The good news came in an email message, as so much news does these days. My friend Willie would not be going to prison. It’s not that she was not prepared to do so. In fact, she and her co-defendants had already refused one plea bargain that could have let them off with just a fine, insisting instead on a trial that could well result in jail time of up to a year for each of them. As she explained to us a few days before her court appearance, accepting a fine or community service would involve admitting that what they had done was wrong, and not one of them believed that. They were determined to be imprisoned for their witness to truth in the face of military might rather than to deny their beliefs.
“Willie” is Sr. William Julie Hurley, a sixty-something Sister of Notre Dame who has devoted her life to work with the poor and marginalized of society. Whether it is teaching in southern Africa, serving in prison ministry, or coordinating hospice support for people living with AIDS, she brings a large measure of compassion, caring, and impish good humor to her work. Today she teaches seniors at Lowell Catholic High, a poor school trying to provide quality education for inner-city youth.
So what was it that brought her to trial on May 20th, and had the rest of us in the Atlantic New England Region of the O Beautiful Gaia Project worried that one of our best “bass” singers would be unable to join us in the recording studio later this month? In March, a few days after the beginning of the most recent US-Iraq war, the Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Massachusetts, organized a demonstration at the U.S. Army Soldier Biological and Chemical Command in Natick, MA. Willie, along with seventeen other committed people of faith, knelt in front of the gate of this high-security installation, recited prayers for peace representing twelve major faith groups world-wide, and then joined themselves together with short lengths of chain link, symbolically blocking the entrance to what is believed to be the coordination center for the United States’ chemical and biological weapons program. They were immediately arrested and charged with trespassing on federal property.
One of the reasons the Peace Chain 18, as they came to be called, insisted on a trial was their determination to give public witness to their beliefs and motives for opposing the war and the US weapons industry. Having chosen to represent themselves rather than having legal counsel present, each was permitted five minutes to make a statement to the court.
At the end of our rehearsal on Sunday, May 18th, we singers of the O Beautiful Gaia Project gathered in a circle to offer our prayers, blessings, and support to Willie in the days ahead. As she read to us the statement that she had prepared for her testimony, an intense hush filled the room. She described the day fifty years ago when a courier in military uniform knocked on the door of her family’s home and read a telegram informing them that her older brother had been killed in action in Korea. In the words of her statement, she realized then that “War means DEATH. It solves nothing. I pledged myself then to work for a peaceful world.”
Her testimony continues by detailing all the steps that she had taken in the months building up to the most recent war, writing letters and making phone calls, traveling to mass rallies and participating in local protests. When the bombing began, she grieved for all the deaths on both sides, for the injured and for those who lost loved ones in the conflict. “But more so, I grieved for the soul of this nation that is so desensitized that it can consider the lives of our so-called enemies as mere collateral damage.”
Convinced that the war was illegal, immoral, and unjust, and recognizing that in a democracy all are responsible for what is done in our names, Willie joined with a community of like-minded peacemakers to protest at the gates of the Natick lab. The eighteen range in age from 20 to 66 and include members of a number of Christian denominations along with several Buddhists. Willie’s deep Christian faith was vividly apparent in the conclusion of her statement. She had been reading to us up to this point, but as she started to recite the familiar words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, she dropped the page to her side and spoke directly from her heart to our circle: “I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.”
We are all, I fear, guilty at times of sitting in church and listening with only half an ear as the scripture lessons are read. By contrast, hearing this text from the Gospel of Matthew in such a context was riveting. I don’t think that I was the only one with tears in my eyes. I thought of the man who first spoke those words, how he was executed by the military force occupying his country, and I wondered what would happen to my friend Willie in the days ahead.
What did happen gives me hope for the future of truth-telling and justice in our land. As reported by Ann, another member of the O Beautiful Gaia Project, so many supporters from the peace community arrived at Natick District Court to witness the trial that the courtroom could not hold them all. They divided into groups and took turns listening in the courtroom during a full day of testimony. Presiding Judge Sarah Singer heard not only the statements of all eighteen defendants, but also allowed testimony from Dr. Michael True, an expert witness on the nature and history of non-violence, and from George Capaccio of Voices in the Wilderness and from a Paulist priest who served as character witnesses.
At the end of the day, the Judge responded by observing that she was very impressed with the values and sincerity of each of the defendants. She then explained that her sole duty was to rule on the charge of trespass, and that based on the uncontested facts of the case, she had to find them guilty of trespassing on federal land. The prosecutor, when asked by the judge to suggest a sentence, responded that his recommendation was a $500.00 fine for each defendant. The judge then ruled that each defendant was to pay a $50.00 fine or do ten hours of community service.
The voices that advocate war and call for a violent solution to every conflict may appear to be the loudest just now. But in every time of trial God raises up other voices, such as those of Sister Willie and her companions in the Peace Chain 18, to speak truth to power and to witness to the way of peace. We are richly blessed to have such people in our midst.
Footnote: After a gallant struggle with breast cancer, Sister Willie passed from this world to the next in early July 2007. To the end her wit and determination, her joyful and loving presence, were an inspiration to all who knew her. Here's a link to a beautiful memorial written soon after her death: Willie, S.N.D.