By Barb Arland-Fye
Peace activist Kathy Kelly has an indelible memory from girlhood of watching “Night and Fog,” a 1955 short documentary made 10 years after the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. “I never wanted to be sitting on the sidelines or on my hands in the bleachers just watching some unspeakable evil happen,” she told her audience during a presentation Sept. 14 at St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City. In fact, the co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence has devoted her life to peace-making efforts.
Evalee Mickey, who introduced Kelly, described her as “Catholic, Irish, peace activist, jailbird, war tax resister, writer, speaker and one courageous woman. As one Chicago Tribune writer said about Kathy, ‘If jailbirds were listed in an avian guide, she would rate a special entry as Dove.’”
Mickey might have added the description “storyteller” because Kelly mesmerizes audiences with stories of her lived experiences in countries ravaged by war, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq. Kelly had just recently returned from Afghanistan, she told the Iowa City audience, and plans to return later this month. “I’m itching to get back there.” She currently works with Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul and refers to the city as if it were her second home. The petite, curly-haired American shared a conversation she’d had with three mothers in Kabul who told her that they thought they were going to go crazy from struggling to feed their children. The price of wheat has skyrocketed and access to grain is difficult. Kelly looked at her audience and said plaintively, “Women feel they might lose their minds because they can’t feed their children ….”
Witnessing the shock and awe bombardment of Baghdad in 2003, seeing children with missing limbs as a result of being caught in the crossfire of war, seeing refugees living in squalor on barren land all have made an impact. “There are patterns of life that can be best understood when you are sitting next to people,” Kelly observed.
Some would disagree with the tactics she’s taken to protest war and to call attention to injustice: trespassing at and planting corn on a nuclear missile silo near Kansas City, Mo., for which she served nine months in prison; trespassing at Fort Benning, Ga., for which she received a three-month prison sentence and traveling to Iraq as part of Voices in the Wilderness to deliver food and medicine in violation of U.S. sanctions. Kelly sees it as her duty to take radical action to try to raise awareness about injustice on earth and to correct it. Part of being a pacifist is “raising the lament” for the suffering that occurs in the world, she believes.
For her efforts to bring about peace and justice, Kelly has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and has received a number of awards, including the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Common Ground Award given by the Association of Chicago Priests and, most recently, the Clare Award from the Sisters of St. Francis in Clinton, Iowa.
Following Kelly’s talk at St. Patrick’s, Father Rudolph Juarez, the pastor, addressed Kelly. “We consecrated this building and the grounds outside it to be of service to God and neighbors. Your presence furthers that consecration. I just want to thank you for being here.”