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Sister Kathleen Desautels: Collaborating for justice

Sister Kathleen Desautels, second from left, with other peacemakers at a recent protest against the School of Americas.

Sister Kathleen Desautels, second from left, with other peacemakers at a recent protest against the School of Americas.

For nearly three decades, Sister Kathleen Desautels (formerly Sister Mary Colleen) has been at the forefront of justice.

As a staff member at the 8th Day Center for Justice in Chicago, Sister Kathleen knows a lot about collaborating for justice.

The Sisters of Providence are one of six Catholic religious congregations who founded the center in 1974. Today a total of 34 congregations support the center.

“My primary responsibility is to work in collaboration with others on staff as we address the many social issues of our times – human rights, women’s rights in church and society, economic and environmental concerns,” Sister Kathleen said. “The mission of the center is to be an alternative critical voice to oppressive systems and work to change those systems.”

Sister Kathleen said that from the beginning, 8th Day Center’s focus has been collaboration.

“Some sisters got together and said, ‘We’ve got a crisis here,’” she said. “There had to be an answer, so we brought together collaborators of justice and attempted to get the community together.

“In the words of Mother Theodore, ‘We’re not called to do all the good possible, but only what we can do.’ The 8th Day Center is a model of how to expand that which is possible by working in collaboration with other religious congregations to do together what no one of us could do alone.”

Sister Kathleen began work at the center 28 years ago after Sisters of Providence leadership asked her to take on the ministry.

But she believes the “root” of her involvement in collaborating for justice began long before that.

“As junior sisters, we were introduced to what was then called an ‘apostolic spirituality.’ We began understanding what it meant to live out the social gospel by our collective efforts to be good neighbors with the people in the nearby Dresser Community,” she said. “Each Saturday, we walked the dusty roads of this community to reach out to neighbors who were among the many made poor by the economic situation at that time.”

The rape and murder of four church women in El Salvador in 1980 was also part of her transformation. She spent time in Bolivia and in Nicaragua – witnessing social injustices – before finding her way to the center.

Those early experiences helped Sister Kathleen deepen her “own understanding of the social gospel.”

These experiences strengthened her resolve to work for justice.

Sister Kathleen chose to cross a line between belief and action in November 2001. She was demonstrating at an 8th Day-sponsored protest of the School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Ga. The school, run by the U.S. government, had trained Latin American citizens in military tactics since 1946. Its graduates were known to be notorious human rights abusers, guilty of murders, massacres and disappearances of citizens. Sister Kathleen chose to cross a line governmental officials had set limiting demonstrators.

She was convicted of federal trespassing and served a six-month sentence at the Federal Prison Camp in Greenville, Ill. Sister Kathleen hopes her act of civil disobedience made others aware of the need for change.

Sister Kathleen said 8th Day Center, which has never had a director, is “modeled after what we would like the world to look like,” a community working together in order to make all things possible better. The center strives for what Sister Kathleen called “systemic change” and all decisions are reached via consensus.

While the center started from humble beginnings, it has grown. Sister Kathleen said now the center offers publications in all 50 states in addition to also having an international appeal.

“I believe that sisters today are absolutely called and do their best work by collaborating with others,” she said. “The social problems are too large, too interconnected for any one congregation to go it alone. Each congregation brings its own charism and wisdom to the table resulting, hopefully, in a kaleidoscope of energies that bring about greater justice.”
Because of this, Sister Kathleen said the center works in collaboration with others in the community daily.

“The 8th Day Center’s mode of organizing is to always work in collaboration with others to do the work of justice,” she said. “We operate by consensual decision-making processes in which all at the table have an equal say. Whether at a staff meeting or organizing with a myriad of groups and coalitions to plan a non-violent protest for the thousands of people who came to Chicago for NATO/G-8 gathering, making decisions in a consensual way means spending endless time collaborating with folks who do not always come from the same Gospel understanding. But they come willing to be partners for the good of the whole.

“A large part of 8th Day’s work is to facilitate groups doing the work of justice-making. The pastoral cycle of experience, analysis, theological reflection and action is at the heart of our facilitating process.”

(Originally published in the spring 2014 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Jason Moon

Jason Moon serves as media relations manager for the Sisters of Providence. Previously, he spent more than 16 years in the newspaper industry.

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