Finding success in small steps

Kathy Kelly, right, participates in the vigil outside Fort Benning Nov. 22. (NCR photos/Joshua J. McElwee)

COLUMBUS, GA. -- When thinking of people who have dedicated their lives to issues of peace and justice, Kathy Kelly, Marie Dennis, and Elizabeth McAlister certainly deserve a place at the top of the list.

Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, speaking with people and sharing their everyday experiences. Dennis, director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns and a co-president of Pax Christi International, has been active in areas of peace and nonviolence for over 30 years. McAlister cofounded Jonah House in 1973 with her late husband, Phillip Berrigan, and has been a pillar of the Catholic Worker movement since.

NCR spoke with the three women on separate occasions during the School of the Americas Watch vigil held here Nov. 20-22. The conversations were sometimes personal, looking for answers as to how each woman continues her work after years of struggle. The answers have been edited for clarity and length.

NCR: How, day to day, do you find the strength to do your work?

Kelly: My answer is actually younger people. If I’m in touch with the people whose future is so affected by what my generation has done, then I will work harder to try to offset some of the mistakes that my generation and others before me have put in place. That’s sort of what keeps me going. I wouldn’t call it guilt, but a sense of being responsible and being with the younger people. Any time I can go to a high school then I really feel energized. I think, “I’m not going to walk out on these new people.” Also my memories help me. I’m never going to walk away from an Iraqi woman whose baby was dying in her arms, and just say, “Well, it’s politically difficult to organize around this issue.”

Dennis: Honestly, I think that it’s in community. When we know people at home. And that’s repeated all over the world. That’s the only reason we can keep going. It’s because what you know is that reality is not what the military projects. Reality is not what people in power project. Reality is what we’re living every day. And so the more authentically we can live, the better chance there is that we’ll be able to keep on going. I think that’s very real. It’s not empty words.

McAlister: Faith. I believe in it. And if you believe in it, you’ve got the energy to do it.

Is there a way you measure success?

Kelly: You know, 50 years ago, Dorothy Day was considered a pariah. But now, if a person is studying to become a Catholic, the RCIA manual will have that person studying Day’s life. University students are writing papers, high school students are doing the “Dorothy Day experience.” We see these signs. I think there is a great deal of success that has happened because of the grass-roots, steady efforts of people whose values are strong and who lined their lives up with their values. And people are so much happier when they do that. That in itself is a success. You see somebody who is thriving because they are living in accord with their values -- that’s a success. Now, what does that do to mitigate the suffering of someone who just had to run away from their home in Pakistan? Or whose home has burst into by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan? I can’t quite square that. I think that for me, being in the reality of some of the people who bear the brunt of our wars has been very, very important.

Dennis: Maybe success is faithfulness, but I don’t believe that we’re called to be faithful and not effective. I believe we’re called to be both faithful and effective. We have to be constantly reevaluating what we’re doing. And when we feel like we’re stuck we need to figure out new ways to work, new ways to join the struggle. It’s very hard to measure success, but we do have a sense of when we’re moving forward and when we’re not. You can see, you can perceive small steps. The discouraging thing is that even when we make progress a lot of times it feels like we’re creating bigger problems as we go. And it’s very hard. I find that I have to combine the deep, long-term systemic work and resistance with very practical short-term things -- like making bread, growing vegetables and taking time for relationships. Then you see the fruit of what you’re doing even when sometimes we may never see it in terms of the systems of the world.

McAlister: No. Leave that to others, that’s not up to us.

Is there something you would have changed that you often think about?

Dennis: Sure, all the time. I believe that in life if we’re genuine, if we’re really trying to be true to ourselves, we really just take one step at a time. You need to take the next step that feels right to you. I think that it’s not so much about regret as it is that I wish we were more creative. I wish we were more insightful. I wish we were able to make change more real. We don’t have that gift of being able to relive our lives. But if we don’t learn from it, if all we do is keep doing the same thing over and over again and it’s not making a difference, then we need to question it. And that’s hard to do sometimes because we’re all working so hard, putting so much time and energy in, pouring our lives into the struggle for a better world. It’s hard to look at it sometimes and say, “You know what, that’s not working and we need to go in this direction.” But we have to do it.

McAlister: There are lots of small things I would have changed, but nothing big. You regret you can’t do more, but there’s a whole danger in there of thinking you’re the savior of the world. And we’re not. Our thing is just to keep on keeping on with our best lights. Maybe I regret I didn’t spend enough time with some people. Things of that sort: that I wasn’t kinder to people, that I wasn’t more loving to some people. Things like that I really regret. That certain people passed away without sitting down and having a real good talk with them.

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