by Jean Sibelius
This song was translated so that Iraqi children in the Baghdad School of Folk Music and Ballet could sing it for the author. After the school was ransacking, following the USA invasion, the tape of this song was all that survived of the school. Kelly heard it and remembered.
She dedicates this book to the children of Iraq.
In spite of the horrors of Iraq, the violent poverty of Haiti and the brutalizing power of prisons, Kathy Kelly has dedicated her life to the power of active non-violence. By her willingness to put herself in dangerous and difficult situations, she answers the question posed by her friends the Berrigan brothers, activist priests in the USA: Are peacemakers prepared to take the same risks in making peace that soldiers are prepared to take in making war? She is one of the few of us who are prepared.
Kelly weaves together her life story, in violent area of Chicago, where public schools were gang battlegrounds. She also attended a private Catholic School and there she had teachers who inspired students to social action. She saw a film about Nazi death camps and left feeling that she never wanted to be a spectator in the face of unspeakable evil. It was a series of radical activist Catholic clergy and lay who moved Kelly to action. She started working at a community Catholic Worker House that welcomed all, including street people, immigrants and shut-ins. Soon she was lead to question why so many Central Americans were fleeing their homelands. Next came her first of many arrests at a protest against draft registration. Karl Meyer to whom she was married for twelve years, still a close friend, helped her to understand, ‚that one of the greatest gifts in life is to find a few beliefs that you can declare with passion and then have the freedom to act on them. For me, those beliefs are quite simple: that nonviolence and pacifism can change he world, that the poor should be society´s highest priority, that people should love their enemies, and that actions should follow conviction, regardless of the inconvenience.”
These are the beliefs that give this remarkable woman the strength to defy the USA government, to speak the truth about its policies and consequences and to do all she can to change them: beliefs that have had her arrested dozens of times, made her life dangerous and uncomfortable, and exposed her to violence that would shatter the beliefs of a weaker person.
Her experiences at home in the USA and in Haiti, Central America, Palestine and Croatia, all part of her peace witness, were the prologue to her many intense experiences in Iraq. This is the part of her life she describes as “Catching Courage.” She is not a lone individualist, but places herself in a global community of friends, mentors and activists from whom she was able to gain and share strength and conviction – to catch courage.
Best known for her participation in ´Voices in the Wilderness´, Kelly devotes Part 2 of her book to her “Letters from Baghdad” in which she describes the lives of Iraqis, mainly children under the terrible conditions of the inhumane sanctions and later after the invasion and occupation. Lives shortened by malnutrition, contaminated water, lack of medical supplies – heartrending and cruel. I remember the same conditions I witnessed during my trip to Iraq in 2001. Like Kelly I helped transport medical supplies in defiance of the USA law and UN sanctions. She and ´Voices in the Wilderness´ did it many times, constantly risking arrest and jail. She did it for ´some of most gentle and kind people´ she has ever met. She did it because she accepts the burden of her citizenship of a nation that boasts of its right and ability (declining daily) to invade and occupy a country, destroy its culture and social structures and steal its resources. And no matter how hard she and her colleagues tried for nearly ten years, USA corporate media ignored and mocked their stories of the suffering of Iraqis – indeed, swallowed the justification that killing innocent people was acceptable and necessary. From the hospitals, homes and finally the jails of that shattered country, she tried to tell the world the truth – fragments of which, only now, are found in corporate media.
“The Pentagon system has become the new Pharaoh. Our reliance on threat and force to resolve problems inspires other leaders and cultures to act similarly. The warmongers rob people of he resources needed to build a better world.”
As expected Kelly ends up in prison in the USA and in ´Part 3, Letters from Prison´ she writes, “Who can speak up on behalf of people trapped inside of U.S. prisons, including those who are working on the lowest rungs…?” She is one who tries. In Pekin Federal Prison Camp, she learns about the lives of the forgotten victims of the USA, the mainly poor in jail, and the folly and futility of incarcerating people to punish them. She reflects on alternatives, including abolition, counselling, addiction treatment, and building communities that will support people who struggle for a decent life.
In the final ´Part 4, Horizons and Hopes´, Kelly continues her work, demonstrating, giving workshops, remembering her friends around the world as she continues to speak truth to the people of the USA and the world. As she says, we are all complicit, we look the other way from injustice, we profit from minority world imperialism, we find excuses. “Yet we are all vulnerable to layers of denial about our own complicity.” Uncomfortable, but compelling reading. Kelly forces us to look at our own words, actions and ultimately we must examine our values and our daily lives as responsible for the continuation of a violent, unjust culture.
In the conclusion she returns to Haiti with a Christian Peacemakers Team and experiences the suffering and hardship of friends there. Water is precious, hard to collect. Carrying containers break and water spills out. “The Haitian proverb says that to hide the truth is like trying to bury water.”
“Many of the people in Haiti and Iraq have the truth but don´t have the water. We posses the truth water, but we lack the truth.”
Finally truth is becoming impossible to bury – everywhere. What we do when we learn it is another matter.
We can be part of change. As Kelly writes and believes,
“Change is coming. Light, as the breath of excruciatingly beautiful Iraqi children nearing their deaths, demanding as the imploring eyes of their mothers who asked us why…you can feel it coming.”