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Peace activist is in prison for child's sake

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

It's a question few mothers ever have to answer. Should she risk separation from her baby by imprisonment or give up nuclear disarmament activism to stay home?

When Michele Naar-Obed decided to commit an act of civil disobedience, the understanding that she might go to jail was only part of the torment of her decision.

Michele and her husband Greg Boertje-Obed agonized over the choice. In the end, she was the one to enter the Newport News, Va., shipyard. On Aug. 7, 1995, Naar-Obed and fellow activists pounded on and poured their blood down the vehicle launch tubes of the USS Greenville fast-attack nuclear submarine, designed to carry Tomahawk Cruise missiles.

In a 20th century twist to the Old Testament story about Solomon and the two women who were fighting over a baby, Naar-Obed chose to give up her daughter for "her sake and the sake of all children." Why are she and other women activists willing to sacrifice their motherhood on the altar of righteousness?

"When you can accept in your midst a weapon that can crack the earth's core, that can wipe us off the face of the earth, it's the pinnacle of insanity," she responded.

As a result of her action, Naar-Obed was arrested for destruction of federal property and sentenced to a year and a half in the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee, Fla.

The sentencing judge, Rebecca Smith, warned the mother she would return to prison and "be away from your child even longer" if, during the three-year probation to follow, she received even a traffic ticket.

Critics may ask, Which is the greater insanity, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, estimated as costing the United States $9,000 a second, or leaving one's child during her most formative years? Why would a woman who cherishes her motherhood chance missing so much of her only child's infancy?

Making of an activist

Tanned from working in the prison gardens under the Florida sun, Naar-Obed, an intense woman, told her story. Growing up in a New York family and attending Catholic schools didn't prepare her for life as an activist. "I think the Catholic schools at that time were a lot more centered on doctrine, memorizing prayers and understanding sacraments but not the social implications of the gospel." In her teenage years she left the church because she thought it irrelevant.

"I came of age during the Vietnam war. I watched the body counts and saw the graphic footage of the war on television." She said she knew people were in the streets protesting the war, "but I didn't know what to do. I made a promise to myself and God I would find a way to speak out against this, to not be complicit with it."

The Iraq war was just building up when she finished graduate school. Troops and weapons were being sent to Saudi Arabia. "There was a lot of hype about bombing and becoming actively involved in the war," she said.

At that point she began to study the history of war. "None of them ever arose in a vacuum," she said. "There was a history that preceded them and things that could have been done to prevent them."

Naar-Obed committed her first act of civil disobedience in January 1991 by climbing up on the roof of an Air Force recruiting center and pouring blood and oil on the building's sign. She was arrested and was acquitted in a jury trial. She realized then that if she was going to be involved in civil disobedience, she would have to be "very grounded in faith."

A search for a vehicle for her faith led her to explore different paths. At one point she spent some time on a Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota. "Their moral and religious beliefs were those I resonated very deeply with," she said, "but it wasn't my tradition." So she returned to her Catholic roots.

Along with the rediscovery of her faith, the young woman began asking herself questions like, "Why did Jesus break the law? He did and there are many examples."

Looking for answers led her to Jonah House in Baltimore. A community of peace activists, Jonah House was started about 25 years ago by Philip Berrigan and his wife, Liz McAlister, both of whom have been arrested countless times for anti-military protests.

Caring for Rachel

The nine adults at Jonah House, including Naar-Obed's husband, form an extended family that cares for Naar-Obed's daughter, Rachel. Not surprisingly, Naar-Obed met the man who became her husband at a demonstration. She is emphatic that it was a family decision that determined she would be the one to risk a prison sentence. Misty-eyed, she says the decision was difficult, "very difficult."

Beyond the family, the community also was in on the decision-making. According to McAlister, who speaks from her own experience, all opinions were heard and considered. "Some may have felt she should wait a bit but still respected Michele's conscience." McAlister was sentenced to a six-month term when her children were only 1 and 2 years old. She remembered it as "rough and unanticipated."

Activists often must second-guess the consequence of their actions, weighing the possible consequences against their zeal to protest, McAlister says. "One can't guarantee anything, so you anticipate the worst and are grateful for anything less."

Emphasizing the need for a strong support system, McAlister talked about the time she and Berrigan were jailed at the same time in 1977. Their children were in early childhood at the time. "It was unexpected, but the house filled with friends from our wider community. What Phil and I learned was not to risk arrest simultaneously."

It is precisely that kind of support that sustains Boertje-Obed now. He is a veteran of 10 jail terms and has participated in four Plowshares actions. He views his wife's imprisonment calmly. "I knew there were enough caring people and Rachel would be well taken care of," he said. He noted the Jonah House community plans that ensure "all don't end up in prison at the same time."

He said, "In a sense Michele is not leaving a child completely. We have weekly phone calls and we visit every few months."

Rachel, now a lively, giggling, bright, 2-and-a-half-year-old seems to relate to adults easily and, according to her mother, is learning that her family goes beyond her parents. "When she's older, she'll be able to take that next leap to understand she is part of a community of humans that goes beyond blood, beyond nations, a part of the world family."

To her critics, the mother answers, "Part of what I do is being responsible to Rachel. These weapons threaten her as well as the other children of the world. She is going to inherit all of it. I always reassure Rachel about why I'm in prison and it's not because of her."

Before she was jailed, Naar-Obed said she thought, "How great it would be if Rachel and I could do a civil disobedience together." But after watching the pain another protester endured when his son was separated from him after their arrest for the same Plowshares action, she says "I'm not sure I could go through that with Rachel."

McAlister experienced the same kind of distress when her son, Jerry, 22, faced a jail sentence for his participation in the Dec. 28, 1996, Feast of the Innocents protest at the Pentagon. "It was a lot of anguish, more than when I was the one to leave," she said. He has since been sentenced to six months probation.

The overriding factor that led Naar-Obed into her action was what was happening while she was pregnant. "I was carrying Rachel in 1994 and we were coming toward the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," she said. She saw photos of the aftermath of the bombings. One was of an infant nursing at the breast of a mother. Both of them were burned and bloodied. She describes the photographs as if she were holding them in front of her.

"I look at that mother in the picture and I feel it very deeply. I see that it's me and that baby is mine. For a very brief moment I feel what that mother must have felt. What I feel is just horrendous pain. And I know this cannot be right and it cannot happen again."

The jailed activist thinks Americans dehumanize the victims and desensitize themselves. "It's very easy to forget, but this is the reality of war. More and more the military has tried to separate us from that by calling victims like these children 'collateral damage.'"

After 10 months in jail, does she still think it is worth it? When she was first imprisoned, she talked about after she was released and "when I go back to prison," not "if." Now she wavers a bit, realizing that "no time can ever be replaced." Picking up her resolve, she asks, "When is the right time? Do I do it now when she's a toddler? Do I wait till she's 5, in grade school, in high school? There is never a good time.

"Whenever I choose to do this, I will always miss a part of her life and I always think about the women who had no choice."

McAlister, a ground-breaker for mother-activists, said when she began to participate in demonstrations three decades ago, there were no ground rules. "We all learned as we went. We had no models for any of this."

She said she would ask any woman contemplating a life as an activist, "Where is your community, your support system? Be clear about that."

Their experience can be useful, but not a template, she said. "Everybody has to find what works for them. Measure and pray."

Looking at the effect her activism had on her children, now grown, McAlister says, "I think the children may have had moments of resentment and that's okay. They knew we were living to our commitments. They are interesting human beings. They seem proud of us and they have a reason to be. I don't see that they were damaged by our choices."

In fact, the three Berrigan children have stayed supportive of their parents' peace activities. McAlister said there were times they probably wished their lives were "more normal." According to her, they have the ability now to look back and say, "We have things from life experiences that others don't have." In McAlister's words, the children are "doing all right."

As for Naar-Obed, like St. Paul, she is doing a lot of writing from behind prison walls. Her epistles have appeared in the Nuclear Register and other activist publications.

The philosophy of Michele Naar-Obed, mother, wife and jailed peace activist, is embodied in a saying from Holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom: "I've learned not to hold on too tightly to things in this life, because they hurt too much when God has to pry my fingers away from them. Now I hold on loosely." And so Naar-Obed holds tightly to principles and loosely to everything else, even her child.

National Catholic Reporter, September 26, 1997