Sowers’ Seed Inaugural Lecture: Marie Dennis ’64

September 30, 2005

Marie Dennis ’64

Thank you – As I began to prepare for the lecture this evening I sat for a long, long time wrestling with what of my story I might share that would be of interest to you! Please bear with me – knowing that we will have ample time for your questions and comments later. We can pick up the threads that make sense then!

I was at Trinity during the Second Vatican Council. I remember clearly when I returned for my senior year asking one of the Sisters what the Council was all about. With amazing insight she said, “We are being called to move beyond ‘Jesus and me’ to include a deep concern about the world, a commitment to social justice.” I had no real idea what she meant, but five years later began slowly to understand.

Let me begin with a little story from that “era” in my life. At the time I was active as a volunteer with the Community Concerns committee of my parish. Our main focus was to support families in need and I had come to know several of them very well. One particular family, the Wests, had a number of children who were about the same ages as my children at the time (four under age five, I think!). The Wests lived on the edge of survival – literally. They moved often while I knew them – from one poor and crowded house to another. I remember thinking how much the West children would enjoy our nice playroom and big yard – and that I should invite them over (also to give their parents a break). Over and over again I resolved to call and invite them. We saw each other quite often over several years and it was really upsetting to me that I kept procrastinating. In fact, I never did have them over. What I began to realize was that I was embarrassed by our lovely home and great space – it felt like an insult to the West’s poverty. How we lived was a barrier to my relationship with them. It was a very challenging realization – a hard one that seemed to require a response.

But we were settled in our life and very happy – raising our children in a beautiful and loving atmosphere. I had worked as a physicist for the US Navy when I graduated from Trinity and spent two years on Guam while my husband served his time in the Air Force. Now we were settling in for the long haul with a growing family. It never occurred to me then that my life might move in unexpected directions – that in the years to come I would travel to Cambodia and Zimbabwe, El Salvador and Afghanistan, Colombia and Palestine – and perhaps 30 other countries; that I would have breakfast with the president of the United States; milk a cow and make hay (literally); accompany the president of Haiti on his return from exile; sit in vigil outside the White House through long nights on end with Sister Dianna Ortiz, a courageous survivor of torture in Guatemala; watch demining teams inch their way through minefields; sit in meetings with the President of the World Bank and the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund; get deported from El Salvador for accompanying refugees back to their land; fast for 42 days; work on a project with the Archbishop of Canterbury; write books; spend time in jail; and on and on.

I was fully engaged with life “close to home” in those years – and very happy. I was at best a spectator to the larger dramas of our nation and of our world. How did I get from that life to one livedcloser to the radical edge?

Slowly, in fact, the larger dramas had begun to come into focus. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. U.S. cities, including Washington D.C., erupted into violence. Poor farm workers from California brought their grape boycott to the East Coast. People fleeing repression in Chile moved north. Native Americans stayed in our parish when they brought their complaints to the federal government. I began to meet them – to look at the reality they were living in (or running from) in a different and deeper way. And I began to ask “why” – a dangerous question that I had learned at Trinity. Why were there riots in our cities? Why can’t the West family get a toehold on security when they work harder, longer hours than anyone I know? Why are farmworkers not protected by labor laws? Why did the United States support a brutal dictator in Chile?

I was moving to the margins – trying to look at life through the lens that the Wests or the farmworkers or the Chilean refugees or people living in Washington D.C.’s inner city were holding. Jesuit theologian, Jon Sobrino from El Salvador talks often about the importance of looking at the real. I was beginning to do that – to see with new eyes through the lives and stories of people profoundly affected by poverty and violence, by structural injustice.

The rich teaching of the Catholic Church in the years after the Council was having a profound effect on me. So was the lifegiving experience of a good faith community.

In 1971 the Catholic bishops from around the world said, “It fully appears to us that action for justice and participation in the transformation of the world are constituitive (essential) to the preaching of the Gospel.” As followers of Jesus we were literally “called to action” for justice in the societies of which we were a part. In addition to performing acts of charity, we were to look for and change the root causes of human suffering.

Our parish Community Concerns Committee tried to figure out what that meant. We began to ask what kind of lifestyles would do justice. What did it mean that our 6% of the world consumed 40% or more of the world’s resources? Those were the years of the first oil crisis, of famine in Africa and of high unemployment in the United States. We began to ask what social justice would mean at a parish level – did we pay living wages to parish workers; should we build an expensive new church when we already had an adequate worship space and ample beauty in our lives; should we maintain a parish school next to excellent public schools in suburban Virginia when schools in Washington D.C. were notoriously inadequate?

The same questions challenged our family’s lifestyle as well. What changes could we make to use resources more justly, to live simply so that others could simply live? We began to replace our lawn with a vegetable garden, to recycle and compost everything possible. We hung our clothes on a line to dry, turned off the air conditioner and drastically reduced the amount of red meat in our diet.

Looking for a positive experience of simple living for our children, we eventually moved from the very nice Northern Virginia suburbs to a dilapidated farm – trading excellent public schools that were then very homogenous for decent public schools that were wonderfully diverse. We tried to live lightly on the earth in a hungry world – to put into practice what we claimed to believe – to live justly. We fixed up the farm and jumped into nurturing life there with two feet (or should I say 14 – there were 7 of us)! For almost 10 years we lived on a worked a 65 acre organic farm in Loudoun County, Virginia, learning everything from scratch – appreciating enormously the dignity and wisdom of our neighbors – almost all of whom were dirt poor, literally. We thought that step – moving out of our dream house to a profoundly different life – was a huge one, and very hard. What we experienced was a wonderful way of life that shaped the lives of our children in good and lasting ways.

We share absolutely hilarious stories about those years on the farm – and some hard ones as well – someday I hope we can write them down so they don’t get lost. All the animals were smarter than we were – by far – except the turkeys. When someone calls you a turkey – act insulted! I remember my oldest daughter who was in charge of the turkeys spending hours drying the turkey peeps with a hair dryer in a effort to save their lives after 100 of them had all nearly drowned in half and inch of water.

Building a relationship with the earth in that place; learning to care for animals; growing almost everything we ate – and opening our farm for others to garden and raise animals too – gave us all a deep experience of good work and a visceral understanding that justice for the earth and justice for the human community were intrinsically interconnected. Sister Dorothy Stang gave her life in pursuit of both.

Our time on the farm was idyllic – almost ten years of extremely hard, but very satisfying work. We put deep roots into the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, seeing extreme poverty and injustice there that we had not dreamed was possible in the United States. Many of the skills I learned in those years – how to milk a cow; how to churn butter; how to put up vegetables for the winter; how to make hay; how to care for animals; how to spin and weave; and on and on, tied me to women of all time who had done those same chores – and especially to impoverished women around the world who do or who yearn to do so now.

It seemed extremely important to strengthen those connections, to keep our family’s attention outward on a world that was broken as well as inward on our own lifestyle and the challenges of a small farm. We tried to engage in the work for social justice and peace from where we were. To help make that possible, two friends and I founded the Center for New Creation, an ecumenical organization that worked for peace and social justice – promoting dialogue across difference about critical issues like the nuclear arms race, the repression and violence in Central America and the right of impoverished people to a dignified life. We learned the importance of accurate information and of respectful listening. We learned that no one has the corner on truth. For the first time I went to El Salvador and Guatemala – countries then at war, and learned about deep faith in the context of terrible violence, about human rights violations that took my breath away, about the importance of solidarity and the challenge of accompanying people in great danger when all I could offer was presence and love. I began to understand what liberation theology was all about and to ask about an appropriate role for a white middle class U.S. Catholic Christian in response to the yearning for freedom of oppressed peoples.

Dozens of people came through the Center for New Creation to tell their stories – courageous people struggling to survive – many from other countries, especially in Latin America. We were trying to put a human face on injustice and war, to promote more just and life-giving alternatives. For example, the Center for New Creation founded a community loan fund for Washington D.C. to provide low cost loans for low income housing projects and start-up small businesses (WACIF still exists). We designed and presented many times a workshop called “Herstory.” Based on The Dinner Party, a wonderful sculpture by Judy Chicago, the workshop remembered many of the outstanding women often left out of history books. And, we organized the Peace Ribbon event on the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On that day, people from around the world brought or sent to Washington pieces of cloth the size of a pillowcase on which they had drawn, painted or embroidered a representation of what they could not bear to think of as lost in a nuclear war. When they were held end to end we had 26 miles of ribbon – enough to go around the Pentagon, across the river all the way down the mall, around the capitol building, back up the mall, around the ellipse, up the rest of the mall, around the Lincoln Memorial and back across the river to the Pentagon. Beautiful!

By then we had left the farm and had begun to think about living in community. After carefully testing the idea with my children (we agreed that we would promptly move out if anyone found it too difficult) and waiting a bit until one son who would not have done very well in the city was, like one of his sisters, on his own, we took what seemed to be the next right step: to establish (with some friends) and move into an intentional community in the inner city – Assisi Community.

Assisi Community, now almost 20 years old, is a small Catholic community of individuals and families, women and men, children, professed religious and lay people – people of all ages – who strive to live faithfully the Gospel call to work for a more just and peaceful world – who are trying to put into practice the values of Jesus in the way we live together, pray together, support each other, challenge each other.

Four of my children lived in Assisi Community for significant lengths of time. My youngest son, Matthew, grew up there. It is fascinating now (he is 23) to hear him talk about that experience – one of tremendous security in spite of the fact that we lived in a pretty dangerous neighborhood; of awesome encounters with people from all over the world (survivors of torture and war, Nobel laureates, authors, theologians, human rights activists) and with people from our own neighborhood, especially the strong, wise grandmothers and Catholic Workers; of stability in spite of the fact that I was travelling more and more; of fun. All of my children who lived at Assisi were shaped by their time there in really positive ways. How could they not be – living with people whose lives were given to the work for social justice and peace – no matter what their profession or occupation – musicians, teachers, priests, sisters, lawyers, social workers, nurses, government workers, and those in ministries for justice and peace. I think about 75 people have lived in Assisi Community over the years – some for a year or so and then they move on (several to become Maryknoll lay missioners) – others for more than a decade.

Living in the community was challenging. There was little physical space for family time, though we managed pretty well. It was also very intense. The reality of a broken world was on our doorstep all the time because the members of the community were right in the middle of the struggle for truth and social justice.

Shortly after we moved into Assisi Community I had the good fortune of being offered a job in the justice and peace office of Maryknoll, the U.S.-based Catholic missionary movement founded almost 100 years ago and now present in 39 countries around the world. Eventually I was named director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, a collaborative office of three different Maryknoll organizations – the Maryknoll Sisters, the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and the Maryknoll Lay Missioners.

Our job is to bring the experience of Maryknoll missioners and of the mostly very poor communities where they live and work to the consciousness of people in the U.S. and especially into decision-making processes at the United Nations, the US government, the World Bank and IMF – wherever policies are being developed and practices shaped that will have an impact on the poor and vulnerable, on the environment, on possibilities for peace, especially in those places where Maryknollers serve.

There is so much I could say about our work. What I do now is a far, far cry from designing nuclear submarines for the US Navy. The journey from there to here has been amazing, interesting, unpredictable – just taking the next right step, one at a time; trying to listen to the Spirit moving in my life; to live the values and use the skills I learned at home and at Trinity; to believe that we are all always becoming what God wants us to be.

Let me say just a little bit about what we actually do and how. Our goals are clear but very, very long range (New Creation long range): peace on earth, social justice and ecological integrity. To move in that direction we work with other communities of faith, human rights organizations, universities, labor unions etc. – like Network, CRS, the Center of Concern and Pax Christi, both USA and International.

We try to educate the U.S. public – speaking in parishes, universities, conferences whenever we have the chance; writing in our own (Maryknoll NewsNotes, Maryknoll magazine) print and electronic publications – as well as in other journals and magazines. We try to educate decision-makers – communicating our opinion on critical issues to Members of Congress, especially Catholic Members of Congress; participating in meetings with Treasury and State Department, World Bank and IMF officials – always bringing in Maryknoll experience, and if possible, Maryknollers themselves.

When we can, we go to countries in conflict to express solidarity with those who are most harmed by war. That was the point of my multiple visits to El Salvador during the years of violence and war there. That was the point of my journey with Pax Christi to Israel, Palestine and Jordan at the end of the first Gulf War; to Pakistan and Afghanistan in June of 2002; to Colombia on several occasions. Solidarity. Accompaniment.

We promote justice for (and often with) people who are particularly vulnerable in many parts of the world: women, children, people with HIV/AIDS, migrants and indigenous people. To do so, we work very closely with Maryknoll missioners serving those populations – visiting the countries where they work, bringing them to speak, most often at the United Nations, but also in Washington.

Father Tom Goekler, for example, works with youth in a really poor neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. A “iron hand” law there meant to deal with gangs allows the police to pick up any young people with tatoos. Two years ago, a terrible fire broke out in the prison of San Pedro Sula. 108 youth were killed – many of them had never been charged with a crime. Survivors claim that the guards took a long time to open the doors before they could escape from the fire. Ten of the young people who died were friends of Father Tom’s. Almost immediately we brought Father Tom to Washington to meet with officials and with people responding here to gang violence. He encouraged Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and other Members of Congress to send a letter to the President of Honduras calling for an investigation into the prison fire (she did). We hosted meetings in Honduras and El Salvador of religious groups working on gang-related issues and of youth, including gang members themselves – and we listened, especially to them, for proposed solutions.

We work for economic justice. Maryknoll was one of the first organizations in the world to call for debt cancellation for poor countries. We helped found the Jubilee campaign in the U.S. and, with others, have advocated on this issue from one end of this town to the other – from the US Congress to the US Treasury to the White House (literally) to the World Bank and the IMF. When we began to address the World Bank about the need for debt cancellation, then President Jim Wolfensohn said, “There is no debt crisis and if there were we couldn’t do anything about it (the charters of the IFIs preclude their writing off debt).”

Last weekend the boards of the WB and the IMF agreed to 100% cancellation of the debt owed to them by a number of very poor countries. It’s not the end of the story, but it is a step in the right direction and an amazing accomplishment by advocates and campaigners around the world.

We also promote justice in trade agreements – expressing to decisionmkaers our opinion as shaped by Catholic social teaching. In December the World Trade Organization will meet in Hong Kong. Trade in agricultural goods is at the top of their agenda. In anticipation of that discussion this week we brought a Maryknoll lay missioner and two campesinos from Mexico to meet with faculty members at universities in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Pennsylvania as well as with farmers and the media in all of those places and with decision-makers here in Washington D.C.

We pay close attention to U.S. foreign policy – pressing for a return of the “good neighbor approach” to international relations in this age of globalization. We promote a very different idea of security than that defined in U.S. national security documents. We work for human security – for a state of well-being with basic needs met and a life of dignity assured for all people everywhere. At this point we (with others) are trying to plant some seeds among political decision-makers and opinion-shapers (university professors, preachers, the media etc.).

And we promote within Maryknoll and beyond respect for the integrity of creation – for ecological wholeness. In this area most recently we have been paying attention to US energy-related legislation, to the promotion of genetically modified organisms and to a array of issues around water – necessary for all life, yet rapidly being privatized to benefit a few.

Almost all of our work requires, as I said, a really long term commitment. I have often said that I like to empty wastebaskets and mail letters because at least I accomplish something measurable. We see small victories – real glimmers of hope, and that makes a difference, but the heart of the matter is in the doing itself.

In the farthest reaches of my imagination I cannot think of work that I would rather do day by day. One of my sons a while ago said, “Mom, I’m not sure I quite understand what you do every day, but what is clear to me is that you are deeply happy. And that’s not something many of my friends can say about their parents at this age!”

Our work is interesting, exciting, and challenging. It is consistent with my deepest beliefs, meaningful and a source of great satisfaction. I get up every morning happy to go to work and cannot imagine retiring. And I say all that despite the enormous obstacles we face day by day by day as we try to transform the way our world works toward something more just and more humane.

Maryknoll itself is a treasure. I invite you to learn more about it from the Maryknoll folks present. Nothing can prepare you better or draw you more surely into this wonderful work than living for a while on the margins of our world. Come by our office which is right next door or give us a call if we can be of any help. Consider doing an internship with us.

There are many places to find this kind of life’s work should you be inclined. As my children settle into their own lives now, they give testimony to the variety of ways to work for social justice and peace. One approach is my own – find a job or a ministry in this field. But each of them has carved out his or her own path – as a teacher, a lawyer, a furnituremaker, an office administrator, a dentist. And woven into the work they are doing; into the ways that they parent; into their relationships; into their lives as citizens are the values of and a deep commitment to social justice, peace and protection of the environment.

I urge you to do the same:

  • Open your heart; say yes; take some risks; cross borders; keep growing;
  • Try to look at reality through the eyes of those who are poor, living on the margins of life, excluded;
  • Make a life’s commitment to something you believe in, something that gives your life meaning;
  • Integrate your values into the work you choose to do and into the way you live;
  • Just take the next right step – you’ll know where to go once you get there;
  • Find community – create or recreate it if you have to; and
  • Remember, always remember, that your life is a work in progress. Let the Spirit of the Living God lead the way.

Thank you!