Saturday, April 03, 1999

Nun rallies opponents of NATO action

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Sister Alice Gerdeman knows that behind every good answer lies a good question. This week, as confusion reigns in the Balkans, and American and NATO leaders press for military answers, Sister Gerdeman is pressing for peaceful questions.

        What are our moral obligations to the Kosovars?

        Must the solution to violence be more violence?

        What is the real motivation for our military presence?

        Sister Gerdeman asks these questions in silence, in her morning prayers. She asks them in private, with e-mail protests to President Clinton that always receive the pat reply, “The President has received your letter.” She asks them in public, leading street protests in front of the John Weld Peck Federal Building.

        As the director of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, the Roman Catholic nun is an outspoken presence in a soft-spoken town. Dozens of human-rights issues take her to the streets, from prayer vigils at the sites of violence, to protests of the death penalty.

        She is a small woman to take on such big controversies, this former first-grade teacher with the easy smile and hard questions.

        At times, in order to comfort the afflicted, she is willing to afflict the comfortable.

        “Some people admire what we do here, some people are puzzled by it, and I think we make some people uncomfortable when we stand on the street and call out a question,” she says from her office in Peaslee Neighborhood Center in Over-the-Rhine. “But I think that's our purpose — to keep the questions.”

History of activism
        Sister Gerdeman became keeper of the questions 27 years ago, when her order, Congregation of Divine Providence, wanted accurate information on social justice issues.

        She kept her day job — first as a teacher, then principal of St. Frances De Sales in Newport — but started collecting information. On Central American workers' rights. On the Zimmer power plant, not far from her convent. On women's issues, inside and outside the Catholic Church.

        By 1980, she was doing the work full time, “traveling, gathering information, analyzing, from a biblical perspective, what it means to act for social justice.”

  • The Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center will have an informational meeting on Kosovo at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday in the Peaslee Neighborhood Center, 215 E. 14th St., Over-the-Rhine. Information: 579-8547.
        The conflict in Kosovo is now a focus of her work. She plans informational meetings, leads protests, lobbies legislators. She fields calls from teachers who want to know how to explain it to their third-grade students, and elderly callers trying to understand it themselves.

        She gives them facts to counter their confusion, but she has no antidote to their sadness. “I think sadness is the only thing you can feel,” she says simply. “I am really saddened by the suffering of the people being evacuated, but also by the lack of moral creativity to respond to it.”

Rally every Friday
        NATO, she admits, “is not knocking at our door.” If it were, she would lobby for non-violent responses to the conflict.

        The United States will only influence Serb leaders to value the Kosovars by showing that Americans value them first, she says, “by helping them put their economy on its feet, rebuilding their farms, giving them good trade status.”

        She wants fewer U.S. troops in Kosovo and more private citizens, who would stay as peacekeepers and witnesses of abuses. “If humanitarianism is our goal, why are we not willing to risk our people for that goal?” she asks.

        It is not a comfortable question, which is why Sister Gerdeman asks it.

        And promises to continue asking.

        “If the bombing continues, every Friday we'll be out in front of the federal building as a moral witness,” she says. “In Cincinnati, we're not really "rally folk,' but we may become them if the fighting doesn't stop.”

Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at the Enquirer, 312 Elm St. Cincinnati 45202.

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