Remembering 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 Anne had 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 parting.

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. She said:

“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.

“Of course, 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.

“It’s also 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.”

Eva asked Anne what she meant by small things. She responded:

“Well, I’m 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.

“In December 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.

“But you 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.

“It happens, 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.

The street 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.”

As her 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 a 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.

Having 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. During that meeting in 2006, I asked her if she could discern any patterns from her decades of peace teamwork for activists like me to follow.

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:

“It’s not 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.

“There’s also 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.

“In every 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 about it.

“In Sarajevo, 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 direct action.

“I admire people like Camus who claim to be atheists,” said Anne, her eyes alight with sincere appreciation for one of her favorite philosophers.

“He worked 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.

“When people 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.]

“Faith helps 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.

“There are 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.

“We stood 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 stage before.”

Eva told 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.”

Kathy Kelly co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org). A version of this piece first appeared at wagingnonviolence.org.