The Satya Interview with Agnes
is a veteran anti-war protester and peace activist who still actively
campaigns at the age of 73. Bauerlein, mother of 11 children, has spent
time at the front line and time in jail, all the while guided by her
strong principals, influenced by her Catholic faith, and inspired to
continue to work for peace by her memories of the Second World War.
She is especially concerned about the social justice issues pertaining
to political decisions, and currently speaks out against U.S. sanctions
against Iraq. Here, Angela Starks asks Agnes Bauerlein about her inspirations
What first inspired your interest in social justice issues?
I need to take you back to 1945 when I was 16 years old and I heard
a radio news broadcast that a city in Japan, Hiroshima, had been bombed
by a special new weapon that killed at least 100,000 people. My first
thought was This is very, very wrong. I had experienced
bombings of my own hometown in Holland and if 100 people were killed
that was just devastating. But 100,000 all at once by a man-made weapon
was incomprehensible to me.
Five years later I was in New York and I discovered the Dorothy Day
Farm on Staten Island and her newspaper, The Catholic Worker. Ever
then Ive been inspired by reading her anti-war sentiments and
non-violent stand against the U.S. policy of waging war to resolve
While living in Holland during the Second World War, I had experienced
every possible horror of war and wanted none of it. My anti-war stance
was difficult for Americans to understand, after all We liberated
you from the Nazis as they like to point out. Well, Dorothy made
more sense to me with her non-violent conflict resolution and her caring
for the down-and-outers in New York City. For the next 25 years, Dorothy
Day was the strongest, clearest and almost the only voice for my Catholic/Christian
beliefs and I held onto her words. In 1954 I read Thomas Mertons
Seeds of Contemplation which further convinced me that Dorothy and
were on the right track even if the official Catholic Church was not.
Two months after discovering the Dorothy Day Farm, I was married and
living in Philadelphia. I was very involved with raising a large family
and there was not any spare time to get deeply involved in activismwe
eventually had 11 children in a 30-year span. But during that time
met Henri Nouwen, [a Catholic priest and author] a countryman of mine
from Holland. I loved his beautiful writings. I was also deeply influenced
by Dietrich Bonhoffer and his courageous outspokenness against the
regime. Of course, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi and their
commitment to non-violence confirmed all the deepest feelings in my
heart and strengthened
By 1975 I had more time and was very concerned about the Vietnamese
refugees pouring into our country so I conferred with my husband about
it. He suggested we ask our local priest if we could speak about our
concern after Sunday mass, and then, if we got at least six people who
were willing to get involved, we would go ahead and try to help a few
of these refugees. We had 87 people responding and willing to help!
Within six weeks we, as a parish, adopted a family of thirteen: Two
elderly parents, nine men and a woman with a baby. That was really the
first time I became actively involved with social justice issues.
What was your first experience as a peace activist?
One Sunday afternoon in January 1981, a friend encouraged me to
attend a meeting in which she thought I would be interested, and it
turned out to be the first support meeting for the Plowshares Eight
trial to be held in Pennsylvania. [Eight peace activists] had been arrested
for entering the General Electric plant [where nose cones for nuclear
warheads were made, and for disarming two of the nose cones in protest]
the previous September. Our family ended up hosting the defendants for
the two weeks of the trial.
When you sit down and talk with Daniel Berrigan [a Jesuit activist
and one of the defendants] and company for two weeks in a row, attend
trials, and then come home and spend the rest of the evening around
the table listening to so many politically informed and intelligent
individuals, you become quite aware of the dangerous times we live
Then, when you get into the courtroom and see the sham that it is,
you begin to realize in a very deep sense that there is something radically
wrong and you cannot afford to sit by and let it all happen without
making some effort to work for a change for the sake of the children
of the worldif for no other reason.
Just three months after the Plowshares experience, I was arrested at
the White House with a 79 year-old woman, a mother of five young sons,
and two nuns. We were protesting nuclear weapons. That was really the
beginning. I started a Peace and Justice Center in my home town. I next
went to the Nevada [atomic bomb] test site, and from then on, my family
kind of lost their wife and mother, at least for a while.
In November 83 I joined a small group and we planned another Plowshares
action which occurred on July 14th, 1984, in the suburbs of Boston.
We were immediately arrested and put into jail for 10 days. After a
two week trial in December of that year we were found guilty of trespass.
As a first offender I received three months in jail time, but some of
the repeat offenders received several years in jail. However, we were
released on some technicality and told that we would be recalled back
in a few weeks. Nine years later we were called back. The judge, who
was so nasty during the [original] trial, greeted us with this amazing
statement: You wonderful people. What great courage you showed.
I admire you so much! But I have to give you some time in jail.
We looked at him and said, Well, as a matter of fact, we already
served some time in jail, right after the action. He said, You
did? Oh goodtime served.
What has your prison experience been like?
Prison experience can be emotionally challengingif you allow
it to be. It helps to accept the fact that you have lost your freedom,
but that does not mean you cannot have a life. It certainly helps me
to be able to pray and meditate and to know that I am not alone. In
a sense, it is educational to learn how so many people are incarcerated
for so many different reasons. You listen to their stories and you realize
that there is a whole other world out there that you have no knowledge
or experience of. The lives people live! I dont think prison is
exactly a good place to get a rest, though; as for reflectionthats
a different story. I have been able to reflect and discuss with others
in prison about the situation we are in. I have come to the conclusion
that I have been and still am very blessed in my life and I am very
thankful for all that my life has brought to me.
In social movements, many people support a cause yet do not get involved
for a variety of reasons, one of which is fear. Did you ever experience
Any fear has quickly been overcome by the knowledge that I was
doing the right thing and therefore I just did it. On a daily basis
all at risk; all one has to do is drive on a busy highway or get on
a plane. I pray for protection. I am never guaranteed safety but I
guaranteed Gods presence under all circumstances when I choose
to live in the spirit of Gods grace.
Is there one particular issue that you currently feel especially
Besides our government [and the] Pentagons clear insistence
on world dominance, Iraq is still very present in my mind, as I am
aware of the suffering in that country [due to ongoing UN sanctions].
Particularly the many, many little babies that continue to die on a
daily basis, and their grieving mothers [see Editorial in Satya, March
Tell us about your involvement in the Iraqi situation.
In August 1990 when then President George Bush announced that he
was going to wage war on Iraq, I was dumbstruck, appalled, and very
fearful that this would escalate into a world war. I had visions of
the vast desert sands turning bloody. I was truly beside myself. Attending
many war vigils did not still my anxieties. I learned that an international
peace camp was to open in the desert in Iraq. My husband had been aware
of my state of anxiety, and said Do what you feel you have to
do. I signed up for the peace camp and I arrived in Bhagdad in
October 1991. A month later I returned home safely.
Since then I have been a spokesperson against the Iraq sanctions. In
1998 I returned to witness the devastating results of the ongoing sanctions.
Last year at Lent, I spent a week in a local prison as a result of civil
disobedience regarding an Iraq demonstration. (It was the best Lent
retreat I had ever had!)
Fortunately, many Americans have learned the truth about our governments
involvement [in Iraq], though sadly the sanctions still stand. In the
mid-80s I traveled to El Salvador and Nicaragua, again to learn, witness,
and bring back the sad truth of U.S. involvement in other parts of
How does your family feel about what you do?
Some of the children are very supportive, while others are tolerant
and somewhat grudgingly have to admit I have a point.
We have not been the same since we hosted the defendants in the Plowshares
Eight trial. For a few years after our involvement, our family of 11
children was somewhat divided, but over the years they all came around.
Although they have not yet joined me in civil disobedience, they agree
with my views and respect me for them. It did not happen overnight.
In retrospect, 20 years later, it made each and all of us better and
more caring people.
At this point my family is grown up and it is just my husband Charles
and myself. He is very supportive of all of my involvements but not
yet ready to join me in civil disobedience.
Do you plan ever to retire from these campaigns?
I dont see retirement from my work, just a slow-down.
At the age of 73 I dont have the same energy I used to have.
What motivates me to keep protesting are memories of Germany during
and late 1930s. My father had his business there at that time, though
we lived in Holland. I have a clear memory of the night he came home
and told us about Kristal Nacht when without warning in many German
towns, Jewish shops and businesses were broken into, looted, and totally
destroyed. And he told us how the German police stood by and allowed
it to happen.
It is my fear that we in the U.S. are just as apathetic as the German
population in the late 1930s. I certainly see apathy on the nuclear
issue. The U.S. military complex is alive and well, and the prospect
of its growth is very real unless we, the American people, let our
government know that we dont need it. [As they say,] It
will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and
the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.