Saturday, September 4, 2010

The day I crossed the line – for peace

By Jeannette Arnquist
Director, Ministry of Life Dignity and Justice

Back in June I referred to spending the night on the floor of a county jail, and I promised to tell the story of how I got there.

Remember the US Bishops 1983 Pastoral “The Challenge of Peace?” I found the document deeply moving and highly motivating. I realize that already puts me in a rather small category of people, those who seek out Church documents and actually read them. I seriously began looking for ways to make a difference. At the time, the world was dangerously close to nuclear war. The experience of being a parent and the passionate desire to see a future for my children and really, all children, drove me to seek out communities of people who were working for peace.

I was drawn to Nevada Desert Experience and the prayerful activities and non-violent actions they sponsored around Nevada Test Site. I participated in these activities for quite a while before I felt called to commit civil disobedience.

On August 6, 1986, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, I crossed the line with a couple hundred other people. We were too numerous for the local jails, so we were shipped out to county jails all over Nevada. I and 23 other women were transported to Tonopah. We arrived at the jail in the middle of the night and we tried to get some sleep on the floor.

The next day 18 of us were moved to a two bedroom, one bathroom apartment fitted out with cots –wall to wall cots. We had an armed guard at all times. They took our clothing and possessions and issued us jail uniforms designed for men. Mine was size 46L. Meals were brought in to us – that was the time when ketchup was designated as a vegetable and a pickle counted for greens. During the day we had a choice of working in the animal shelter or the cemetery.

When we returned to our quarters, we all wanted a shower and a chance to wash our uniforms, so we would be fresh for the next day. We created a lottery for the shower with time limits. After we got clean, we changed into togas made from our sheets and washed our uniforms in the bath tub. In the desert heat it was no problem for them to dry over night on the fence.

We spent six days together, during which time we formed relationships and community. Most of us were Catholics, but not all. There were several Sisters. Many of the women had been working for peace all of their professional lives. Others were like me. We prayed together daily and shared our stories and had long discussions. We wrote articles and songs. The experience was very formative for me in that I learned that very ordinary people – people like myself -- could find ways to work for the transformation of the world, as well as the transformation of ourselves. I learned that “fighting for peace” is a contradiction; that (to paraphrase Gandhi) we must become the change we seek.

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