20 July 2003
Sunday, July 20, 2003 - GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - In the basement of their motherhouse, in a section of the red-brick building that once teemed with boarding- school girls, the Dominican sisters maintain a display tracing their 126-year history.
It starts with a picture of a sister in full habit baking bread at an orphanage in the 1940s and ends with the image of a sister in street clothes being arrested after throwing her own blood at the Pentagon.
The one in handcuffs is Carolyn Gilbert, a few years and jail stints ago. With her bookish glasses, she looks like the junior high teacher she once was.
On Friday, Gilbert, 55, and fellow Grand Rapids Sisters Ardeth Platte, 67, and Jackie Hudson, 68, will stand before a federal judge in Denver and be sentenced in a case that has drawn international attention and launched a debate about protest and consequences in a nation on edge over terrorism.
On Oct. 6, 2002, the three sisters cut a chain-link fence and sneaked onto a Minuteman III missile silo in northeastern Colorado, where they drew crosses with their blood on the silo lid and whacked railroad tracks with hardware-store-issue hammers.
Despite the sisters' claim that their actions were symbolic, not destructive, a jury in April found them guilty of obstructing national defense and damaging government property. The maximum sentence is 30 years in prison, but prosecutors have said the sisters likely will face between five and eight years.
U.S. Attorney John Suthers, who is Catholic, said in a statement he hopes the case will serve as a deterrent to the sisters and other activists who break the law.
Nuns in orange prison jumpsuits might be hard to understand for those who grew up with "The Sound of Music." But for the three sisters, the journey from orphanage to missile silo is a natural progression.
"Whatever God asks of us, whatever we have to sacrifice, we will do it, and we will do it with joy," Platte told her fellow sisters during a visit to Grand Rapids.
The sisters believe nuclear weapons are the "taproot" of social and economic injustice because the billions of dollars spent on them could go to programs for the poor and needy. Standing against militarism, they say, is a way to challenge skewed priorities that cause orphanages and soup kitchens to exist in the first place.
Their methods come with risk and, from some quarters, scorn.
Since the 1960s, Catholic sisters have engaged in social activism ranging from civil-rights marches to siding with migrant farmworkers. But relatively few break the law, and some newer conservative religious orders shun activism.
To critics, the three sisters are the last of a generation, part of a culture of rabble-rousing that has contributed to the steep decline in religious vocations. To supporters, they are courageous, dedicated, faithful, wise - even martyrs.
Gilbert, Hudson and Platte took their vows during a different era, when career choices for women were limited and the convent meant freedom.
The three sisters, all of whom grew up in devoutly Catholic communities in Michigan, changed with the times and with evolving notions of Catholic sisterhood.
"These are extraordinary women," said Elizabeth McCalister, the widow of celebrated peace activist Philip Berrigan. "They are game and willing, they work hard, they think deeply and see to the center of issues. They couldn't do all the issues well. They found the one issue that affects everyone."
Also called the "order of preachers," Dominicans are known for simple, austere living. Gilbert, Hudson and Platte often speak of their community's charism, or spiritual gift: the search for "veritas," or truth.
Their vocations began here, on 34 acres set among Douglas firs and a nameless stream, where several of the 80 sisters in residence are confined to nursing-home beds, and the soothing sounds of women saying the rosary float out from the chapel every day.
The Dominican motherhouse sits on the edge of Grand Rapids, a sleepy, conservative city of 200,000 that is home to direct-sales giant Amway, nationally renowned furniture-making companies and a thriving evangelical Christian community that includes Calvin College and the national anti-abortion group Baptists for Life.
As a girl in Saginaw, Jackie Hudson attended a school run by Dominican sisters. Sisters didn't drive then, and Jackie often accompanied her mother taking a sister to a farm to buy eggs and chickens. Her father had attended seminary as a young man and said the rosary on his knees every night.
Ardeth Platte was raised in Westphalia, Mich., a small community of German farmers. Her father was a World War II veteran and a missionary.
"I kept being asked, 'Have you ever thought about being a sister?' I said, 'Always,"' Platte said. "I had this desire to be totally free to serve God and people without restraints."
Carolyn Gilbert grew up in small Traverse City in northern Michigan. She graduated high school in 1965 and became a sister, teacher, liturgist and poet.
"I grew up in an era when the idea was to serve other people, to volunteer your time, to give your life," Gilbert said. "I also grew up at a time when women were stay-at-home moms, and I saw religious women as being at the forefront. They were the principals of schools. They were teachers. I saw them as some of the freest people in the world. They didn't have the responsibility to husband and children. Their responsibility was to the larger community."
All three sisters took up teaching. But their priorities, and those of their church and community, changed.
In the 1960s, religious life in the United States was transformed by church social documents and the second Vatican council, which modernized church practices. The Vatican encouraged religious orders to work on poverty and justice issues and reconsider their missions.
After the council, many sisters stopped wearing habits to knock down barriers with the broader community. Several moved into inner-city neighborhoods or became Latin American missionaries.
Said Platte: "We rejected the patriarchy, and we became a circle, everyone in the circle giving their God-given gifts."
For Platte, that meant running a rape crisis center and a school for dropouts. In 1973, believing that government was a force for change, she was elected to the City Council in Saginaw, Mich.
During Platte's 12-year term, including two as mayor pro-tem, she fought business tax incentives and what she viewed as efforts to keep minorities out of white neighborhoods, said Pamela Leckie, who was elected at the same time.
"She is stubborn, stubborn," Leckie said. "The businessmen would complain about her, and I would say, 'At least you know where Ardeth is coming from.' She never waffled, which I think is admirable."
The other two sisters took less prominent paths. Hudson taught piano and vocals for 25 years before starting her activism by working on behalf of orchard workers in western Michigan. Gilbert followed Platte to Saginaw and helped start the Home for Peace and Justice there.
Their shift to nuclear activism took place when cruise missiles arrived in Michigan in 1983.
The sisters say their stance is grounded in the Ten Commandments: Thou shall not kill, steal, or worship false gods, which in this case were "false Gods of metal."
"If you're going to worship the one true God and believe in God's family, believe in creation, we had to stop all that destroys it," Platte said.
Platte and Gilbert moved to towns outside two Great Lakes missile bases. They distributed leaflets, prayed and served time - from a few hours to six months - in jail.
The closure of the Michigan nuclear sites in the 1990s prompted the moves of Gilbert and Platte to Baltimore's Jonah House activist community and Hudson to Poulsbo, Wash., near a Trident submarine base. Hudson drove a transit bus and tuned pianos to support herself.
In September 2000, the sisters spilled blood and pounded hammers on an $18 million fighter jet at an air show at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. Felony charges against them were dropped when it was determined the damage totaled less than $100.
The action was classic Plowshares, an anti-war movement that has staged 75 nonviolent and symbolic "actions" against military targets since 1980. The movement takes its name from passages in Isaiah and Micah that speak of "beating swords into plowshares."
The action at the Weld County silo last October was staged to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the start of the U.S. war against Afghanistan.
The sisters use blood in their actions because of its symbolism: It gives life on one hand, and on the other it is spilled in war. Jesus gave his blood so others could live, the sisters say; so did the sisters, with the help of doctor friends who drew it from their arms.
The sisters prayed and sang for an hour before soldiers with automatic weapons arrested them.
At trial, the judge rejected the sisters' citation of the Nuremberg international war crimes tribunal, which recognized that people have an obligation under international law to break domestic law to prevent their country's crimes against humanity.
The sisters were convicted, and they decided against appeal, which they feared would set legal precedent damaging to other activists.
U.S. Attorney Suthers, in a statement, said: "No other country on Earth provides as many avenues for peaceful and lawful protest as does the United States. But the defendants insist on unlawfully entering onto highly sensitive government installations, damaging government property, and interfering with government operations."
Suthers said the sisters have taken similar actions before and were not deterred by lighter sentences.
The sisters' advocates respond that the prosecution was an attempt to silence criticism of the Bush administration's hunger to wage war. Civil disobedience, they say, is an American birthright dating to the Boston Tea Party.
Yet within the Catholic sisterhood, there is disagreement about whether the sisters went too far.
Sister Mary McGreevy, chair of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, said activism fits with church teaching, but civil disobedience that puts the sisters and others in danger does not.
"Sometimes these actions seem to create stronger polarization and a greater determination on both sides that they're right," said McGreevy, whose group represents 100 more traditional communities in which sisters generally wear habits and focus on teaching and health care. "Without question, there is something inherently wrong in killing one another. But we have to be able to speak in a reasoned way."
The three sisters say their case has invigorated activists, not deterred them. On July 26, activists plan to return to Weld County and "symbolically disarm" another nuclear weapons system.
On the other hand, some Grand Rapids residents upset with their actions have urged people to withhold donations to the community.
"You never know the ripple of an action," Gilbert said. "The important thing is that we brought our spirit of nonviolence to a violent place. Because of our presence for even a short time on that missile silo, I think that spirit is somehow still there."
The sisters' visit to Grand Rapids last month fell on Pentecost Sunday, one of the holiest Christian holidays. At home, the tears came easily.
Platte stood at a podium. She thanked the community that gave birth to her vocation, nurtured her as a teacher, politician and activist, and led her to a Colorado missile silo and a prison cell.
"God," she said, "you can take me now."