A Discussion with Marie Dennis, Director, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
April 29, 2010
Background: This exchange in April 2010 between Marie Dennis and Katherine Marshall focuses on the different ways in which Ms. Dennis has engaged on issues of peace and justice in areas stretching from personal lifestyle to global issues. She discusses her own efforts to link her growing commitment to social justice to her family's lifestyle. Her role with the Maryknoll Global Concerns office brings to light many dimensions of women's roles as those who suffer in conflicts, especially at the grassroots level. She stresses the important roles that outsiders can play in accompanying women as they articulate their understanding of how they experience injustice, helping to give them an authentic voice. She describes the important work of Pax Christi (she is co-president) as a network linking groups working on peace. The interview highlights the complex interconnections between the development of a thoughtful feminism, rooted in theology, as well as both local and global struggles to address injustice, inequality, and exclusion. Her aim is not only to counter the invisibility of women, but also to allow them to be who they are called to be. Women, in Ms. Dennis’s experience, have always played a central role in issues of peacebuilding but rarely receive credit for their work. Marie Dennis' humility, caring, and authenticity come through strongly in the conversation.
I know you have traveled a unique and fascinating path, and that it has led you to focus on peace, on women, and on the contributions of spiritual motivation. Could you outline that briefly?
The questions that the project addresses are fascinating and important; they are ones that have indeed interested me all my life. But my first question is: What do you mean by peace? What is peace? I tend to define peace very broadly. If peace is interpreted more narrowly, as specific conflict resolution or the diplomacy of peace, then I see myself less defined as a peacemaker than when it is looked at more broadly. I have been less involved in the conflict transformation and diplomacy side than in working for social justice.
My journey? It has truly taken me one step at a time to where I am today.
I grew up in Pittsburgh and Boston in a Catholic family and studied physics as an undergraduate. I worked for the Navy, designing nuclear submarines. Later, when my husband was in the Air Force, we lived for a time on Guam.
I was focused for a time on life as a young mother. I have six children, five of them born very close together. When they were very young, I was involved in simple social work as a volunteer, especially after we came to live in northern Virginia. But in doing that work, I began to recognize what I had not particularly before, the deep poverty that was so close by. That was 35 to 40 years ago, and it was my first encounter with the kind of poverty that involves deep insecurity, people moving house to house, with no help or support, without job security or healthcare.
I also became more involved in these issues in my faith community. This was the time soon after Vatican II, so our concerns coincided with where the Catholic Church was. I felt the call to engage as people of faith, not only in social service but in social justice. The theology of liberation, emerging in Latin America at that period, also affected us. So I spent several years thinking and reading, even as I was dealing with the complex lives of lots of little children. And I came to a real sense of the deep structural injustice that was part of the system.
An internal voice began to demand that I respond, at a personal level, to this injustice, starting with changes in lifestyle. The more I became involved in the issues of social justice in my community, the more I began to ask questions about how I could help create a more just world and address the issues of war and poverty. What, I was forced to ask, did those wars, far away but yet still close, have to do with me, my family? As a family (my former husband was a dentist, teaching then at Georgetown), we began to discuss how we should respond.
I had not been up to that point very tuned in to political issues; that was not my focus in college or in the years thereafter. But I came to be far more engaged during the turbulent, intense time—around 1969 and 1970 through the mid 1970s—with the Vietnam War and struggles for liberation in other parts of the world. I became increasingly involved in the work for social justice and peace.
So, as a result of these different reflections, we made important changes in our lifestyle. We were living in McLean, Virginia at the time and started to try to live more simply. But then we made a bigger shift, and we moved to a farm in Lovettsville. There were several motivations. One was a simpler life, more grounded in realities. But we also wanted to try to engage with our children in activities that were life-giving, since so much of what I was doing then was about protesting injustice and dealing with violence and war. I had begun to critique U.S. foreign policy and the injustices of the United States’ roles. I did not want my children to have only that negative experience, but an experience of life.
We lived on our 65-acre farm for about nine years, taking it from a disaster to a fully working, productive enterprise, and it was a truly wonderful experience. We raised our own food, had gardens and animals, and did everything that later came into vogue, in terms of organic farming and eating locally, being respectful of animals, and so on. My husband was not excited about my interest in becoming a vegetarian, so we worked out some compromises, with our respectful treatment of animals, grazing rather than grain feeding, and not using antibiotics or steroids. This was time of the Ethiopian famine and mounting concerns about a global food crisis, so our approach was within that context, a keen awareness of where food came from and what was involved in producing it. But all this was at the early stages of growing consciousness about these issues. We were trying to bring those debates into our own lives in a concrete way, doing what we could do as a family , to live in a different way. We tried to connect this thinking to the reflections about systems and structures of injustice, to learn about ecological wholeness, to learn and to live as an example.
During that period, with two other women, I founded the Center for New Creation, an ecumenical justice and peace center in northern Virginia. Its purpose was to raise questions about justice, peace, feminism, and environmental care in the community, to bring these issues home to the middle-class world of northern Virginia and beyond. It was a period of intense learning for me, integrating different parts of my worlds. It involved me in writing, publishing, the arts, and other forms of learning. The issues we touched on varied widely, including the nuclear arms race, the struggles for justice in Central America, the debt crisis in Latin America, feminism, etc., as well as issues closer to home. I began at this period to take groups of people to visit Central America, so that they could experience and understand the situation there. I also became more involved in the Washington metropolitan area, building relationships in the community, recognizing that our center was only a few miles from the nation’s Capitol and the troubled neighborhoods that were so close to it. We started the Washington Area Community Investment Fund (which still makes loans in neighborhoods of Washington, D.C.). We created a program called Herstory, which involved a retelling of the stories of women which are lost in so many history books. It was inspired by Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. We did many public events to draw attention to the issues.
One of the most exciting projects we were involved in was the Peace Ribbon, marking the fortieth anniversary of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. This was inspired by Justine Merritt, from Denver, Colorado, and took place all over the world. It aimed to have people depict on a piece of cloth or “ribbon” what we could not bear to think of losing in the event of a nuclear war. We (the Center for New Creation) took on the task of organizing the event in Washington. The initial idea, which seemed ambitious at the time, was to have enough pieces of ribbon to hold end to end around the Pentagon. But on the day itself, the fortieth anniversary [August 1985], we had 26 miles of ribbon for Washington. The ribbon went all around the Pentagon, across Memorial Bridge, around the Mall, around the Capitol and the Ellipse. The night before, at an interfaith service at the [National] Cathedral, there were ribbons on every seat and in every corner. Similar events happened all over the world. And today those pieces of ribbon can be found everywhere: in congressional offices, museums, and so on. The movement is still alive, and I am still involved in the issues around nuclear proliferation (I will be at meetings next week on the nuclear proliferation treaty).
But the core idea was to engage people in every way, especially other than words, to bring in their souls, their emotions, and their psyche to the work for social justice and peace.
How did you relate to the feminist movements at that time? How did you focus on women’s roles in the issues you were addressing?
I was certainly conscious of women’s exclusion from an early stage. As a young woman working in the field of physics, I was the only woman in sight. My sister was one of three or four women at the time in Georgetown Medical School. But it was only over time that I came to see these issues as part of the broader social justice effort in which I was involved, as part of the patterns of deep exclusion in the world. I was amused last week, getting onto the red-eye flight from Seattle, to notice that only one of the 12 seats in the first-class cabin was occupied by a woman. It is inconsequential in a sense, but also important and symbolic because that simple example speaks volumes about how women are still excluded. It is a wide and deep, ongoing struggle; I am still awed and saddened by the depth of exclusion.
The questions about women’s roles became an increasingly strong focus within my own faith community, from the 1960s, but especially the 1970s. It touched my own experience of exclusion, of not having a voice, but we also were beginning to struggle with how to move into a different place. We were increasingly aware of what was happening in our local community and also were intensely aware of exclusion in the Catholic Church. We began with a theological reflection about the very images of God, images that so often excluded women. And our reflections took us to many different dimensions of life. I had become very aware of the reality lived by women in terms of being invisible, and of efforts to counter that and to give women a voice, allowing them to reclaim their own stories. But the purpose was not just in order to have more just access. It was also to be more fully who we were called to be, to stand up for ourselves, and to speak out, not to perpetuate the patterns of subservience that the generations of women before us had lived.
What led you to leave the farm and that life?
Our family’s situation changed. My husband left and, after eight years on the farm, I began a long, careful decision process about what to do next. My six children were getting older (though the youngest was only one year old at the time) and they were increasingly involved in their own activities. I could not manage the heavy demands of farming alone. So I decided to make a major change. I wanted both to deepen my work on international social justice issues and to come closer to the urban issues in Washington. We spent a few years in Purcellville, Virginia, until my older children were at a good transition point. My children were at different stages, and my oldest daughter was then in college; my oldest son was and is a rural soul, so he stayed in Virginia. Once again, it was a deliberate journey of reflection that involved both myself and my children, who were very much involved in the decision.
One of my central concerns was that my children have a different experience, that they meet other young people who had experience of a different way of life. I did not want them to cruise along. It was important that they make a connection to real work, the earth, where food came from, as important components of life. We had some international connections when we were on the farm, taking groups to Central America and the Dominican Republic. But I wanted them also to have other experiences, including living, as friends, with people who were poor and who lived lives where violence was a part of their world.
I kept asking myself the fundamental question: what is the faithful response of a middle-class, white Christian woman living in the United States to the cry of people living in poverty and war? What do we say and do when we become aware of the realities of war in El Salvador, of people being brutalized? One answer, for me, in the course of my own life and that of my own family, was to try to move a little closer to those realities. It was an effort to be responsible, to protect my family from unrealistic dangers, but also to step into violence and poverty wherever we could, to shift the lens we used to look at reality, to keep a balance between care for human beings and care for the earth, to be a little bit closer to the lives of people we cared about. We wanted to have a better sense of what the lives of others were truly like.
So, at the right moment, in 1987, I helped to start and moved into a community, Assisi Community, in a poor, urban neighborhood in Washington, D.C., in the Petworth neighborhood. It was, at that time, a run-down, drug-infested area, with lots of violence, lots of upset. But I quickly found there were wonderful families, women working hard to raise their grandchildren with some kind of dignity and goodness.
I have lived in the Assisi community for most of the past 23 years. I moved out for a time to live with and care for my mother in her last years. After she died, I moved back to Assisi Community. It has always been a positive experience. My youngest son grew up in the community. It has been an interesting experience of trying to live together in a different way. The community was founded by Catholics, and it is Catholic in tone and spirituality, but there have often been other traditions in the community, and that has always been a gift. Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists have lived there, as well as two young Jewish men and a non-believer. We have always had diversity of ages, from young children to older people. We also have had a diversity of vocations: Franciscan, Columban, Maryknoll priests, sisters from different religious communities, and laypeople. Many had overseas experience. People are religious and lay, single and couples, parents, and others. There is always a mix, about 15 people at a time. People have come from different countries. We had Salvadoran refugees join us, two Brazilians, and women from Vietnam and Haiti. We have never had African Americans, though the neighborhood was mostly African-American (it is now more mixed). Everyone in the community is involved in some way in justice and peace, whether as a musician, or through media, pastoral work, education, etc. We decided not to have any particular ministry in our neighborhood—we are just neighbors.
Our fundamental purpose is to live together simply, engaging in some way in social transformation. We pray together every morning, share the work, share dinner, and share experiences. We have faced some huge challenges as a community. For example, we accompanied one community member, Sister Diana Ortiz, who was abducted and tortured in Guatemala, as she tried to find out what happened to her, who was responsible, and what the U.S. government knew about it. We accompanied her in her vigil in front of the White House for six or seven weeks in 1996. We went with her to meetings at the White House and the FBI. Another community member had been terribly sexually abused as a child, and we accompanied her, very carefully, as she came to terms with it. Yet another member of the community was Jennifer Harbury, whose husband was a leader of the opposition in Guatemala, who was captured, tortured, disappeared. We worked with her to try to find out what had happened to him.
Along the way, we found that these experiences had a definite impact on how we think about peace.
We also have evolved a very effective and horizontal leadership structure. We work to have a good mix of men and women, clerical and lay. So this experience has been an important part of my background for a long time. It has helped me to reflect on my beliefs in terms of what kind of role I can play, and how I can deal with violence. That role, I have come to believe, is about accompanying and listening. And that is also the Maryknoll approach and experience. In the places where they work as missioners, especially over the last 40 to 50 years, they have come to understand their missionary vocation as to live as authentically as you can your own beliefs, constantly to chose the harder path, to encounter people, and to learn or search with others for meaning in life, and thus to move past violence and danger.
What was your professional focus at that time?
I was also making a professional shift at that time, among other reasons looking for something that would enable me to support my children and earn a bit more money after 10 years at the Center for New Creation. I began to work full time for the Maryknoll Society’s Washington office in 1989. I was already doing similar work, starting with taking delegations to El Salvador and Guatemala. I was hired to bring the experience of Maryknoll missioners and the communities where they live and work into the process of shaping U.S. and international policy that would affect them in the future. In 1997, a collaborative office was formed by the three separate and independent institutions (the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, the Maryknoll Sisters, and the Maryknoll Lay Missioners). It was called the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns. I have been director of that office since then.
In the initial period, I worked particularly on Latin America and was preoccupied by the challenges in the early 1990s of peace there. I spent lots of time in Latin America, getting to understand the realities, what the Maryknoll missioners were doing and seeing in the communities where they were living. There, too, this was a time of transition in Latin America—many countries were moving from dictatorships to some kind of democracy. I spent much energy in trying to understand what was happening. As I understand our role [in the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns], we are trying to create space for people to speak for themselves or at least to faithfully to represent what they would say. To do that credibly, I had to move around the region—first to Latin America and later to Africa and Asia as well. I was trying to get closer to local communities, to understand their context, the enormous challenges of poverty and violence that they faced, often visiting war zones to accompany people living in very difficult situations. I was trying to understand the connections among problems and to experience what it all looked like—the U.S. role, the IMF, the World Bank—from where they were. We wanted to contribute in a positive way to linking their realities to the movements in the [Global] North; [we] were seeking to respond to injustice in ways that were respectful of the struggles of the people and the local challenges that they faced.
Over the past 20 years, the greatest challenge I have faced has been to find ways in this city, in the policy circles, to articulate in a faithful way what I and others were seeing. It was also a challenge to me to move from an often anecdotal articulation of experience to one that would be more useful in public policy debates and that, therefore, would be more effective in addressing the root causes of war and poverty. It has been a long journey, and there are moments when this is easier and more possible than it is at others.
This is the challenge now for Maryknoll and also for Pax Christi International. We have the amazing gift of being all over the world in local communities, in and after wars and violent armed conflicts, seeing the terrible situations of poverty. How can we focus our work, how can we respond, what can we advocate for? I am now at a point of recognizing that I need to see more clearly the many links among different issues. We need to find better ways, more opportunities, to lift up the terrible realities that we see, the effects of war and violence, in a more coherent way. That must shape how we focus our work, what we propose, and what we advocate, individually and collectively.
During the late 1980s, I also returned to studies for a master's degree in moral theology at the Washington Theological Union. That was a chance to take my experience and work for social justice and to reflect on them in the light of Catholic social teaching. It allowed me to dig deeper into the tradition I am part of. It gave me better language for reflections on some complex issues we must deal with.
How did you become involved in Pax Christi?
During the years we lived on the farm, I became involved with Pax Christi USA. It felt at the time and still feels to me like a movement that was doing important work for peace and social justice. Fairly soon I became a member of the National Council of Pax Christi USA. That brought me into contact with Pax Christi International also. I was the chair of the Pax Christi USA National Council for three years and on the council for six.
Pax Christi International was not well known in the United States, even by Pax Christi USA members. It seemed very European, and it was not immediately obvious what the connections were to what we were doing here.
In 1999, I was elected to the Pax Christi International Executive Committee, and I saw that as an excellent opportunity. It had taken me a couple of years to understand Pax Christi International as a movement. I had come to have great admiration for it, also for Etienne de Jonghe, who was secretary-general for 30 years and who is an amazing human being. The movement had extraordinary experience, during the Cold War, and with conflict all over the world.
I came to see more and more the many dimensions and layers of peace.
Pax Christi has a deep history, and some parts of it work very well. I see in it an enormous potential. That is why I agreed to run for leadership in the movement. In 2007 I was elected president of Pax Christi International, a position I shared with Archbishop [Laurent] Monsengwo [Pasinya] from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I was the first layperson and first woman elected to that position since the beginning of Pax Christi 65 years ago. This was an important decision by the movement to recognize the role of women and the role of lay members more formally. Women have always played a central role, but it has been in the background. A high-level cleric (Msgr. Monsengwo and now, Bishop Kevin Dowling next) has always been president of Pax Christi. So three years ago we decided to break the system open, and, deliberately, to say that women would have an equal leadership role in our movement. It is also recognition that laypeople do faithful and important work for peace. The change has important symbolic value and reflects the real-life experience of the movement.
What about the Religious Working Group on the World Bank and the IMF, where, I believe, we first met?
That began as an initiative from the Maryknoll experience in Latin America, as it was linked to the debt crisis. Maryknoll missioners in Peru in the early 1980s came to Washington, D.C. to describe in congressional hearings the impact of the implementation of the early structural adjustment programs there. They were very articulate, making connections among very different issues, and expressing their very major concern about the overwhelming impact of Peru’s debt. Then, in a 1992 meeting with Maryknoll missioners from all over Latin America, we identified debt as a major issue again, trying to get behind the many formalities of debt negotiations and the different kinds of debt: commercial, bilateral, multilateral, etc. What they and we were trying to understand was its overall impact.
We then began to work to try to understand the issue and to identify possible places where the problem could be addressed. I remember one session where Jo Marie Grieshaber, from the Center of Concern, gave us what was effectively a tutorial: how Peru’s debt worked, where there was responsibility for it within the U.S. government, how the different pieces fit together. And we began to ask ourselves, did anyone actually know what Peru owed? Did anyone have any idea how Peru and other countries could get out of the trap? How could and should we respond? How could we advocate in a way that was not just advocating for one-time debt cancellation, but, more important, to get at the systemic roots that had caused the problem? That led us towards economic policies, and we started the Religious Working Group on the World Bank and IMF, hoping that way to build some dialogue, to know who was making decisions, how to ask for conversations, who had a say and an understanding about the issues and policies. And all along our effort was to keep a focus on what we were trying to accomplish. To keep asking about the values we bring. To be respectful, not to condemn people but to critique policies, and to translate grassroots experience into language that was useful. We worked to make the connections between the United States and international groups.
That led us into the Jubilee movement. We had started to call it Jubilee, a logical step from our theological reflections. And that is how, I believe, Ann Pettifor from the London Jubilee Group found us. They asked us to sponsor the Jubilee 2000 campaign in the United States, which we did, but based on our own platform. The U.K. proposal was originally for a one-off debt forgiveness. We did not want that because our analysis suggested that that was not enough, that what we were looking at would be an ongoing challenge.
What do you see as major challenges ahead?
It is so easy to feel that any one story or collection of stories is just such a drop in the bucket, seen against the forces of power or against the momentum of business as usual. We struggle constantly with how to connect with the understanding and feelings of those who are in decision-making positions. I admire Obama and his effort to do things differently, but it is slow and takes time.
Through all this work, I have seen more and more the connections among issues and the importance of creating viable networks that can link many different kinds of structures, to help people who are working for peace to sing in harmony with each other and to work together.
In terms of gender roles, I see that I need to rethink my own approach and roles at a personal level. I am most comfortable in a background role and have very little personal need for recognition, but I appreciate that in my Pax Christi role, my challenge is to step into that function and claim the space that women should have.