Archive for August 15, 2012
[Sister Anne Fiala, RSM, 89, died Sunday, July 29, 2012, at Caritas Center in Dubuque after a lengthy illness. http://thegazette.com/]
Sister Ann Fiala passed away last week at 89, the Gazette Obituary declared. I stood at her service and searched for faces I knew. I didn’t see any.
The Sister Ann I knew was a peace activist… she was strong, feisty, determined and completely disarming. Maybe that’s a tool peacemakers need more of these days.
Sister Ann had spent the last few years lost in a fog of dementia, like so many elders. But I remembered her at one of the first meetings of Women For Peace back in 2001. It was soon after the 9/11 tragedy and the state of the states was… surreal. Cars and rows of homes were festooned with American flags in a show of solidarity that felt a lot more like nationalism than patriotism to me. Scary times.
Like the rest of the world, I watched in horror as those buildings burned. I grew up in New Jersey, just across the river from the Twin Towers, and I knew the kind of devastating loss the people of New York and New Jersey would experience. I watched the television that day, hypnotized by the repeating images. I knew even then that the world was about to change.
I was worried that the event would trigger a knee jerk response from the cowboy in the White House. But I was unprepared for the carnage that followed, or for the shocking lid that came down on any and all questions about why this attack had been launched, and the enforced lock-step ‘company line’ that was forced on America when George W intoned that we were all united in our agreement to seek revenge for this attack.
I could never grasp the kind of assent and sheep-like acquiescence that quashed the simple questions that any thinking society would have raised in 1943 Germany. But in 2001 I began to understand how citizens just keep their heads down and go along… fearing retribution and isolation, or worse, for simply asking questions.
Really? All united? In revenge against a country that was clearly not involved with the attackers? All united to demonize an entire segment of the world? I was not united. And I resented being told I was. I began to look for ANYONE who felt as I did: that restraint and examination and reflection were needed. But whenever I raised questions, at church or with neighbors, I was chastised as less than American.
I was new to Iowa but not to the pressure to ‘fit in’. We had moved to Cedar Rapids from Georgia in 2000 and I was taking time to unpack and decorate a new home. I was getting our daughter acclimated to a new city and school. I took writing courses the summer of 2001 at University of Iowa and had every intention of devoting the next year to a writing project that meant a lot to me. I had just begun a diet and exercise program and wanted to drop about 30 lbs. I had plans for my life.
But I could not focus on any of it. Instead I invited women who felt as I did to gather. Some 20 women showed up that first meeting. We sat in a circle discussing how we felt about what our nation was up to. I remember Sister Ann was there. So were other Sisters of Mercy, several Muslim women, some Episcopalians, and many without church affiliations. They spoke hesitantly about how beaten down they felt when they voiced any concern about revenge, war, the appropriate target for counter attacks.
One woman, speaking in a tiny hushed voice, told us that this was the only place she felt safe discussing her reservations about the war being drummed up around us. Even her husband and her minister had treated her like the enemy for questioning the President.
Soon there were 35, then 40, then more of us, meeting regularly…first as a kind of therapy group. But then, as the White House became more bold, more tin-eared about dissent and caution, we became angry. We started to talk about protests.
We began holding signs around town at busy intersections in all kinds of weather. “NOT IN MY NAME”, “NO WAR WITH AFGHANISTAN”, “NO WAR WITH IRAQ” , “DON’T BOMB CIVILIANS”, “BUSH’S WAR, NOT OUR WAR”. At first we just wanted to let others know, who felt as we did, that they were not alone. We were roundly criticized. Drivers already angry at 9/11 terrorists directed their rage at us. How dare we not support our country, our troops! We were ‘as bad as the terrorists’! Asking for time, restraint or investigation seemed treasonous to them. And I realized for the first time how dictatorships are fueled.
Most of us were older women, in our 50s, 60s, 70s who had never in our lives been politically active. These were grandmothers and aunts and daughters of WWII veterans. None of the women who gathered with us had been 60s radicals. But this was clear to them… we had no right to do unto others the kind of horror that was visited on us, certainly not without adequate PROOF of guilt.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette featured photos of grandmothers standing in the rain and snow. When cars would drive by giving us ‘the finger’ or shaking their heads or screaming at us, we watched the children in the back seat stare wide-eyed. We took comfort in knowing that, if nothing else, we were demonstrating that in a democracy citizens are free to dissent publicly. That is what democracy looks like. Those children were learning that it’s possible to stand against the tide of popular opinion for what you believe in … even if you don’t win.
Over the next few months we organized pot lucks, Solidari-TEAs, we wore scarves in solidarity with Muslim women, we visited and expressed support for our Muslim neighbors, and we organized a coat and blanket collection as the winter neared in Afghanistan and the people were being targeted, left homeless, hungry, cold. Hundreds of our neighbors responded with donations of clothing and blankets. Churches joined in. Perhaps they weren’t about to stand in protest, but they could do this, to express their concerns in constructive ways. We shipped TONS of blankets and warm clothing through Washington State and out to Afghanistan through Church World Service.
Sister Ann was part of all of these efforts, along with Sister Vicky Arndorfer, Zeineb Mehdi and many neighbors and friends throughout Linn County.
One day a man called me and asked to meet for coffee. He wanted to talk. We set up a meeting and only when I was leaving the house did I consider that this might be dangerous.
We had been lately been followed home from protests by angry ‘patriots’, our cars were being ticketed even when we were legally parked, or egged. Business owners would call the police and request they make us move when we protested near them. The police were apologetic and would remind us to stay on public sidewalks and not block them.
I needn’t have worried. Brad wanted to tell me how he felt about the Afghanistan bombings. In his Protestant Sunday School he was horrified to hear a young woman defend civilian bombings so casually. “I used to feel like you did too”, she told him, “but then my husband explained to me that it was necessary to kill all those children and babies because they were just going to grow up to be terrorists too”. We sat in silence over coffee stunned at the enormity of that statement from a Church Sunday School Class and unchallenged by the minister.
That year President Bush visited Cedar Rapids frequently, and though weary, we felt obliged to be out in all kinds of weather to protest the war where he could see us. Early on we were told we had to stand in a certain corner of the street, a “Free Speech Zone”. Sister Ann asked innocently enough, “Isn’t everywhere in America a Free Speech Zone”? We were largely ignored by local and national media that followed him like lap dogs, walking right by us without so much as a photo or interview.
On a particularly cold early winter morning we were outside again, waiting for Bush’s entourage to show up. The FBI had herded us into a prepared street corner, cordoned off with crime tape… as if WE were the ones who had committed a crime, not the President. Men in trench coats with guns bulging from their belts or shoulder holsters busied themselves with security details. One enormous young man was obviously our ‘minder’. He paced back and forth scowling at us. He had a shaved head, dark glasses and wore no coat. The snow began falling and we shivered. Someone went for coffee and brought cups back to us.
Sister Ann suddenly walked to the front of the group, paused a moment at the crime tape then raised it over her head and walked right up to the tall FBI monolith. We were dumbfounded. They had made it clear that we were enemies of the state, even though we just felt like worried grandmothers and war veterans. And there she was, all 98 pounds of her, walking right up and confronting THE MAN. She had to incline her head to speak, he was so much taller than she was. He had to bend slightly to hear her.
We could deduce nothing from their body language. Then we saw her raise her hand, gesturing with raised arm and index finger, like a school teacher would point out some transgression. To our astonishment he took off his sunglasses and smiled. His hard impassive mask cracked into a face we could actually recognize as human. She finished speaking, he said a few words, and she turned and walked back to us calmly. He turned away, replaced his sunglasses and stopped pacing. “WHAT DID YOU SAY to him!?” we asked her. She looked surprised that anyone had even noticed. “Oh. Well, I told him ‘Young Man, you are obviously not from the Midwest and unfamiliar with our winters. You are out here without a coat or a hat, and you are going to catch your death! Please, isn’t there someone who could loan you a coat that would fit?”
We realized immediately of course that she had surprised him and disarmed him with simple human kindness. In doing so, in that moment, she had transformed us from dangerous traitors to huddled grandmothers and grandfathers he could recognize from his own life, wherever the roots of it lay.
In those dark days, all of us still hoped that by standing in the cold and holding signs and asserting our dissent from the horrific decisions of that Administration, someone would hear us, that our neighbors would wake up and ask the important questions, that the news media who were supposed to report on such acts of bravery and dissent would interview us and actually print the story of our motivation and concern for our country’s soul. This almost never happened. But we still stood in protest. Many still do.
It took a long while for us to understand the reason that the political wind was taking our voices and silencing us, making us invisible and occasionally offering us up to be reviled and threatened. We came to understand what Eisenhower warned us of so long before. “As long as war is so profitable, we’ll see more and more of it”. We came to understand that the only voices that matter are those of the corporate elite who make billions from the bombing of civilian populations, the arming of America, manufacturing and selling weapons and drones, even those polyester American flags and plastic “support our troops” signs that were ubiquitous, and unquestioned. We were just in their way.
I don’t think Sister Ann ever accepted that. She prayed and worked against unjust and overwhelming force with every fiber of her librarian’s being and every particle of a nun’s spiritual fervor. She fought the good fight and did so with warmth and kindness and love. She represented the best in all of us.
Marybeth Riley Gardam is co-founder of Women For Peace. She has lived in Iowa for 12 years and is state coordinator for Iowa Move To Amend, having realized that peace efforts get sidelined by corporate personhood and the protected rights of corporations to make profits at any cost — human, environmental, personal. Read more about it at MoveToAmend.org/Iowa. In remembering Sister Ann Fiala she pays tribute to all the women who stood with her on street corners in 2001-02 and continue to work for peace and justice.