Nawal Rajeh interviewed Rosemary Thompson, lifelong peace activist and Director of the Murphy Initiative in Baltimore, Maryland.
My father was an Irish immigrant and started an engineering firm. As a kid, we lived many places but Baltimore was our home base. In the early 1960s his work took him to the South and Southwest and we ended up being in a fallout shelter during the Bay of Pigs. I was nine years old. It was then that I realized, in that shelter, that I wanted to work for a world where children are not afraid of war.
I was 14 and in high school in 1968 when the Catonsville 9 happened. That was when nine Catholics went into the draft office in Catonsville, MD, brought out all the files, and burned them. Dan Berrigan, one of the priests involved, said “We decided to burn paper instead of children.” It was a turning point in the war. Catholic priests going to jail was a big story. And the Church was being looked at as something energetic and exciting. That impacted me. I went down to the office of this group and knocked on the door. Phil Berrigan (Dan’s brother) answered it. I told him “I want to end the war in Vietnam.” He let me in and taught me how to use a mimeograph machine. I began to make leaflets and joined their movement. Since that time that’s all I’ve wanted to do.
When I was 15, we went down to the Lexington Market in downtown Baltimore to hand out leaflets urging people not to buy non-union produce. We were part of United Farmworkers with Cesar Chavez and his movement. We were all arrested and I spent the night in jail. It was very dramatic. My father had to go to his friends and raise cash to get me out. I’ll never forget, my father said to me from the other side of the bars, “Was it worth it?” I told him, so far it had been. I think the fact that he was so loving and gracious really impacted me. My family wanted to talk about what made me want to do that, and it made me feel supported and loved. It’s hard to do what you do if you don’t feel that way. I’m almost 60 now and have been arrested some 40 times. I could never have done this if I weren’t surrounded by a community of others also committed to the cause.
Two years ago I became director of the Murphy Initiative. It is a justice umbrella organization of 11 religious orders of women and 3 orders of men, including the Jesuits. We are committed to the memory of Bishop Murphy, a bishop in Baltimore who said “We need to learn to hear God speaking in human words.” It’s taken us to work on racism, against the death penalty, for the DREAM Act. We also help facilitate The Convocation for Social Justice in Baltimore every year. We give a peacemaking award to a student at each Catholic high school in the city.
I work on Faith and Resistance Retreats. They are several weeks a year. We do a lot of nonviolence trainings, live in community, and go out publicly every day in front of the White House and Pentagon and ask people to look at their lives differently. I believe that God put us on earth in order to be purposeful. Even though I’m almost 60, I’m a novice. I can spend all my life learning about nonviolence, and I think it starts with compassion.
We all are a mimic of our culture and I think women in the faith-based peace movement have our own caucus. We talk about how it’s different for us. We’re still up against machismo and men who mimic the culture really well. And to be honest, we do as well! That’s why it’s hard to be a nonviolent person, always looking at behavior and asking, Is this reflecting God or not? Do we have faith or not?
I happen to think that Catholicism is the best experiment on Earth. I love the Church, though it’s terribly flawed and you have to look for this hopeful message. I don’t think pedophilia is a good representation of Catholicism, and yet it’s what people know. I think a better representation is what the Sisters do. Like the Nuns on the Bus, whose message is that we will continue to work for the poor, regardless of the criticism of the church hierarchy. The Sisters are the heart and soul of what Catholicism is in America. It was a great nonviolent action – simply show the light of what religious women are doing all over the world.
The driving Catholic principle for me is that Christ said we are a mystical body; what happens to one happens to all. I know what I do affects someone else. And what the government does to a child with a drone in Pakistan – it affects me. So we go to the Pentagon and go to jail, and that gives me hope.
It’s personal – the jail thing. I never do it to change anyone. I do it to stop them from changing me. When I’m at the Pentagon or the White House I feel we are part of a historical statement that has been continuing. But at the same time, I do it to keep my own personal courage intact and growing.
I think we are called to do the work to spite of the bad news. I think the whole point of living is to make life better. People have children because they have hope for the future.
Daniel Berrigan used to say that peacemaking begins with grief. The part of you that’s grieving with children who die, unclean water, greedy corporations. We just stand still and grieve. And out of that grief, you come out with resurrection. There is light and hope. And the only thing that’s ever going to matter in the end is your ability to love. Dorothy Day used to say that love is the only solution. And so I surround myself with loving people, so I can believe and trust in the solution that is in front me.
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