The Common Good
August 2013

The Song Remains

by Ramzi Kysia | August 2013

After more than two decades of defiant work for peace, Kathy Kelly continues to move others to love and action.

THE FONDEST memories I have of Kathy Kelly are of her singing. It’s safe to say that her three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize were not for her voice, which is sometimes sweet but often a touch out of key. At times I’ve imagined her feeling briefly self-conscious about this, but that passes. The song remains, and I am again reminded of just how deeply this woman can move me.

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In spring 1999, in a small banquet room at Georgetown University, I first heard Kelly sing and speak about the suffering in Iraq. A crowd of about 200 people had gathered to hear about her work. She had been to Iraq dozens of times to put a human face on the conflict there and to defy the drastic financial and trade embargo that the U.N. Security Council had imposed shortly after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

She briefly went over the statistics—the deep poverty, the lack of medicines, the estimated half-million children who had died, many due to the U.N. sanctions, enforced in part by a U.S.-led blockade—but she quickly moved on. Statistics weren’t her strength.

Instead she spoke from the heart. Kelly talked about the ordinary Iraqis she had met: the worn women who served her tea and biscuits they could barely afford, the countless kids in threadbare hand-me-downs who ran after her merrily in the street, the tired doctors who broke down crying as they remembered all the children they had lost, the stone-faced parents who accepted her condolences because they didn’t know what else to do.

She also told the story of Zayna, a 7-month-old baby girl who died of malnutrition shortly after Kelly visited her in the hospital.

Then she started singing “We Shall Overcome” in Arabic, after telling the crowd how her friend Sattar, an Iraqi engineer turned taxi driver, had spent hours sitting with her in Baghdad, patiently translating the lyrics into Arabic and teaching them to her.

I felt completely ridiculous listening to her singing words to a song I imagined had no cultural relevance to Iraqis. Noticing people in the audience crying, I silently mocked them for being so sentimental. Then I realized that I, too, was crying.

Like many in the room that day, I was already aware of the crisis. Like others, I was already reasonably outraged. But intellect is not enough. The ultimate failure of reason is that it alone cannot break through a distant heart, and you have to break hearts if you’re going to move people to take action.

KELLY FIRST STARTED singing in the choir of her family’s church during the tumultuous years of the ’50s and ’60s. The third of six children, she was raised in a working-class Catholic home in Chicago’s Garfield Ridge neighborhood. Those times had a deep effect on her.

“There were plenty of heroes and heroines to look up to during my teen years,” she says, “when Martin Luther King’s brave efforts in Chicago were denounced by my relatives and neighbors, and Daniel Berrigan’s flashy wit and smile lit up our imaginations about creative subversion.

“I was fairly sure that I’d grow up to join the nuns. Nuns showed no interest in acquiring personal wealth, and they seemed happy about looking after us. I didn’t become one of the nuns, but I’m surely cheering for them now.”

In the ’70s, Kelly earned a master’s degree in religious education from Chicago Theological Seminary and started teaching at St. Ignatius College Prep, where she sometimes presented articles to her students from a range of radical sources, including essays by Karl Meyer—a pacifist, member of the Catholic Worker movement, and war tax resister whom she later married in 1982. Although they divorced in 1994, they remain close friends.

“I think fatalism trumped imaginative creativity during my late teens and early adulthood,” she says. “Meeting Karl made a huge difference in my life. Karl’s radicalism easily made sense to me and caught me at a time when I could rely on both him and a community of friends for ‘backup.’”

Kelly started volunteering at a local soup kitchen, where she began lifelong friendships with other Chicago activists, including Roy Bourgeois. A Catholic priest and former naval officer, Bourgeois later founded SOA Watch, which works to expose the massacres and human rights abuses committed by graduates of the U.S. military-run School of the Americas (aka WHINSEC) in Fort Benning, Ga.

In 1980, Kelly stopped paying federal income taxes because almost half of those taxes fund the military. Protesting trade sanctions against Nicaragua, she and Meyer smuggled Nicaraguan coffee beans into the U.S. and used them to serve “illegal” coffee in the Chicago office of the U.S. district attorney.

Nonviolent direct action and community remain at the center of Kelly’s faith. She likes to say that we can all “catch courage” from one another: the courage to do peace work, to make ourselves vulnerable not only to violence but to ridicule and sometimes loneliness as well, and the courage to keep on working even when we can’t know what the end results of our work will be.

For Kelly, the most hopeful lessons of Jesus’ life are his radical love and his call for courage. Although the injunction in Romans 13 to submit to worldly authorities has often been used to discourage civil disobedience, she points out that Romans 13:8 teaches us, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”

“The love command trumps other commands whenever lawmakers usurp their own authority by prescribing or upholding the devaluation and destruction of life,” says Kelly, “and Jesus consistently tells his friends and followers not to be afraid. When the disciples are petrified that a storm will overturn their boat and quite likely fearing the cost of being associated with Jesus and the radical love he practiced and preached, Jesus walks on the sea and says, ‘Don’t be afraid’ [Matthew 14:22-33]. I can relate to the overwhelming fear of the disciples. And I also cherish the encouragement to overcome our fears, catching courage from one another.”

One of the peace activists from whom Kelly caught courage was Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan. In 1980, Berrigan and seven other peace workers broke into a nuclear missile plant in King of Prussia, Pa., hammered on two warhead nose cones, poured blood on some of the documents they found, and offered prayers for peace. Their actions started the Plowshares movement, which aims to literally enact the prophet Isaiah’s words: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Inspired in part by Berrigan’s work, Kelly joined the Missouri Peace Planting in 1988. She broke into a U.S. military installation housing nuclear missiles and unlawfully planted corn in the ground to symbolically reclaim the land from war. The peace planting resulted in her first long-term prison term—nine months in a maximum-security federal prison in Kentucky. It would not be her last.

After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Kelly joined the Gulf Peace Team, a group of dozens of peace workers from around the world who established a camp on the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia in order to provide a direct, nonviolent presence opposing the world’s rush to war. Building on this experience, Kelly co-founded Voices in the Wilderness in 1995 to draw attention to the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the 1991 Gulf war and the continuing sanctions against Iraq. From 1996 to 2003, Voices organized more than 70 delegations to Iraq, openly defying the U.S. blockade. In 2003 she helped lead the Iraq Peace Team—an international nonviolent presence in Baghdad during the U.S. invasion.

In 2000, the American Friends Service Committee nominated Kelly for the Nobel Peace Prize as “an expression of the importance of the individuals who transform a personal commitment to peace into visible and effective action.” She was also nominated for the award in 2002 by Irish Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire and, again, anonymously, in 2003.

The U.S. government eventually prosecuted Voices in the Wilderness for illegally delivering banned medicines and children’s toys to Iraqi hospitals and imposed a $20,000 fine. Although the government never tried to collect the fine, in 2005 Kelly and others founded a successor organization, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, to continue their work. Since then, VCNV has organized several campaigns of active resistance in the U.S. and sent dozens of delegations of ordinary Americans to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq.

I NOW REALIZE the impact of Kelly’s song that day at Georgetown University. Like so much of her work, it was a conscious strategy of connection.

Peace work is as much about making connections as anything else: making the intellectual connections between institutionalized violence and poverty and the emotional connections between our choices and their consequences, and building concrete, physical connections between our diverse human communities.

A fundamental truth obscured by years of violence and suffering is that places such as Iraq and Afghanistan are not, in fact, “war zones,” but nations of deep history. They are places of marriage and love, of children and artistry, of entrepreneurship and creativity, of grief and joy, and of suffering and perseverance. They are lands of human devotion to which war has been brought by militants of many nations and ideologies—and prolonged by our collective inability to effectively oppose them.

“At its core,” says Kelly, “war is impoverishment. War’s genesis and ultimate end is in the poverty of our hearts. If we can realize that the world’s liberation begins within those troubled hearts, then we may yet find peace.”

I recently asked Kelly what advice she had for young people thinking about doing peace work themselves. “Young people could, understandably, feel sullen and resentful about the world they’re inheriting,” she said, “but I’m hoping they’ll find resilience more attractive. My advice to them would be to find kindred spirits. Learn about courage, the ability to control your fears, in all kinds of exciting, interesting ways, ranging from your current crush to jumping off the high-dive.

“Give yourself a pat on the back for the good you’ve done. And always remember that if you spread the peanut butter too thin, the bread rips.”

At 59 her hair is starting to show more gray than brown, but her passion and good humor haven’t changed. Although she stands only 5-foot-3, Kathy Kelly still towers over most everyone I’ve ever known. 

Ramzi Kysia is an Arab-American pacifist and writer. He volunteered several times in Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness from 1999 to 2003 and has worked on peace and justice projects in the U.S., Europe, and throughout the Middle East.

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