Dominican Sister of Hope Pat Jelly can’t remember her first reaction to human trafficking.
Although human trafficking is relatively new on her radar (she took steps to raise awareness about human trafficking during the Super Bowl of 2014), Sister Pat has long been a proponent of freedom and dignity.
As early as the 1960s, Sister Pat attended civil rights and peace marches in New York City and Washington, D.C. She marched for peace during the Vietnam era, too.
The sister might not remember her initial reaction to the denial of human rights, but she knows for sure that it must have been “revulsion.” In 2016, she’s still repulsed by the fact that slavery and racial injustice — whether it’s trafficking or of another form — exist in American society.
Sister Pat entered the Dominican Sisters in 1956. Although she “didn’t see news that much” during her first two years in the novitiate, it didn’t take long before she became well-informed and began taking action on justice issues around her.
“We were certainly part of the silent generation, but the world was changing,” Sister Pat recalled.
“The beginnings of Vatican II were taking shape at the same time that the civil rights movement was beginning.”
Sister Pat traveled to marches in major cities on the East Coast to stand in solidarity for equal rights and world peace.
While she clearly remembers marching, she wasn’t the only one. Sister Louise Levesque represented the Dominican Sisters of Fall River (now Dominican Sisters of Hope) in a New York City peace march during the Vietnam war.
“I had no idea where I was,” Sister Louise, a New-England native, recalled of her bus trip to New Jersey and then New York City.
“But, once we arrived at the parade, we Dominican Sisters all joined together to march.”
Sisters from the Dominican Sisters of the Sick-Poor (also now Dominican Sisters of Hope) sent representatives to marches, as well. They saw systemic injustice firsthand in their ministries as they provided nursing services to residents of Harlem, the South Bronx, and other communities that struggled to afford healthcare.
Years after participating in equal rights and peace marches in Ossining, the West, and around New York as a Dominican Sister of the Sick-Poor, Sister Bette Ann Jaster joined LifeWay Network, one of two organizations in the New York Metro area that provides safe housing and education for women survivors of human trafficking, as a representative for Sisters and Catholics in general. Her involvement on the committee has since declined, but Sister Bette Ann is as bothered by the issue as ever.
“I keep wondering, ‘What more can we do?’” she said.
Without a doubt, there is much more to do before our country sees justice for all. In the 1960s, as she marched for all who were victims of injustice, Sister Pat Jelly honestly believed that society was transforming for the better. She, and perhaps those beside her, foresaw “a new world” endowed with rights and justice.
By now it has become clear to Sister Pat that the process of achieving peace and justice is going to take a bit longer than she previously thought. ("I wanted a better environment in the 80’s, when lead poisoning got national attention," she said. "We’re still talking about that issue today, in Flint, Mich.")
Nonetheless, a sometimes stark reality doesn't stop her from striving to make change. In 2014, Sister Pat Jelly, along with Dominican Sister of Hope Pat Flynn, OP, drove to a New Jersey Days' Inn armed with stacks of print outs of facts on human trafficking and soaps wrapped in hotline numbers.
“When you think of the number of people who are trafficked — and what pimps make on women — it’s beyond comprehension,” Sister Pat said.
The nearby Meadowlands was preparing for Super Bowl XLVIII, and the pair had volunteered to raise awareness on the issue of modern-day slavery in their home community.
Connecting with hotels was a small step, but it was worth it. Although Sister Pat Jelly said she wishes she could have done more, she acknowledged that you have to start somewhere.
Moreover, because justice issues are so interconnected — human trafficking is a symptom of climate change, nuclear weapons and food injustice cause both of the aforementioned — doing even something small can help all around.
“You can’t deal with every social issue that needs to be dealt with,” Sister Pat shared.
“But, that doesn’t mean that you don’t continue to work toward justice. You have to try to live it, however imperfectly.”
Nowadays, for Sister Pat Jelly, much has changed. She’s gray-haired, and she is retired from her full-time ministry of teaching. Still, when she hears about slavery, injustice, racism, and basic assaults to the dignity of each person, her reaction remains the same.
“Slave labor is occurring, now, in 2016,” she said. She added that lead poisoning, and racial inequality, and different wages for men and women are all prevalent problems, too.
Maybe the reality of today, then, isn’t so different from when the sisters marched surrounded by many. In the 1960s, marches weren’t meant to entirely solve issues — they were meant to allow people to make a stand, be heard, and (literally) take steps in the right direction.
In 2016, the process of achieving justice is just as gradual, but just as important.
“During the civil rights movement, people were enslaved. People are being enslaved now. It connects with not only racial reasons, but also with many other justice issues," Sister Pat explained.
“We have a desire and a responsibility to do something about enslavement and injustice.”