Kathy Kelly’s Challenge

Witness, Courage, Compassion, Becoming

What does the Lord require… but to act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.
— The Book of Micah

Grant us your forgiveness, Lord. And unto you be our becoming.
— The Salaat, the final Muslim prayer of the day

About 90 pages into Other Lands Have Dreams, Kathy Kelly’s extraordinary book of recollections and reflections, we’re immersed again in the immediacy of her amazing life:

“Just prior to beginning my sentence I had been released from the hospital following major surgery after a lung collapse caused by a congenital abnormality.

“…. The women prisoners glaring at me were seeing a 90 pound woman with pink eye, a runny nose, tangled hair, an obnoxious cough, and a facial rash…. I could barely bend down to tie my shoes…. At that point, the most intimidating woman in the Bullpen laughed, rolled her eyes, and said, ‘I don’t know what I did so wrong to be locked up with this white mother–with AIDS!’ My heart sank.

“I managed to get up to the top bunk and, over the next hours, women closest to me were curious and then kindly, asking me how I’d ended up in the Bullpen. We found small ways to be helpful to one another….

“…. Within three days, all of the women treated me with affection, calling me “Missiles” for short. ‘Missiles,’ said the woman who had first erupted upon seeing me, ‘I tried my hardest not to like you, but I just can’t help myself—I like you.’”

olhd200They called her “Missiles” because, a few months before, in 1988, she had been arrested for non-violently protesting at nuclear missile sites in Missouri and Wisconsin. At another point in her book, she tries to recall all the times she has been arrested. “I nearly always fall asleep after the first dozen or so,” she writes, then lists a few dozen of her arrest-worthy “offenses,” including, “five times for planting corn on nuclear missile silos” and “five times for bringing lentils and rice to the steps of the U.S. Mission to the U.N.”

The lentils and rice—and polluted water—had been the typical meals of more fortunate Iraqis barely surviving under U.S.-sponsored U.N. sanctions from the end of the Gulf War in 1991 to the beginning of “Shock and Awe” in 2003. Each time she brings her samples of this poor fare, she invites members of the U.S. Mission to join her in the repast. Each time, she is rebuffed and arrested.

In her first chapter, “Catching Courage,” we get a little background: “I grew up on the southwest side of Chicago in an area Saul Bellow described as ‘rows and rows of bungalows and scrawny little parks.’ I was the third of six children.” Her mother and father had met in London during “the Blitz”; her father a GI, and her mother a nurse who had been an indentured servant in Ireland and then in England.

As a high-school student, Kelly’s “bedroom” is the living room couch, as she makes way for her siblings. She’s not “bothered” by any inconveniences, because she’s “in high school, working a part-time job… and tired enough to fall asleep during ‘The Tonight Show.’” She attends “a private Catholic school for part of the day and the local public school… for the other.”

This is the 1960s. There are race riots in the U.S. North and South. At the public school, she recalls: “Once, during an afternoon class, white football players ran down the hall… screaming ‘Kill the N—–.’” Her teacher and the other students could ignore the commotion in the hallway, but Kelly “couldn’t see the blackboard through my tears.”

Where do such people come from? — one wonders. What is it in the DNA, in the spirit, that engenders such empathy and compassion? And, as we shall see, such courage?

She learned much, of course, from the “young nuns and brothers, mainly, along with a few lay teachers” at St. Paul High School. “Martin Luther King’s teachings were compared to gospel passages.” From reading Father Dan Berrigan she learned about resistance to the Vietnam War and to the U.S. nuclear arms buildup. As a high school student, she reflects: “Berrigan said that one of the reasons we don’t have peace is that the peacemakers aren’t prepared to make the same sacrifice demanded of the soldiers. I wondered what it would mean to give over one’s whole life, or to risk one’s life, for peacekeeping.

“At a deep emotional level,” she continues, “I never wanted to be a spectator, a bystander… in the face of unspeakable evil…. I’m still grateful for the adults at the small school having broken the code of fatalism that was part of my upbringing, a fatalism that stated it was okay to talk about a problem… but if you thought you could do something about it, you were ‘too big for your britches.’”

Nobody who reads this book could ever accuse Kathy Kelly of being “too big for her britches.” Time and time again, she confronts “unspeakable evil,” and manages to maintain her quiet dignity and never loses sight of the humanity that may be touched — even in the tormentors who confront her and others.

After being arrested at a protest at Fort Benning’s “School of the Americas,” she loses her balance while being “roughly searched and…’woman-handled’” She decides she can’t “go along with this dehumanizing action,” lowers her arms and says, “I’m sorry, but I can’t any longer cooperate with this.” She’s instantly pushed to the floor, five soldiers squat around her, one presses “his or her” knee in her back. “Please, I’ve had four lung collapses,” she gasps before the pressure eases. Then, she is literally “hogtied,” and four soldiers carry her to the next processing station. One soldier, tells her that soon the ankle and wrist cuffs, “which were very tight” would be cut off. He lets her know that he would have to move her hair, hanging in front of her face, so that her picture could be taken. Moments later, he gently squeezes her shoulder. A very simple, human gesture amidst the insanities of militarist officialdom. “I won’t forget that,” Kelly writes.

There is much that we can’t forget in this book; a book which is not so much about Kathy Kelly as it is about all of us. She makes us think; she makes us confront ourselves. Can we become better than we are?

Nobody achieves what Kelly has on her own. King had the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Frederick Douglas, the support of northern Abolitionist groups; Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony an awakened feminist perspective. A bonus of Other Lands is Heidi Holliday’s 10-page compilation of some of the highlight achievements of Voices in the Wilderness. It begins in December, 1995 when a small group meets in Chicago and starts VitW. “The basic idea was to use nonviolent civil disobedience to provoke a confrontation with the powers behind the sanctions against Iraq, which we perceived to be illegal and immoral.” A month later, the group notifies U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno “of their intention to deliberately violate the U.S./U.N. sanctions… by soliciting and transporting medical supplies to Iraq.”

Brave souls. Kind souls. With this group, we must revisit our recent history of sanctions, bombardments and occupations. Can anyone forget Madeleine Albright’s—then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.—reply to CBS presenter Leslie Stahl’s question about the cost of U.S. instigated U.N. sanctions? Stahl noted that more than 500,000 Iraqi children had already died (as of May, 1996) because of our policies and asked, “Do you think the price is worth paying?” And our unflappable ambassador responded: “Yes, we think the price is worth it.”

And “they” continued to pay that price. And we have continued to pay. Denying needed medicines, bombing and destroying Iraq’s electric grid so that incubators and other equipment could not function; destroying water-treatment plants, so that children and adults were infected with sewage-water-borne diseases. And for what? Bush Prez 1 tells us we cannot allow the greater part of the Middle East’s oil resources to fall into the hands of “dictator Saddam Hussein.” Bush 2 and his puppeteer VP Cheney tell us Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. U.N. inspectors and officials on the ground in Iraq — Scott Ritter, Hans von Sponeck, Denis Halliday, Jutta Burghardt and others — deny the allegations and protest the mis-administration of the Oil-for-Food program. None of the protests seem to register, nothing can counter the official narrative pounded into the American psyche day after day, year after year: You are with us, or you are with the terrorists! — as Bush II has put it in his cowboy jargon.

And if one chooses neither side? Does one still have the right to choose in our “land of the free, home of the brave”? Can one reject our hyper-religion of endless wars, greed, devastation of our planet? Can one choose life and humanity—what Wordsworth called the “little, nameless, unremembered acts/Of kindness and of love”?

Kelly presents us with various tableaus that frame our modern world in Caravaggio tones, provoke like Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro visions of light and dark. And we must choose where we will stand.

“We must find a way to share our resources, live more simply, and prevent the U.S. from going to war in order to exploit other people’s resources,” Kelly writes in one of her “letters from Iraq” chapters. “Our reliance on threat and force to resolve problems inspires other leaders and cultures to act similarly. The warmongers rob people of the resources needed to build a better world.” And, in another letter, she writes of cradling an Iraqi baby in her arms, relieving the child’s exhausted mother, walking down the hallway while the Shock and Awe bombardment continues, softly singing in Arabic a lullaby for the fitfully sleeping child.

And what have our wars abroad and our repression at home gained for us? We have over 2 million of our citizens wasting their lives in our prison-industrial complex, earning 12 cents an hour to make military uniforms or helmets or ammunition belts for our soldiers who perceive no other way but the military life to feed and shelter their families. At least 1 out of 4 of all the prisoners in the world are in American prisons!

How have we come to such an imbalance? Did the atrocities that we committed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq save us from our grotesque rate of domestic homicides? Did it save us from Columbine or Sandy Hook or the streets of carnage in Chicago or Detroit or—pick your city!

We tie our judges’ hands with “mandatory, minimum sentences” that condemn mothers to 5 years of separation from their desperately missed kids because they have sold $500 worth of cocaine because they had no other way to pay the rent or pay their kids’ medical or dental expenses… and what happens to the kids from such broken families?

How did we create such a dispiriting world—then and now? What have we done to relieve suffering, “to act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God”? What have we become?

Kelly is probing basic questions about the meaning of life. Personally, I’d like to see this timely and timeless book in every parochial school in America. I hope that progressive teachers in public high schools and colleges will recommend this book to their students. This is America’s own Diary of Anne Frank. This is our mirror now.

Gary Corseri has published articles, fiction, poetry and dramas at hundreds of venues worldwide, including, Dissident Voice and The New York Times. He has published novels and collections of poetry, edited the Manifestations anthology, and his dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta and elsewhere. He has taught at US public schools and prisons and at US and Japanese universities. He has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library. Gary can be reached at: gary_corseri@comcast.net. Read other articles by Gary.