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September 2001
War and Peace

The Satya Interview with Agnes Bauerlein


Agnes Bauerlein 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 and experiences.

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 since then I’ve been inspired by reading her anti-war sentiments and non-violent stand against the U.S. policy of waging war to resolve conflicts worldwide.

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 Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation which further convinced me that Dorothy and I 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 activism—we eventually had 11 children in a 30-year span. But during that time I 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 Nazi 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 my beliefs.

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 their 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 in. 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 world—if 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 good—time served.”

What has your prison experience been like?
Prison experience can be emotionally challenging—if 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 don’t think prison is exactly a good place to get a rest, though; as for reflection—that’s 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 fear?
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 we are 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 am guaranteed God’s presence under all circumstances when I choose to live in the spirit of God’s grace.

Is there one particular issue that you currently feel especially passionate about?
Besides our government [and the] Pentagon’s clear insistence on world dominance, Iraq is still very present in my mind, as I am deeply 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 2001].

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 government’s 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 the world.

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 don’t see ‘retirement’ from my work, just a slow-down. At the age of 73 I don’t have the same energy I used to have. What motivates me to keep protesting are memories of Germany during the mid 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 democratic government know that we don’t 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.”


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