Kathy Kelly is a United States school teacher who has devoted much of her life to working for peace. Journalist PAUL DOBBYN gives an insight into her devotion on the eve of her visit to Brisbane
“TOO radical” is often the tag given to people like United States activist Kathy Kelly, soon to begin a series of talks and workshops in Brisbane based around her 35-year struggle to promote world peace.
It’s a crusade which put the former Catholic high school teacher in jail for nearly a year for planting corn on Missouri nuclear missile sites.
The three-times Nobel Peace Prize nominee has also risked life and limb to live with civilians in war zones in Afghanistan, Gaza, Bosnia and Nicaragua.
So Ms Kelly’s response to an observation put by The Catholic Leader – that “the vast majority of the populace might find your ways of protest too radical” – was instructive.
“It’s interesting many societies believe it is normal and acceptable to send young people off to war zones,” she said.
“This is sometimes for years at a time, with the expectation that they will loan themselves to possibly kill or possibly be killed.
“And yet, it’s considered oddly radical when people who object to war’s cruel bloodshed, risk imprisonment for non-violently refusing to pay for or co-operate with war-making.”
Starting next Thursday night (October 27) at Brisbane’s Parliamentary Annexe, Ms Kelly will give a series of talks and workshops including these and other stories of her struggle to bring peace to the world.
Her life story gives truth to the title of her Thursday talk “The Cost of War, the Price of Peace”.
The 58-year-old activist, described as “probably the most respected leader in the American peace movement”, has faced death and imprisonment during her long opposition to war.
As part of peace team work in several countries, she has travelled to Iraq 26 times, notably remaining in combat zones during the early days of both US-Iraq wars.
She has been arrested more than 60 times at home and abroad, and written of her experiences among targets of US military bombardment and inmates of US prisons.
After college in 1978, and while working on her MA in Religious Education at Chicago Theological Seminary, Ms Kelly began volunteer work in Chicago’s Uptown neighbourhood (where she still lives), working at a local soup kitchen with a circle of activists centred around Chicago’s Francis of Assisi House, a homeless shelter in the Catholic Worker tradition.
In 1980 she began work as a teacher of religion at St Ignatius College Preparatory School where she stayed for several years.
In 1982 she married fellow activist Karl Meyer and began a lifetime of “war tax resistance” (refusal to pay federal taxes on pacifist grounds), asking her employer to reduce her salary beneath the taxable income.
In August 1988, Kelly participated in the Missouri Peace Planting, trespassing at a nuclear missile silo near Kansas City, Missouri, to plant corn on it.
For this action she served nine months in a Lexington, Kentucky, maximum security prison.
Some commenting on Ms Kelly’s way of life have said: “Jail is the only place she can rest”.
Certainly she made the best of two of her longer terms of imprisonment.
“Both times, I was able to study languages, read many books, and write hundreds of letters,” she said.
“What’s more, I discovered a world of imprisoned beauty.
“Women helped me understand conditions they faced, on ‘the outside’.
“In a year I could best describe as the most educational year of my life since I first learned to read, I gained a more acute awareness of how impoverishment affects people.
“It was good to slow down, to focus on forming friendships, and to find time for reading and study.”
Despite these unexpected benefits, she is careful to emphasise that her sentence and others which followed were comparatively brief. “I must clarify that for most prisoners the long sentences constitute a harsh and dreadful separation from loved ones.
“This is especially for those who long to see their children and who will be separated from them for many years.”
In 2005 she helped found the group Voices for Creative Nonviolence to continue challenging US military and economic warfare against Iraq and other countries.
Since then further arrests and imprisonment have followed.
Inevitably the question comes back to what those of us of a less radical bent, those of us who don’t necessarily want to spend time in jail for our beliefs, can do to bring about a war-free world.
“People desiring positive change can find kindred spirits, build community, and slow down, taking more leisure time to think about how to solve the problems we face,” Ms Kelly said.
“The greatest terror we face is the threat of what we’re doing to our own environment.
“How can we live more simply, share resources more equitably, and show that we prefer service to dominance?”
Ms Kelly still passionately believes we, the people, can stop the “next war”.
“We should recall that in 2003, during the weeks preceding the US invasion of Iraq, the world came closer than ever before to stopping a war before it started,” she said.
“One of the ways to stop a ‘next war’ is to continue telling the truth about the wars being waged now.”
So what can people attending Ms Kelly’s talk and workshops expect to hear?
“Voices for Creative Nonviolence activists believe that ‘where you stand determines what you see’,” she said.
“In Afghanistan, people directly affected by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) night raids, aerial bombardments, and drone warfare aren’t always recognised as human beings whose view points matter.
“In Brisbane, people can expect to hear me tell about some of the people in Afghanistan who have suffered deeply during several decades of war.
“Along with considering the cost of war, presentations will include discussion about the price of peace.
“What can ordinary people in Brisbane do to persuade political leaders that peacemaking in Afghanistan is possible?”
After the October 27 talk in the Parliamentary Annexe, Ms Kelly will continue her busy schedule around Brisbane.
On that same day she will speak at school assemblies at Mt Alvernia and Padua colleges.
On October 28, she will be guest speaker at the Just Peace 10th Anniversary Dinner and on October 29 she will run a non-violence workshop for young adults at the West End Uniting Church in Sussex Street.
On October 30 she will present a talk, “The Cost of War on Women and Children”, at the West End Uniting Church starting at 2pm.
Ms Kelly has been brought to Brisbane by Pace E Bene Australia.
For further details contact Carole on 0431 928 500 or firstname.lastname@example.org