Parting with Sister Anne Montgomery
Anne Montgomery died yesterday. I
remember her words to me and to our young Iraqi friend Eva, sitting in the Al
Monzer hotel in Amman, Jordan. This was in 2006, and she’d waited three weeks
for a visa to enter Iraq as a peace witness. Anne had crossed into zones of
conflict more times than any other activist I’d known. During these weeks with
us, she’d been meeting and working with Iraqi refugees, many of them
undocumented and struggling to eke out a living in Jordan.
Now the wait
was over. The visas were not forthcoming, and Anne had decided she was needed
most in the Palestinian West Bank city of Hebron, where the Christian
Peacemaker Team — at that point, she had been a “CPT-er” for 11 years — was
particularly short staffed and had requested a month of her time. She was going
to attempt the crossing from Jordan into Israel by taxi, since Israel could
very well have refused her entry, and we were to save a bed for her. But for
the moment, we treasured the chance to learn from her in case this was a
It was, and
a greater parting has now come, so I take comfort in her words, and rededicate
myself to taking direction from them.
I asked Anne
about one of her contemporaries, Barbara Deming, who had been active in the
movements for civil rights, women’s equality and an end to the Vietnam War.
While acknowledging that to succeed peace activists must become “many more than
we are now,” Deming had nonetheless insisted that activists must joyfully and
determinedly engage in what she termed “the further invention of nonviolence.”
So I asked Anne for her recommendations about inventiveness and nonviolence.
I think this
has always been a big question because we need to be creative and not always
reactive … I felt it in Palestine when the wall was being built there between
Israel and the West Bank. We waited too long. It’s important to get there
before it happens. To see something coming and not have to repeat the crisis …
to try to dissolve the crisis before it happens.
you can’t always repeat what you’ve done before. When I joined CPT, I’d spent
10 years doing Plowshares work. I thought, “Maybe we should try something new.”
What surprised me was that young people kept coming along and joining in the
Plowshares actions. They were thinking of their own creative way of doing
actions. They took this idea, this spirit, and found out where it fit in the
issue that concerned them — their campaign to close a spy station or an
airstrip or whichever nuclear or conventional war threat they faced. I think
that creativity is very important.
important not to look for immediate effectiveness, thinking it’s got to work
and we’ve got to see the results, or it’s no good. Massive marches against U.S.
immigration law have taken place, recently, in many places. These laws cause
horrible death and destruction, and the mass marches have really affected the
government. The same happened with the Vietnam War. Sometimes it’s very
appropriate to have massive marches. But consistency is also needed even in
doing small things.
Anne what she meant by small things. She responded:
thinking of small groups. I’m thinking of our two friends who just came out of
Baghdad. When they [both CPT members] left last week, people were crying
because CPT was the one group that had stayed. Consistency is terribly
important. If it’s the right thing to do, keep doing it.
I walked with a group of 25 people to the furthest gate we could reach near to
Guantanamo. It was a tremendous experience that went on for 10 days.
can’t just go home and leave it. Now people have met and drawn people from the
wider community. Something will happen as a next step. I think it’s important
to be able to do something and not give up. You’ve done the right thing. If it
changes ourselves and the people we know and the people we work with, then it
makes a bit of a difference. I think
there is hope on college campuses. I was
in Baltimore for several weeks with the peace community, Jonah House. They bring college students in to help with
work on the grounds and learn about different aspects of peacemaking. You pray, think and reflect together. You come to these gatherings from some deep
place inside yourself. You’re inspired by something. You don’t focus just on
prayer, reflecting on a book…you go out and find some action that needs to be
done. Some ongoing work that builds peace.
person-to-person, community-to-community, and then networking begins. We have a
network of people now — the Atlantic Life Community — who meet from Maine to
Florida, from time to time. Many find their community in these gatherings. You
gain a sense that you’re not alone, that you’re helping build a community. We
commit ourselves to a disarmament action together at least once a year. There’s
not much structure … Instead, we say we are responsible for our way of life,
and for far more than one action with no follow-up.
In the 1970s,
working in schools run by her religious community, the Sisters of the Sacred
Heart, Anne contributed to antiwar work mostly by encouraging her students to
ask questions as she taught them their English, history and philosophy classes.
After three decades of teaching mainly in private schools, she felt intensely
aware of the poverty that she called “the other side of New York City,” and
asked to begin working in a “street academy” with disadvantaged students.
academy had been intended to draw students back to school that were dropouts.
“They taught me a lot about where government money was not going,” said Anne.
“They didn’t even care about voting because it wasn’t doing them any good. Some
of them joined the army just to get off the streets.”
activism expanded in scope, Anne continued learning from people who lived in
the “mean streets” at home and abroad, in places where people don’t have a
stake in the economic benefits of their society. She was punished with lengthy
imprisonments for participating in Plowshares actions. She’d
spoken with people in the open-air prisons of Central American dictatorships,
joining in faith-based actions to help them free themselves. And she’d listened
to and learned from the conditions on streets that were being bombed and in
neighborhoods — in Sarajevo, Hebron and Baghdad — where sniper shots and mortar
explosions were common.
personally watched Anne map out routes in large and sometimes hostile cities,
covering long distances on foot, I had grown to fiercely admire her ability to
chart courses. During that meeting in 2006, I asked her if she could discern
any patterns from her decades of peace team work for activists like me to
She said the
pattern was first, forming communities, and second, thinking carefully about
means and ends: not trying to sustain a difficult life of activism on one’s
own, and always insisting that the means you employ determine the ends you
arrive at. Anne explained:
just a matter of blocking doors, shouting, doing a Plowshares action or
whatever, but in every aspect it’s nonviolent, and not just resisting but doing
it peacefully. One person said you use two hands: with one hand you say no but
with the other hand you say come join us, be part of us. And two feet: with one
foot you do charity work but the other foot is the foot of justice. You try to
see what’s behind the injustice, the hunger, and work to change it.
the call for people to intervene nonviolently and take the same risk as
soldiers. CPT founders, Dan Berrigan and others have issued this call. Many
groups do this type of work. They take a risk and say there’s a third way.
You’re not limited to making war or giving in. You can resist nonviolently and
be in a place to protect people nonviolently.
case, there is an oppressor and those who are oppressed. Structural violence
must be understood, along with the consequences of combat and attacks with
weapons. It’s important to get at that structural violence and tell the truth
the U.N. peacekeepers were running around in tanks with bulletproof vests and
guns. We didn’t do that. We tried to live alongside people and understand their
situation. We were running around in shorts and T-shirts, right along with
them, trying to find water.
In Mostar, I
remember that some soldiers would sit in their tanks and talk to people. They
really did try to have some kind of relationship, but they were still in their
tanks. They were not disarmed. Soldiers in Iraq ask us, “What are you doing
outside without a gun?” We say, “We’re safer this way.” Some soldiers tell us,
“Maybe you’re right!”
I asked how
her religious faith affected her efforts for progressive change and nonviolent
people like Camus who claim to be atheists,” said Anne, her eyes alight with
sincere appreciation for one of her favorite philosophers.
for progress and change and made a tremendous commitment without having what faith
gives us by way of strength, hope and nourishment. For me, the sacraments give
a sense of the sacredness of earth. The Eucharist is very important to me.
When a group
forms based on faith and has the sense of the spirit of God working on the
Earth and in people, it gives a great strength. And you don’t worry so much
about results. If we believe in planting seeds, and if we act in that spirit,
it helps even when you feel like you’re useless.
can relate to each other by praying together, you get to know them better.
Little irritations aren’t so great because you see what’s important and deep in
people. It helps give community and strength and spirit. When something happens
like Tom’s death, we turn to faith. [Tom Fox, a Christian Peacemaker Team
member, was taken hostage in Iraq and (unlike his three surviving colleagues) killed by
his captors in 2006.]
when you are in prison. People come. A little group forms. People look for that
kind of strength, when they’ve been isolated and abused.
Eva had been
wondering, even before our conversation, how Anne overcomes fear, in the face
of risks like that Tom Fox had taken. Anne was characteristically
matter-of-fact in her answer.
My nature in
crisis is to become more directive. I don’t feel that much fear. It doesn’t
agitate me terribly. You suddenly come up against a tank with the guns pointed
at you and stop. I don’t freeze. I begin to think at that moment.
times when I have been afraid, for instance, when I’m alone in a strange city
in the dark. I was mugged in Palestine, and there wasn’t much I could do except
struggle. The people who mugged me grew afraid and ran off. When soldiers are charging
at you, and there’s a sudden decision to be made, I can still think and figure
out whether it’s best to sit there or move to the side. It’s in my nature. It’s
not courage; it’s the way I react.
My fears are
more in the line of hating to argue with people. For example, I don’t like to
argue with Jewish settlers. But sometimes if you stick with such an argument,
you find out how hurt they are that they lost a son or experienced a trauma.
But I hide behind the banners at demonstrations; it comes from being shy.
Dan Berrigan knows he can’t go to prison for a long
stretch, but every time our peace group in New York City is sitting in at the
Intrepid or a recruitment station, he’s there.
Sitting in a jail cell for six hours is tough on him, but he’s there. He reaches out to people through poetry,
through teaching, through giving retreats.
against the sanctions, we stood against the war. What do we do now? We must
keep thinking out the next stage, even though it didn’t go quite right with the
Anne how much she admired her. Anne gave a slight shrug and an endearing smile.
“It’s important to be consistent and not to give up.”