By Don Terry
Published October 17, 2004
If jailbirds were listed in an avian guide, Kathy Kelly would rate a special entry for “Dove.” She has been arrested more than 60 times at home and abroad in her remarkable journey from St. Daniel the Prophet parish on the Southwest Side to the forefront of the American peace movement.
Though nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, she is not well known beyond the world of anti-war activists and jailers. Writer Studs Terkel, the chronicler of quiet heroes, calls her “The Pilgrim.”
“She has visited more countries, cities and small towns not listed in Baedeker’s guide than anyone I have ever known,” Terkel writes in his latest book of oral history, “Hope Dies Last.” “Her hosts have been the men, women and children whose homes have been under constant fire. Her pilgrimages have one purpose: to reveal the lives of war’s innocent victims.”
Her sometimes lonely path was set a long time ago at St. Paul-Kennedy High School, though she didn’t realize it at the time. She sat in the dark with tears streaming down her cheeks as she watched a film about the Holocaust called “Night and Fog,” Afterward, she felt the stirrings of resolve, as she would tell Terkel many years later. “I never, ever,” she said, “want to be sitting on the sidelines or sitting on my hands in the bleachers and just watch some unspeakable evil happen.”
For the last 25 years, the 51-year-old Kelly has been nowhere near the sidelines. She has been willing to go anywhere in the world-Bosnia, Haiti, the West Bank-to do whatever she can to help victims of violence and demonstrate for peace. As long as the activity is non-violent, she has been willing to be arrested again and again. She has been willing to go to jail again and again. She has even been willing to die.
Just before the start of the war in Iraq last year, while most foreign diplomats and journalists heeded President Bush’s warning to leave Baghdad within 48 hours, Kelly stayed behind in a small hotel near the banks of the Tigris River. “I was determined not to let the bombs have the last word,” she says.
She also couldn’t abandon the ordinary Iraqis she had met over the past eight years and considered her brothers and sisters. Since 1996, she has made two dozen trips to the country, bringing medicine and other supplies in violation of the UN economic sanctions imposed before the first Gulf War (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text).
Voices in the Wilderness, the peace group she co-founded to highlight the suffering of Iraqi civilians, faces ,000 in fines for violating the sanctions. The issue is in court, but whatever the fine is, Voices will not pay it, Kelly says. She’d rather go to jail.
“The most loving thing we can do,” she says, “is issue a wake-up call. We are creating terrorists faster than we can kill them.”
Her defiance of the sanctions has prompted questions about whose side she is on. She has been criticized, even by some in the peace movement, for not being nearly as tough on former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his brutal dictatorship as she has been on sanctions and other measures to curb his power.
Kelly’s view of the sanctions is that they have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. As for Hussein, she despised his murderous regime but says that being openly critical of him would have meant expulsion from Iraq and the end of her mission. “It was a tightrope to walk,” she admits. “If we did a demonstration in Iraq, we’d get booted right out of there.”
That was a price she was not willing to pay, even if it damaged her reputation among Western journalists and diplomats. But whatever they thought about her judgment, there was no questioning Kelly’s courage or compassion. She remained in Baghdad for the duration of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign. During one raid, as the sky fell and the earth shook, she recalls sitting in a basement bomb shelter of the Al Fanar hotel shielding a little Iraqi girl in her arms. She whispered to her in Arabic the words to “We Shall Overcome.”
Sometimes the bombing would last 10 minutes; other raids would go on for an hour or a lifetime. One day the air-raid sirens went off while a group of teenagers were playing a board game. Kelly says a Voices in the Wilderness member tried to get the teens to go into the shelter. She told them they could finish their game in the morning.
“Madame,” a teen replied. “We may not be here tomorrow.”
Kelly is no stranger to war, having endured bombs and bullets in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, in Sarajevo in 1992 during the Bosnian war, again in Iraq amid the 1998 Desert Fox bombing and last spring in the Jenin camp on the West Bank. “I feel passionately prepared to insist that war is never an answer,” she wrote in one of her e-mail reports from Baghdad last year.
When the bombing campaign was over, Kelly emerged from the hotel as American troops, many of them not much older than the children in the shelter, rolled into the conquered city. She and several members of Voices greeted them at a dusty intersection with water, dates and a banner, “Courage For Peace, Not For War.”
It must have been the last thing in the world the soldiers expected to see: a band of American and international peaceniks in the middle of Baghdad, protesting the war with one hand and handing out refreshments with the other. A minister from Australia stood quietly apart, holding a sign, “War = Terror.” He held it until the sun went down.
As Kelly handed out water, her mind flashed back to another encounter with American soldiers 15 years earlier at a nuclear missile silo.
In the late 1980s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, scores of nuclear weapons sat in silos beneath the Missouri prairie. For a year, Kelly and dozens of other people across the Midwest-college students and nuns, poets and housewives-made plans for a non-violent invasion of the missile sites.
The plan was to plant corn and flowers around the missiles, to “sow seeds of life,” and they called their project the Missouri Peace Planting. Kelly, who grew up on the Southwest Side, didn’t know a thing about farming; a friend in Ohio had to show her what to do.
In August 1988, the group went out to plant and demonstrate at 12 silos. Tensions ran high. The protesters were scared. “The missile sites were ‘deadly force’ areas,” says Father Bob Bossie, one of the lead organizers of the planting. “We weren’t seeking to be martyrs.”
Kelly says she was most concerned about whether she could scale the chain-link fence surrounding the silo. She did, and once on the other side planted five pellets of bright pink corn. Then she unfurled two banners and hung them on the fence.
“Disarm and Live.”
“You Can’t Hug A Child With Nuclear Arms.”
After that she sat on the concrete lid over the missile silo and waited. She remembers how peaceful the world felt once her work was done. Birds were chirping, crickets creaking, mist was rising up from the ground. In the distance, she heard a vehicle speeding toward her along a country road. It arrived in a cloud of dust, a machine gun mounted on its roof. Three soldiers, weapons ready, climbed out and put her under arrest.
Two of the soldiers quickly left in the jeep, leaving her with her hands cuffed behind her and the third soldier pointing his rifle at her. She did as she was ordered, she says, and looked straight ahead.
A few minutes passed, and Kelly started to explain to the soldier why she was there. She said she was a teacher at an alternative school in Chicago, and by the end of the school year she had helped plan more funerals of students than graduations.
“I talked about homeless and hungry people in my neighborhood, and cited some statistics about the cost of nuclear weapons,” she recalls. “I said that we were concerned for the children and families in the Soviet Union as well, and that we hoped our actions would help children in his family too.”
Then she asked him if he thought the corn she had planted would grow.
“I don’t know, ma’am,” she recalls him saying. “But I sure hope so.”
Would he say a prayer with her?
“Lord, make me a means of your peace; where there is darkness let me sow light … .”
Kelly served nine months in a maximum-security federal prison in Lexington, Ky. The other inmates called her “Missiles.”
She never forgot the soldier’s kindness, and now, a world away in Baghdad greeting a group of American soldiers, she was grateful she could return the favor. After all, she insists, her long crusade for peace has never been a struggle against the young men and women sent to kill and die in foreign lands or dispatched to guard weapons of mass destruction at home; it has been against the politicians who send them there.
“We sure hope we can help these people rebuild,” Kelly says a Marine told her a few days after his outfit entered Baghdad. She handed him a date and a bottle of water. He handed her a snapshot of his family.
“It’s too bad they had to go through this to get rid of Saddam,” another said, referring to Iraqis. “They’re probably better off now.”
As the soldiers and Kelly talked, some other Marines walked past the activists and their banners and muttered, “Kill.” A tease? A threat? A regret? She could not be sure.
Kelly stands 5 feet 3 inches tall on tiptoe and weighs 109 pounds. That’s five more than she weighed when she was in prison most recently. “A prison stint,” she says, “earns lots of invites to eat out.”
Her thick, curly brown hair, which her sisters used to straighten with an iron for family weddings, is dusted with gray. She has a serene, toothy smile that can light up a dim jail cell or a makeshift bomb shelter.
Upon meeting her for the first time, other inmates typically mistake her for a nun. By their second guess, they almost always peg her correctly: “You’re a peace protester.”
ON A CHILLY MORNING this spring, not long after returning from Baghdad, Kelly is preparing to leave her apartment to begin serving her latest sentence-three months in a minimum-security federal prison in Downstate Pekin-after yet another act of civil disobedience.
This time it was at Ft. Benning, in Georgia, where soldiers from Latin America are trained by American military instructors.
The Pentagon says the Latin Americans are instructed on how to spread democracy in their troubled region, which is plagued by guerrilla uprisings and numbing poverty. But Kelly and other activists say the Latin American soldiers are trained to spread fear, using torture and terror. Remember the rivers of blood in El Salvador? they ask. The Contras in Nicaragua? The Cold War fought in Spanish through much of the 1980s?
Every year, the protesters return to the gates of Ft. Benning just before Thanksgiving. Last November, Kelly and 26 others were arrested and charged with trespassing when they stepped a few feet onto the base. More than 10,000 protesters stood behind them, demanding that the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas) be shut down.
Now, sitting at her kitchen table, she has just a few hours of freedom left. She pushes aside her bowl of oatmeal and opens the battered Bible she has had for 30 years. Its binding is missing and its red cover is faded. One of these days, she says, she’ll tape it up, or maybe she’ll slide the whole thing into a plastic pouch for safekeeping. The good Catholic girl in her doesn’t want the word of God to go sailing down the street on a gust of wind.
On second thought, that might not be such a bad idea. She is constantly looking for new ways to spread the message of love, to get the powerful to listen to the weak, to bear witness to suffering-and to get people off the sidelines to do something about it.
Kelly licks the tip of her finger and flips through the Bible. She isn’t seeking spiritual comfort or uplift at that moment. She will soon get plenty of both from the 50 friends gathered in a church parking lot to see her off to prison with song and prayer. What she is looking for is a good place—an easy-to-remember passage—to write down her lawyer’s telephone number.
“Time to go,” she announces, putting the book under her arm. “I don’t want to be late for prison.”
As it turned out, the prison would not allow her to take her Bible inside. The Gideon Society, Kelly soon discovered, had left plenty of them, and they were in mint condition. She had memorized the lawyer’s number just in case.
Kelly is a dreamer, to be sure. But she also considers herself practical, like her mother, who had to stretch her husband’s Catholic schoolteacher’s salary far enough to house, feed and clothe six children.
Kathy was the third child of Frank and Catherine Kelly. Frank taught math at De La Salle Institute; Catherine was a stay-at-home mom. Theirs was a traditional Irish-American family: Children. Church. Saints on the walls.
Before the last three kids came along, Kathy and her older siblings worried that there was something wrong with their mother. Everyone else in the neighborhood seemed to have much bigger families. So the three Kelly kids dropped to their knees and prayed to St. Gerard, the patron saint of pregnant women: Please, heal our mom.
Their prayers were answered. “When my dad came home from the hospital after the twins were born,” Kathy says, “he took St. Gerard off the wall and put him in a drawer.”
Frank and Catherine met and fell in love in London during World War II. Catherine, who was born in Ireland, worked in a children’s hospital. Frank was an Irish-American soldier who had left the Christian Brothers order to join the fight against Hitler. The couple spent hours in subway bomb shelters with their frightened but defiant neighbors as the Germans blitzed the city from the air. Braving bombs and war zones, it seems, is in their daughter’s DNA.
After the war, Frank Kelly brought his new bride home to America. They settled in a yellow-brick, two-story house in Garfield Ridge, near Midway Airport.
Kathy was different from the beginning, her mother says. She did not talk until she was 3 years old. “I thought you were retarded,” she tells Kathy, who was visiting her mother’s LaGrange condo recently. Kathy’s father died in 2000.
Kathy sighs. “I’ve been causing you trouble from the start to the finish,” she says.
Her 79-year-old mother does not disagree. “The other five aren’t interested in all this politics,” she says. “I have always said I came home from the hospital with the wrong baby.”
The Kellys took little Kathy to see a doctor, who could find nothing wrong with the silent toddler. Then one day Kathy started to talk and talk and talk. “God knows,” her mother says, smiling. “You never shut up after that.”
Once she got started, Kathy spent a lot of time talking to God as well, praying on her knees on the cold floor of the bathroom. “I was an extraordinarily pious little girl,” she says.
That the pious streak has not faded is evident by the way she plays Monopoly with her siblings. “If she goes to jail she will not pay to get out,” her sister, Mary Pat Wenshutonis, says, leaning over to pat Kathy’s knee. “She says all the property should be divided equally. It’s like socialism.”
St. Paul-Kennedy High School, Kelly’s alma mater, was a so-called shared-time school that was part of the wave of experimental education that swept the country in the 1960s. Half the day she took classes at St. Paul, a Catholic school. The other half she spent at Kennedy, a public school one block away.
Kennedy was wracked with racial tension at the time. African-American families had cautiously begun moving into the edges of the neighborhood. She’d pass white mothers standing on a corner and shouting racial epithets at the newcomers as they entered the schoolhouse.
It pained her to see her neighbors act that way. But what could she do about it? she asked herself. “A code of ‘fatalism’ was part of my upbringing,” she says. “It was OK to talk about a problem. OK to analyze it, but if you thought you could do something about it, you were ‘too big for your britches.’ “
But at St. Paul, she encountered a group of young nuns, brothers and a few lay teachers who introduced her to the writings of activist priest Daniel Berrigan and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They compared King’s sermons and speeches to gospel passages.
“The St. Paul faculty,” she says, “gently but consistently showed us hero figures who had tried to confront injustice and cruelty and who believed in love of enemy as well as love of neighbor.”
She enrolled at Loyola University and, she recalls, went through the days of anti-Vietnam demonstrations of the late ’60s “like Brigadoon in the mist.”
Between school, work and hanging out at the Earl of Old Town nightclub, there wasn’t much time for anything else. But one evening she went to hear a representative of the Catholic Peace Fellowship named Tom Cornell. It felt like he was talking directly to her when he said ordinary Americans could make a difference. What’s more, he said, if they didn’t do something, who would?
“I remember walking back from the presentation feeling an almost giddy sense of liberation,” she recalls. As she likes to say, “We catch courage from each other.”
It wasn’t long before Kelly sought out an elderly Jesuit who in a homily had recommended service in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. She thought she’d like to go to Nome, Alaska, to help. She went to Uptown instead. In the late ’70s, she volunteered at a soup kitchen in that community operated by the Catholic Workers. She ladled out hot food and kind words to the homeless. She also earned a master’s degree in religious education from Chicago Theological Seminary.
The soup kitchen was at the center of what Kelly fondly calls “a do-gooder’s ghetto,” a magnet for radical priests, nuns and lay people. By day she taught religion at St. Ignatius College Prep. After school she hurried to the kitchen. She says she felt that she finally was acting on what she had been taught since Catholic grade school, that she was living the gospel. She had never known poor people before-known them, that is, as people. Uptown was an epiphany.
“I was impressed with her commitment, her simplicity, her single-mindedness,” says Rev. Roy Bourgeois, an activist priest who worked at the soup kitchen. He later went on to organize the mass protests at the School of the Americas. “Kathy saw the suffering. Her response was compassion, but she didn’t stop there. She wanted to do something about the suffering. She was an activist, but she didn’t beat people over the head with it. She has that smile, that gentleness. But underneath is a strong woman.”
Among the people who were drawn to her smile and her strength was the legendary pacifist Karl Meyer, 15 years her senior. Meyer spent hours talking with Kelly about the peace movement. “She was just coming into activism,” Meyer says. “I had been involved since 1957. Ban the bomb. Vietnam. War-tax resistance.”
Kelly had a crush on Meyer and was eager to join him at downtown Chicago’s main post office to protest the reinstatement of draft registration. The air was filled with the romance of righteousness. They were both arrested that day in 1980. It was Kelly’s first arrest, and as the police came to take them off to jail, she was trembling. Meyer thought she was afraid. She was, she says, but not of the police or jail. She was terrified of saying something stupid in front of Meyer.
“Freudians would have a field day with my energetic propensity to connect with father figures,” she says. “But why quibble with paths that led toward some of the finest people in the world?”
They were married in 1982 in a small ceremony in the Japanese gardens behind the Museum of Science and Industry. As part of his vows, Meyer quoted American revolutionist Thomas Paine: “Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is doing good.”
Around that time, Kelly decided that one way to do good was to lower her income below the taxable level of ,000 per year. She didn’t want to contribute in any way to the military budget, what the citizens of her do-gooder’s ghetto called “the death machine.” She was making ,000 at the time and officials at St. Ignatius distributed the ,000 difference among other programs and staff at the school. “I was Lady Bountiful,” she jokes.
She says she has not paid a dime of federal income taxes since. “It was one of the simplest decisions I’ve ever made, and one of the easiest decisions to maintain,” she says. “I can’t imagine ever changing my mind.”
Meyer and Kelly were married for a dozen years. They were arrested many times, and often spoke to church groups and schools about non-violence. They did not have any children together, although Meyer had three teenage children from a previous marriage. She wanted a child, she says, but, “We got married right around the time I started going to jail.”
They divorced in 1994. “She developed a vision of her own,” Meyer says. “She wanted to get into international peace-making.”
They have remained close, and Kelly frequently consults him about her plans. He often worries about her health. She doesn’t think much about her diet, he says, and suffers from severe migraines. When she’s not locked up somewhere, she works around the clock. Jail is about the only place she can rest.
“She isn’t as radiant as she was when she was younger,” says Meyer, who now lives in Nashville, Tenn. “She seems a lot more tired. She has so much to do. Right now, she’s probably the most respected leader in the American peace movement.”
Kelly was in a jail cell in Chicago when she met Mary Jude Postel, her best friend. It was 1988 and they had been arrested downtown along with other demonstrators protesting U.S. policy in Nicaragua. Kelly was sick, probably suffering from a migraine. She was vomiting into the toilet in the middle of the cell.
When she finished, she sat quietly for a few minutes, trying to recover before leading her 10 cellmates in song. “They weren’t angry songs,” Postel recalls. “They were spiritual songs. She has a beautiful voice. It seems uncannily large for her little body.”
Postel thought the tiny woman with the big voice was a devout Catholic. Kelly thought Postel was a devout Mennonite. But as they talked they soon discovered “there was nothing particularly saintly about either of us,” Postel says. “We both liked to go out, have a drink and talk about men. Kathy loves to have a good time. She’s not an ideologue. She truly loves people.”
The women had something else in common: They were both war-tax resisters. But with the passage of years, Postel has gradually moved away from some of her more radical choices. She’s no longer a tax resister. She bought a house and now, she says, “I have a lot of homeowner cares that Kathy will never have on her radar screen.”
Postel worried that her friend would judge her harshly. But that did not happen. “I’ve never felt pushed away because of the choices I’ve made that are different,” she says. “Kathy just has very few needs. The needs of her spirit are so much more demanding than the needs of her body for comfort and security. I think early, early on she was someone who took holiness seriously.”
Every morning, Kelly walked the track at the prison camp in Pekin. One morning, the other inmates started a freedom countdown as the petite prisoner rounded the oval. Two days and a wake-up, they said, two days and she was going home.
Kelly smiled and waved and kept walking. She says she felt guilty about leaving them behind after only three months in that lonely place of “imprisoned beauty.” She knew that she was more educated and privileged than most of the women there, even though she had so little. Nearly everything she makes from speaking she turns over to Voices, which scrapes by on grants and donations. She doesn’t own a house or a car; hasn’t had a personal bank account in years; and buys her clothes off the rack at the Salvation Army. But those were choices she made, not the hand she was dealt. She chose to be here when she crossed that line at Ft. Benning.
Kelly hates prison and the many ways it scars the soul. Yet, she knew as she walked the track her chances were better than good of coming back, if not to this patch of fence and wire in the Illinois flatlands, some other jail somewhere in the world. Based on her many times behind bars, in 1989 Kelly helped write a primer for activists called, “Prisoners on Purpose: A Peacemakers Guide to Jails and Prison.”
Two days and a wake-up, two days and back to work. There is so much to do, she gets tired just thinking about it. Constant war. Constant waste. Constant sorrow. Somehow she has to find a way to do more. “I want to be more in touch with the people caught in a war at home,” she says. “The war against the poor.”
Another loop of the track. Here she was, raised in the church, and yet she didn’t believe in God like she used to. She’s not sure what happened to her faith. Maybe it slipped away on the last breath of a dying Iraqi child or got locked up with the poor women she was about to say goodbye to.
On the other hand, she’s no atheist. And she loves the rituals, the music, the smells of Sunday morning. The scriptures are where she first heard the call that became her life’s work. No, she’ll never turn her back on that part of her life. When she was locked up, she went to mass every week. She found comfort there, like in the old days.
Wake-up day has come, and Kelly is headed home by bus and train. She hasn’t spent much time in her own bed the past 12 months. She spent half the year in Iraq, four weeks in New York fasting for peace and three months in Pekin.
She catches a glimpse of herself in the window of the bus and wonders out loud if people can tell she just got out of prison. She’s dressed in stiff blue jeans and a light blue shirt, going-away gifts from Uncle Sam. She’s wearing her glasses, big owlish specs that she hates, but contact lenses weren’t allowed in the camp.
She’s holding an Arabic grammar book, newspaper articles about the war and two dozen or so letters. She was the Pekin mail queen. “I would literally blush at mail time,” she says.
Everything she’s carrying is wrapped in plastic. That’s the giveaway, she says. Whenever she sees a young man walking the streets of Uptown carrying his life wrapped in plastic in his arms, she knows where he has been.
The train to Chicago is a couple of hours late, so Kelly studies her Arabic. She hopes to return to Iraq in time for Christmas. Around Thanksgiving, she intends to be back at the gates of Ft. Benning. She’s not planning to get arrested, but you never know.
Several friends are waiting for her when her train arrives at Union Station. Someone hands her flowers; Studs Terkel gives her a kiss.
She tells him about the two FBI agents who came to interview her in Pekin. “I suggested they should resign,” she says.
Terkel proposes finding a tavern to toast the jailbird’s return, but Kelly is exhausted. She’s been out of prison only a few hours, and her schedule already is filled with speeches and appearances from New York to Los Angeles.
“One way to stop the next war,” she says, “is to continue to tell the truth about this one.”
When morning comes, Kathy Kelly will wake up and start talking.
Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune
Photo by Pax Christi Maine