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Kathy Kelly

Kathy Kelly

She has visited more countries, cities, and small towns not listed in Baedeker’s guidebooks than anyone I have ever known.  Her hosts have been the men, women, and children whose homes have been under constant fire.  Her pilgrimages have one purpose: to reveal the lives of war’s innocent victims.  Baghdad is where she is at the moment of this writing, on the eve of her country’s preemptive strike on Iraq.

She has been arrested by our government countless times.  For all I know, she may hold the track record.  She has founded a peace group, Voices in the Wilderness.  A good number of its members have followed her course.  She weighs less than a hundred pounds, and is now in a hospital, still bearing witness.

~Studs Terkel in Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times


Kathy was selected as one of the profiles in Americans Who Tell the Truth.  See her profile along with others here at Voices.


Kathy Kelly in her Own Words 

(from Hope Dies Last)

I grew up on the Southwest Side--this was the working-class Southwest Side--of Chicago in an area of bungalows and scrawny little parks.  We thought my mother was a mutant at first.  There were just three of us, and we couldn’t understand why all the other families would be so large.  So we’d be on our knees with novenas to St. Gerard, the patron saint of pregnant mothers, and then my mother had three in one year.  The twins were just eleven  months apart from my brother Jerry.  I was the middle child.  We grew up, the Kelly kids, thinking that Mom and Dad, Officer Friendly, the parish priest, and the nuns all wanted to keep us happy, and we were.  We were real secure.  I hardly knew problems exited.  That neighborhood was very, very close to Gage Park, where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was hit by a stone.  It was actually a neighborhood that had lots of problems.  I was really lucky.  The high school teachers I had help up  values for us that I might not have otherwise seen.  My parents were very kindly and certainly against war.  They had been in London during World War Two.

My mother grew up in a very poor part of Ireland.  When her mother died in childbirth, the father really wasn’t able to care for the children.  So she was sent off as an indentured servant, to work in monasteries.  That’s how she ended up in England.  My father had studied with the Christian Brother, but he left the order and joined the U.S. Army.  He was a young GI in London, fell in love with my mother, and they married.  After the war, my father was a Catholic high school teacher, he taught math.

I attended an experimental high school: half a day Catholic school, half a day public school.  We’d have math in the morning and riot in the afternoon because the neighborhood still was very, very racist.  But it was a wonderful experiment.  I don’t think my parents were racists.  There was a sense that there wasn’t much that could be done about problems.  It was something I needed to overcome.  But we never heard hateful words about other people in our household.  My mother understood the underdog quite well.

There was a sense that you should always try to share what you have with other people.  But most of the visions would have come from reading the lives of the saints.  That’s all that was in the library.  And there were all those stories of nuns who went off to China and did good things.  But really, what I think most affected me was--do you know the film Night and Fog?” (Night and Fog was a French movie about the Holocaust, directed by Alain Resnais.  His more celebrated film was Hiroshima, Mon Amour.) It’s a very hard film to watch.  They had classical music in the background, very haunting, and just panned in on the camps.  You could see that there were rows and rows of bungalows across the way, and what did folks do?  Why didn’t they smell the burning flesh?  That had a big impact on me.  I thought I never, ever want to be sitting on the sidelines or sitting on my hands in the bleachers, and just watch some unspeakable evil happen.

I sure thought that my life was good, though.  I was a pretty happy kid.  When I learned about Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, I felt great hope.  I also was among those who felt a lot of hope associated with Bobby Kennedy.  His assassination did bring down that hope.  I don’t think I picked up again that things could change until I fell in with these people who would just say, “look, I’m responsible.  It’s not what are the leaders going to do, it’s what am I going to do?  Am I going to take the weapons out of my own personal budget?  Am I going to personally take responsibility to put a plate of good in front of somebody who’s hungry?  Am I going to have a crash room in my home and take a homeless person into my home?”  So we wouldn’t always be asking the government to solve problems; we’d change these patterns of lifestyle ourselves.  And then find out it’s not hard.  It’s interesting and easy and attractive. 

I was a late bloomer.  I went though the Vietnam War like Brigadoon in the mist.  I never got involved in anti-Vietnam War activism.  I feel very sad about that now, but I understand when people sit one out, because that was me.  I still had this kind of fatalism that said you can’t really do anything about these big problems.  I would cry over the New York Times, and that was about it. 

I was living in Hyde Park, working on a master’s degree in theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary.  When I was studying for that degree, I realized that I never, myself, saw any poor people, and so much of the scripture has to do with hearing the cry of the poor.  So finally I found my way over to a soup kitchen.  Just to find someplace where I could put into practice some of what was being preached.  

Finally, I came up to this neighborhood, to Uptown.  I call it the do-gooder’s ghetto.  I met Karl Meyer, one of Dorothy Day’s proteges.  He was a very good writer who had converted to Catholicism and had all the enthusiasm of a convert.  He had sat with Dorothy Day and others to protest the civil defense air-raid drills, when they refused to go underground during the Red scare of the 1950s.  They’d sit on park benches and be arrested.  He went to Rikers Island at a very young age--for refusing to take shelter during the air-raid drills. What they were saying is there was no shelter from nuclear bombs, that the best way to find security was to stop paying for these weapons.  He became a war tax refuser and kept a house of hospitality going here in Chicago for at least thirteen years.  Then he went to prison during the Vietnam War.  His father was a congressman from Vermont, one of the only Democrats opposed to the war.  

I was the wealthiest person on my block in Uptown.  I was earning seven hundred dollars a month as a Catholic high school teacher.  Other people’s homes were abandoned buildings.  Everybody I knew on the block was eating at the soup kitchen.  that’s when I began to think, This won’t do.  I can’t take a third of an income and turn it over to the federal government to buy weapons when I’m going into my classrooms trying passionately to teach children not to rely on weapons.

I had been teaching high school way down on the South Side.  I’d take the train every day all the way down to Ninety-fifth and Troop Street to an African American all-girls Catholic high school.  I was teaching religion, but I was also starting to experiment with teaching nonviolence and peace.Then I switched to St. Ignatius College Prep.  AFter my first year there, I said to the Jesuits, Look, if it’s OK with you, I’d like to lower my salary beneath the taxable income.  I can’t pay for these weapons any longer.  I’ve got to take it out of my personal budget. This was, of course, the influence that Karl had.  I saw that he was able to do it. The schools were great.  They said, “OK, but you tell us where you want the money that you’re not taking to go”  I was Lady Bountiful.  Every paycheck, I’d say, “Well, I want this amount to go to the soup kitchen, and this amount to go for a Catholic Worker house of hospitality, and this amount to help resist U.S. Intervention in Central America.”  And those checks would just go flying out.  I haven’t paid any taxes to the federal government since 1980.

They wrote me off as uncollectable one year.  They said that they were going to give up, but I think they might be trying again.  After we started the Voices in the Wilderness Campaign, there was a new effort to collect.  The IRS became my spiritual director.  [Laughs} Because if you’re not going to give any money to the government for weapons, and you don’t want them to come and take something from you, you can’t really own anything.  So I don’t know how to drive a car, and I don’t want to learn.  i don’t own anything, really, and I’m quite happy to live the way I do.


I rent an apartment that we use as the base for Voices in the Wilderness--it’s a campaign to end the economic sanctions against Iraq.  We work out of my home.  A number of us had been in Iraq during the [first] Gulf War.  We camped as a peace team on the boder between Saudi Arabia and Iraq.  It was hard to say we were nonpartisan, because actually we were dependent on the Iraqi people.

We tried to set up camp in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as well.  I stayed over there for about six months.  When I came back I was ready to say that the war was over and turn the chapter.  Buy by 1995, we started to realize that the war hadn’t ended, it had just changed into economic warfare that discriminated directly against the most vulnerable people.

That’s where I go back to Night and Fog.  Can you know something is going on, be powerfully aware of it, and say, “Well, there’s not anything really we can do about that?  The answer for me is no, we have to try to do what ewe can.  The thing that had a big impact on me was going to a U.S. prison for a year for planting corn on a nuclear missile silo site.

There were one thousand of those silos in the Midwest, and one hundred fifty around Kansas City. You wouldn’t even know that they’re there.  You almost have to train your eye to look for the white sticks that protrude from the ground.  Eventually you get the hang of it.  It looks like a backyard garage in terms of size.  These are like razors in a loaf of bread, sewn all through the breadbasket of the United States--the place that’s meant to grow corn and wheat, and we were harvesting weapons of mass destruction.

I was arrested for criminal trespass.  I waited there until the authorities came.  I informed them we were there.  The Gumps put up a sign: We Shall Study War No More.*  Others of us fanned out.  We went to fourteen different sites.  There were fourteen of us.

I went onto a site by myself.  I remember climbing the fence and sitting on top of this missile silo lid, and then seeing an armored vehicle toward us with a machine gun mounted on top.  Soldiers got out in full camouflage with helmets and rifles.  “All personnel please clear the site, hands in the air, step to the left, step to the right.”  I cooperated.  They told me to kneel down, and they handcuffed me, and they left one soldier with me.  The other three went off, maybe to get the manual and find out what to do next.  So I was kneeling handcuffed and I started to talk to the soldier they’d left.  He was behind me and Had a gun to my head.  I told him I was teaching kids who were part of two different gangs in my neighborhood.  At the end of every year there would be three of them dead.  I talked about how we didn’t want to see money going to buy weapons of mass destruction, instead of taking care of these kids.  I asked him, “Do you think the corn will grow?”  He said [Southern accent], “I don’t know, ma’am, but I sure hope so.”  Then I said, “Do you want to say a prayer?”  He said, “Yes, ma’am.”  I think we said the St. Francis peace prayer: “Lord make me a channel of your peace.  Where there is darkness, let me sow light, where there is sadness, joy, where there is despair, hope...”  We said amen together, and then he said to me, “Ma’am, would you like a drink of water?”  I said, “Oh, yes.”  I was very, very thirsty.  For him to unscrew the canteen and pour water down my throat--it was like a mother robin dropping worms down a throat--I think he had to put his gun down.  I was handcuffed.  He said, “Ma’am, would you tip your head back.”  And I did, and he poured the water down my throat.

I do think that he taught me so much that day.  Here’s this young soldier who took a risk in order to do an act of kindness for a perfect stranger.  Maybe the manual said, Keep your prisoner fed and watered, but I’ll bet it didn’t say to put your gun down to do it.  This was the height of the cold war.  What it says to me is that you can’t have a cartoonized view where there are the “good guys: and the “bad guys.”  Life doesn’t work that way.  I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to point at an individual or a group and saym “Those people can’t possibly change or accomplish any good.”  That’s where our hope is, in a profound belief that people can change. 

I saw that young soldier in court and I winked at him.  I think if there’s such a thing as mental telepathy, he was trying to say to me, Please don’t tell that story!  I hope he’ll forgive me today.

On Good Friday, 1986, she and four young Catholics, young enough to be her children, committed an unlawful act.  “We commemorated the crucifixion of Christ by entering a missile site near Holden, Missouri.  We hung a banner outside the chain-link fence that read: SWORDS INTO PLOWSHARES, AN ACT OF HEALING. Isaiah 2, from Scriptures.  It was a Minuteman II silo, a first-strike weapon.  There are 150 such missiles.  Each of these could decimate an area of seventy-miles.  And all the children and others.  We wanted to make this weapon inoperable.  And we succeeded.”

Her account of the arrest and what followed reflects her natural sense of the absurd.  She was sentenced to eight years at the Alderson Women’s Federal Prison in West Virginia.  It was reduced to six.

Since then, she and her husband, Joe, who had himself committed an act of civil disobedience and was sent to the Sandstone Federal Penitentiary in Minnesota, were freed.  Neither has recanted nor paid any fine.  They are still at it (The Great Divide, Panetheon, 1988.

I didn’t have a jury trial.  I fasted for twelve days asking for a jury trial, but we didn’t get one.  We had a magistrate.  I was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison.  I said that we have a right to try to claim our right not to kill, and that we’re not shouting fire in a crowded theater, we’re giving a very rational call, because these weapons were aimed at children and families in the Soviet Union, and their weapons were aimed back at us.  The magistrate liked all of us quite well, I think.  Personally he seemed to almost show a little bit of affection.  He was going to let us have our day in court, but there was no way he wouldn’t find us guilty.

He sent me to maximum security, Lexington, Kentucky.  I learned that prison is a very, very, abysmally stupid, meaningless place.  I did nine months there.  I call it a world of imprisoned beauty.  I never met the bad sisters.  I was in maximum security, too.  I met women who could have been my co-workers, my next-door neighbors, relatives.  They were lovely women, by and large.  I would say a good ninety percent of the women were there for nonviolent reasons, mainly related to drugs.  It’s understandable when women are in situations that are bleak and they don’t have the money to meet their kids needs.  There’s this shortcut.  It’s like my Irish ancestors boot-legging in this country.  They see a possibility to get some money quickly.  It’s very tempting to get involved in the drugs, but prison isn’t a way to solve the problem.

They were mostly African American and Hispanic.  I met some incredibly interesting and funny and genuinely authentic characters.  There were fifty-eight of us in the entering class.  Of that fifty-eight, twelve passed a sixth-grade literacy test.  I was the one who knew how to type, so I’d write letters for them. That’s how I got to know some of their stories.

I told them why I was there.  Otherwise they would have thought I was a snitch because I had such a short sentence.  They called me “Missiles.”  They’d say, “Missiles, you ain’t nothin’ but a minute,” because my sentence was so little.

This was ’88, ’89.  At that point, the war on drugs was beginning to heat up and the prison industry was starting to grow.  So that was an opportune time to learn a lot about the prison industry in the United States.  I came out of prison in ’89 and joined Roy Bourgeois outside Fort Benning and the School of the Americas.  That’s the place where we’ve trained people to use terror tactics in their countries.  Some of the graduates were instrumental in killing the Jesuits in Central America, the four women nuns that were raped and killed and Archbishop Romero [of El Salvador].  We did a long fast.  Roy went for thirty-six days, I stopped at twenty-eight.

My last fast was forty days, August 2001, in front of the United Nations and across from the U.S. mission to the UN, protesting the economic sanctions against Iraq.  These sanctions have cost the lives of over a half a million children.  They’ve directly targeted civilians.  We’re now looking at close to eleven years of a policy that has completely failed.  I’ve gone to Iraq fifteen times now, in direct, open, and public violation of the economic sanctions.  We bring medicine and relief.  We’ve visited homes and hospitals.  We’ve gotten to know some families.  I lived there for seven weeks during the summer of 2000, in the poorest part of Basra and southern Iraq.

Each time we go we’re threatened with twelve years in prison, a one-million dollar fine, and a two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar administrative penalty.  We’ve got a one-hundred-sixty-thousand-dollar pre-penalty notice in December of 1998.  My passport was confiscated in February of 1998.  Some of the team members had their belongings taken.  But by and large we’ve been treated with kid gloves.  I don’t know if they ever will impose these penalties.  They told me to go down and get a new passport.

You know what we’re going to do now?  Twelve of us at least are going to walk from Washington, D.C. to New York City under the banner Our grief is not a cry for war.  Did you hear the statements that some people made after the September eleventh attacks saying, “Please don’t retaliate, please don’t kill civilians in the name of my loved one who died?”  They were very eloquent: “Our son would never have wanted violent retaliation.”  So we’re going to carry those words.  We want to pay reverence to those words.  Walking to end war, hunger and revenge.  Then we’ll have smaller walks that’ll be joined by big numbers of people in each of the named cities along that route.  And from there I’ll take off to Baghdad.

I feel hope in the young people.  I see them every day.  They are showing me their readiness: “We’re going to change our lifestyles.”  Jeff, one of the young people you know, he won’t be driving across country anymore because he got rid of his car.  That’s where we see a lot of hope.

My dad came to live with me for the last seven years of his life.  During that time I saw a lot more of my siblings.  They came to visit Dad, and they got to know my community, and that was a very good coming together.  It wouldn’t have happened otherwise.  I think they’re sympathetic.  I think that they’re very representative of mainstream American life, which quite often has an emphasis on taking care of the children within your own family.  The best way to take care of the children here is not to ignore the cries of children elsewhere.

It’s so ironic, because some of the people who could best understand what people experienced in Manhattan on 9/11 are people who are targeted civilians elsewhere.  One thing that many Americans can’t understand is that on September twelfth there was so much of an effort to help rebuild, to help people overcome this terrible tragedy.  Condolences came in from all over the world. In Iraq, five thousand of their children die every month.  There hasn’t been condolence, just more and more punishment heaped on these people.  And yet, when I go over there, and I don’t even have to say why I’m there, people just spontaneously say in their language, “You are welcome.  Sit down and have tea.”  We are always treated with dignity and hospitality and forgiveness.  That’s been my constant experience.

I just feel lucky.  If my life had gone in another direction, maybe I would have been happy, I don’t know, but the grass doesn’t look greener to me right now.  I’ve seen the kids in Iraq pull their parent beyond despair.  I’ve watched them do that on the streets in Basra.

These people in Basra have every reason to be severely depressed, but they’ve got these gleaming kids who are racing down the street with two plastics as their kites or their toys.  I see them do that and I realize that kind of hope can’t be abandoned, and I’m not going to give in to despair.

*Jean and Joe Gump were devoutly Catholic parents and grandparents, who lived in a middle-class suburb, west of Chicago.  They were highly respected in the community.  Jean was president of the high school PTA, the League of Women Voters, and executive secretary of the town’s Human Relations Council.

Source: Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times by Studs Terkel (New Press, 2003), pages 317-326.