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February 25, 2013

Women as Peacebuilders Series - Session 4

Rosemarie Pace, Director Pax Christi Metro New York

Rosemarie Pace, the director of Pax Christi Metro New York, a region of the international Catholic peace movement , appeared as the guest speaker at the fourth session of the Network's Women as Peacebuilders series. She was asked the same question as the previous four special guests: What were the turning points of your life? What elements in your life brought you to peacebuilding?

Some of the influences peacebuilders have pointed to in this series have been unsurprising: the people around them affected their choices and new ideas or information came their way. What has seemed more unusual has been the importance to some of what one guest described as a call from God and others identified as inner knowing or intuition.

As she looked back on her life, Rosemarie first remembered that as a very young child - possibly three years old -- she asked her mother "Why is there war?" Since even a child could tell it was a bad thing, why was war permitted to continue? A good bit of her subsequent life has been spent looking for an answer to this question.

When she was six years old, her older brother died of leukemia. She understood from this experience the toll that the death of a loved one takes on every individual in a family, giving additional weight to her early question about war.

Change is an incremental process, rarely an overnight thing. After growing up in a conservative Catholic family, Rosemarie's mind opened to new ideas as a student at Marymount Manhattan College, then a liberal Catholic institution. Nevertheless, although some students were protesting the Vietnam War, she saw herself as a loyal American whose country was in the right.

Questioning this view began when she accepted an anti-war leaflet describing Ho Chi Minh as a man trying to liberate his country. The next challenge to her usual view came from an article in a Catholic newspaper, the Brooklyn Tablet , describing the radical acts some Catholics were taking to protest the war. Where she had previously been skeptical of joining protesters because they looked to her like hippie sorts, the idea that some were Catholics made the possibility of protest look safer.

At length she found Pax Christi, a peace group committed to nonviolence. The practice in the group was "prayer-study-action" and so she found herself joining "the crazy people" in the street, protesting such issues as U.S. interventions in Central America to protect the fruit industry, the manufacture of war toys for children, and paying taxes used for warmaking.

As she entered a teaching career, her commitment to Pax Christi not only remained strong, it eventually overwhelmed her desire to teach. A turning point came when there was an opening for the position of director at Pax Christi Metro New York . Did she want it? She was by then a tenured professor. Should she give up reasonable work hours, good pay, security and prestige to work in a peace organization that never had any money to speak of?

A decisive moment came at an orientation meeting in preparation for a retreat in the Canadian Rockies. During a few minutes of silent prayer, she began hearing in her mind the David Haas' hymn "You are Mine." She believed she was being told to leave her secure teaching job and follow her passion for working for justice and peace. This was followed by a trip to Central American war zones with the Center for Global Education. She met soldiers as well as people who were on death squad lists, indigenous people, and campesinos. After witnessing the suffering of the people of El Salvador, Guatamala and Nicaragua, she felt she could not go back to the comfortable life of a college professor. Her future was Pax Christi.

After Rosemarie's talk, participants in the dialogue were invited to contribute any of their own experiences that resonated from the life story Rosemarie told.

One theme in the dialogue was the damage of warfare to soldiers. One woman recalled a friend who left for Vietnam a 19-year-old and returned like a man of 60, still alive but dead on the inside. She also spoke of her father-in-law who fought in World War II and still re-lives the horror of watching boys die in his arms. Another spoke about her brother, a man who went to war and returned convinced that he did the right thing. However, while he was away other members of his family became convinced that the war was wrong and were not able to give him the support he needed to recover. She regretted that. When he returned at 22 he seemed to her emotionally destroyed and still is very lost.

A woman said that at a soup kitchen she knows most of the homeless are either mentally ill or veterans. One said that a relative who works in the Pentagon says that men running drones are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Another theme that emerged was the de-humanization of others who are different. One woman remembered how upsetting it was to go through pictures of Auschwitz in her job as a newspaper picture editor. Someone recalled how Vietnamese were "gooks" during that war.

One woman mentioned the problem of children bullying other children. There was concern about the violence children are exposed to in TV shows and video games. One woman thought that our culture teaches children violence and then gets mad when they act that way. Another pointed out that our government provides a model of bullying in the way that the U.S. goes after whatever seems to be in its interest. The U.S. acts as though the world's resources belong to us.

The news was not all bad, though. One woman praised an organization called Midnight Run in which volunteers from churches, synagogues, schools and other civic groups distribute food, clothing, blankets and personal care items to the homeless poor on the streets of New York City. Another gave the example of a young man who confronted another man who was berating a confused looking Mayan immigrant. "You can't talk to people like that," the young man said. A third talked about her family raising money to send to relatives in Croatia after World War II.

A Network for Peace staff member praised our good friend Betty Reardon who campaigns to abolish war.

At the conclusion of the meeting, participants were asked what they would take away with them from the dialogue. It's important to have some quiet time each day, one said. Another referred to Rosemarie's decisive moment by saying, "At the crossroads, listen for the hymn."

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