US Catholic Faith in Real Life

This feminist model of organizing puts the gospel in action

8th Day Center for Justice lives out the gospel through presence, solidarity, and action.

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Article Justice

At 8th Day Center for Justice, commitment to the common good extends even to lunch hour. “You can go out, but the culture is that we come together for lunch,” says Sister of Providence Kathleen Desautels. “That forms community.”

Desautels has been with 8th Day for more than 30 years, but despite a long career with the organization, she’s not a director or even a manager. No one is. That’s because 8th Day’s organizational structure isn’t hierarchical at all. 

“There’s equality in our decision-making. We make all of our decisions by consensus. We live the values of collaboration, cooperation, and mutuality,” she says. “I like to say it’s a feminist model of organizing. We’ve never had a director, and when people ask for the executive director, I say, ‘Whomever you talk to is the executive director.’ ”

The organization is currently celebrating what it is calling a Year of Gratitude. After 43 years, 8th Day will close its doors in September 2018. Reflecting on the end of an important organization in the U.S. Catholic Church, Desautels recalls the wisdom of her foundress, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin: “We’re not called to do all the good that there is, but only that which is possible.” 

“I think we did that,” she says. “We did the best we could.”

What is the 8th Day Center for Justice?

The purpose of 8th Day came after the Second Vatican Council mandated that religious congregations of women update their constitutions and their way of living. If there is anything to say about women religious, it’s that they’re organized. One of the main elements that came out of that for women religious was to promote social justice teachings. 

There were some sisters—and I would say a few good men—who were organizing here in the city, and they were called the Urban Sister Apostolate. They were funded by Chicago Archbishop Cardinal John Cody. But when he defunded the work they were doing, these women called together the justice promoters from all the religious communities in Chicago.

Whenever there is a crisis, what do you do but organize? After a year of discussions, they decided to ask congregations to give money for an office and release the justice promoters from their communities to work together in a more collaborative effort. We started with six communities, and now we have more than 30 religious communities. 

We all share responsibility. Part of it is when there’s a problem we need to solve it together. For some, it’s a lot easier to do than it is for others. Nuns tend to want to be nice. It’s harder for some of us, but we’ve been able to do it without needing a director. There’s always somebody in the group who can speak with wisdom when we need it.

What does the 8th Day Center do? 

We like to say there are two feet to justice. One is direct service—the Catholic Church does a lot in terms of direct service—and the other foot is systemic change. Our foot in the work of justice is to get at the root of the problems and address the issues relative to any of the systemic problems of our time, whether it’s capitalism, patriarchy, or sexism.

We work in coalition with other groups that are working on issues of human rights, antiwar efforts, antiracism, women in the church, immigration, or any of the social inequalities. We always work in collaboration with others. 

We sponsor a Good Friday walk for justice. We call on some of our partners and have them write prayers from their experience on what we all need to understand about the suffering of Christ today. 

Because our work is systemic change, it entails working not only in collaboration but also in education. We do a lot of social analyses and teaching of processes with our congregations and others.

We’ve also done a lot of nonviolence training. When NATO came to Chicago in 2012 we spent the whole year collaborating with other organizations to resist its military policies. We’re respected because we are able to bring together people on the extremes and hold the group together.

We’ll invite groups to share an evening together with pizza and beer. We say, “Let’s talk” to folks who ordinarily wouldn’t sit down and organize with each other but who are willing to have a conversation.

What are some of the highlights of your 30-year tenure with 8th Day?

What was the last thing I did? It’s whatever I’ve done last! 

I think the highlight for me is the organizing with such a variety of people. We’re a fiscal agent for more than 20 active small groups that are organizing on LGBT issues, immigration, nonviolence, you name it. We have any number of groups that don’t have an official nonprofit status, which prevents them from being able to apply for a lot of grants. But with us as their fiscal agent they are eligible. We deposit their money. When they want a check from that, they request it, and then we write them a check. If they get more sophisticated and need more of business office, we don’t do that. We encourage them to get nonprofit status. It’s pretty simple.

For instance, Transformative Justice Law Project is composed of lawyers who help transgender folks change their birth certificates. They have to go through a court. It’s a very lengthy and expensive proposition. So these lawyers have organized to help them. We work with a number of those groups that are doing wonderful work.

A number of foundations know and trust us to help these smaller organizations with their money.

What are the issues that, in terms of systemic injustice, need the most attention right now?

Women’s issues, whether in church or society, including misogyny, patriarchy, and sexism. Feminism is looking at equality and equity. It’s seeing the need for mutuality and cooperation. 

You spent time in a federal prison for protesting the School of the Americas and called your actions “faithful dissent.” What does that mean? 

A number of years ago, while educating our community, we asked Society of the Sacred Heart Sister Carolyn Osiek to come talk about the history of dissent in the church. She says that dissent happens when conscience and public order are in conflict, and she teaches that dissent has a history in the church. “Starting with Jesus,” she says.

My own community’s foundress was in dissent with the local bishop in Indiana. He locked her in a closet, refusing to let her return to the community. 

Dissent happens, and it has to happen. We need to resist, but we need to be thoughtful about it. You don’t do it lightly. 

Here’s another quote: “Dissent is what healthy people do when the institution no longer serves their legitimate spiritual needs.” That’s a good one, too, isn’t it? It is for me.

I always say I could sit on a missile silo and be arrested, and people would just yawn and say, “There goes 8th Day again.” But when you dissent within the church it has a lot more ramifications, not only for us, but for our religious communities. 

How did you end up in a federal prison for six months? 

I crossed onto Fort Benning Army Base in Georgia for the last time in 2001 after 9/11 at the annual School of the Americas (SOA) protest. I had crossed before. 

Every year more and more people, especially women religious, participated in this act of civil disobedience because many of our communities had missionaries in Latin America, and the SOA had trained military responsible for the deaths of missionaries. The protest really resonated with women religious.

Every year people would be asked to make a decision as to whether they wanted to cross over onto the base. There was a literal line to cross. At an appointed time, if you wanted to risk arrest, you just crossed over in order to go to the school, which is probably a mile-and-a-half away from the entrance.

People dress in shrouds and carry coffins to make a dramatic point that the SOA is responsible for thousands of deaths of the poor.

It is a funeral procession, where you chant the names of people who have been murdered by people who trained at the SOA. There are thousands of names.

I had crossed a number of times, but after 9/11 something changed. Usually you’d get a letter with a court date in November. January came, and I hadn’t received my letter. I found out in April that I had a court date in July. I was sent to prison in 2002 and got out in 2003.

I always say if you are going to get arrested, do it with SOA Watch. You learn from others who have been in the prison, what it’s like and how to compose yourself at the trial. The community spirit of those gathered sustains one at such a time.

It’s a wonderful experience, if you have to be arrested and you have to go to court, to do it in community.

Why get arrested?

My conscience was, and continues to be, in conflict with U.S. policy on Central America.

I had spent time in Bolivia. I went to Iraq after the Gulf War organizing women taking money to women in Iraq. I had been to Guatemala. I had been on human rights trips and listened to the stories of people. I’ve met with people, seen their plight and what they’ve risked in their lives. It’s all about relationship, isn’t it? It’s the relationships that you build with the people who are suffering as a result of U.S. policy.

You can’t unknow what you know. 

Once you know, you call your senator, you do all of the things that are within the law, and it does no good. I think every federal prison has had somebody from SOA Watch because people from all over the country used to come to Fort Benning. 

Then there’s the experience of being in prison. First of all, they give you three pairs of whatever you’re going to wear for the six months and that’s it. They say, “Well don’t worry, because you go to the commissary and you can buy the things you need.” But you don’t get to go right away. It could be two weeks before you get to the commissary. What about toothpaste? Soap? 

The guards said, “Well don’t worry, the women gather that for you.” They gather it out of their supplies to give new inmates what you need to carry you through. Women helping women. It’s not that there aren’t some characters in prison, but by and large I gained friendships there that I still connect with to this day.

Religious communities have fewer members and resources to support the center in the future, and that’s one of the reasons 8th Day is celebrating its final year. How do you see your work being carried on in the future?

My hope is that the education we’ve provided our own women and men relative to social justice issues will continue on. In my own community the main mission is doing justice work out of a spirit of love and mercy. If my community is any example, I hope that the education and the experiences that we’ve had with religious communities have brought them to a better understanding of systemic change.

What are your plans for 8th Day’s last year?

What we’re planning is to give away any remaining funds, which we hope will be significant. First of all we’re having what we’re calling the Year of Gratitude, which we kicked off September 30, 2017.

The plan is to gift groups who do systemic change work. It’s a gift with no strings attached. We are still working out the process for this.

Hopefully these groups will be able to carry on their work and this will ease their immediate funding worries. I think that is in the spirit of 8th Day and is going to benefit groups that otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity.

Another possible plan is to have a party and give away all of our great posters and artifacts.

What advice would you give our readers who feel called to the work of justice?

Obviously there’s so much on social media that you can get involved in. I think it’s starting your own small group or a reading group. Bring people together. Look at the Indivisible movement or some of the organizing that came out of the 2017 Women’s March. Start a book club or join with others who are working in a soup kitchen. There’s plenty of direct service you can do. 

It terms of systemic change, you could get involved with any number of groups organizing to resist the evils of our day. I just think you have to do a lot of reading and speaking out—speaking up and speaking out. Join groups that are resisting in your own area. If you’re in a parish, start a group to study and act on a particular issue.

This article also appears in the January 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 1, pages 20–23).

Image: 8th Day Center for Justice

Published: 
Tuesday, January 9, 2018