|Nun follows her faith down road to prison|
by Dan Carpenter
Many Christians practice the Gospel by going around teaching other people how they ought to live. Sister Kathleen Desautels does it by going off to learn how other people are forced to live.
She's done it in Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Haiti, Colombia, Guatemala -- places where "U.S. policy creates the cultures and conditions for people to hate us." She's done it in inner-city Chicago, where she works for a faith-based organization called 8th Day Center for Justice; and where she spent a day in jail for assertively trying to see a senator who wouldn't answer her calls and letters.
Next month, she expects to embark on a new educational experience: a stint in a federal penitentiary for trespassing upon Fort Benning., Ga., in protest of a U.S. training school for Latin American soldiers. Since 1997, Desautels has been arrested six times for breaching the fort's entrance as part of annual funeral processions on behalf of the tens of thousands who have died in Latin American violence in recent decades. Thousands of demonstrators, many from religious orders and Catholic universities, come to the November actions at Columbus, Ga., and scores of them enter the premises and get arrested.
Generally, they get citations and "banning letters" until their "recidivism," as Desautels puts it, reaches a critical point. When she goes to trial July 8, with 40-some others, for her arrest last November, she will finally get time in the federal prison in Atlanta, she figures. Probably three to six months.
The Indianapolis native would be far from the only Catholic nun to do prison time for trying to close down the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as School of the Americas. Nor, at 64, would she be the oldest nun imprisoned; not by 25 years. She is proud to join the company, not just of her colleagues but of the poor and non-white who populate the prisons.
"Twenty years ago, I had a life-transforming experience in Bolivia. Now, I will get to experience another culture many of us don't get to see, though too many do. It is a new ministry, one where I'll learn more than I'm able to give. I'm a Sister of Providence. Whenever there's a crisis, we are schooled to believe it is an opportunity."
Classmates and teachers at St. Joan of Arc School and St. Mary-of-the-Woods College may not have predicted a long rap sheet for Kathy Desautels; but her work as an educator, prison chaplain and advocate for the downtrodden would be no surprise. She sees her work and her civil disobedience as linked, in that she sees her privileges and other people's poverty as linked.
"I would estimate three-quarters of those who went down in '97 were nuns," she says. "Many of our own (Providence) sisters had the Latin American experience first hand. They had seen the treatment of the poor by the military. It was an easy jump for us. Now I would say three-quarters or at least two-thirds of them are young people, college and high school students. They are making connections -- with the sweatshops, with the environment.
"Corporate globalization -- the market economy -- is possible because the military in other countries keeps down the poor."
While the Pentagon insists the Fort Benning operation seeks to tame dictatorships and teach democracy, opponents point to the hideous human rights record of U.S.-backed regimes in Central and South America and note that the region's most notorious political killers were alumni of the "School for Assassins."
Desautels felt the fear of life under men with guns when she traveled to Bolivia in 1982, shortly after four American women were killed. Readers of American newspapers, she realized, had no idea.
"After 20 years, I carry the burden of knowing. I cannot not act in solidarity with the poor."
Her late parents, Leon and Josephine Desautels, didn't exactly share her politics; but she's convinced they would understand, as her four siblings, trepidations notwithstanding, do. What is she, after all, but a good Hoosier Christian, bound for a place with a longer Christian tradition than churches?
"I have family and community to thank -- and blame, some might say -- for being immersed in a culture of love, mercy and justice, and for doing what I believe to be the work of the Gospels."
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