A Grandmother's Sacrament in Solidarity with the Poor Print
Diane Schultz has trouble saying the words, ?in prison,? in reference to her mother, Valerie Fillenwarth. However, that?s likely to become a reality for Fillenwarth, a mother of seven and grandmother of 17 who was arrested Nov. 19 for trespassing onto Fort Benning in Georgia to protest the U.S. Army?s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Fillenwarth, 64, of Indianapolis, who has been a member of St. Lawrence Catholic Parish for 34 years, joined 15 others who were arrested by federal authorities during the annual protest. She was released on $1,000 bond and given a Jan. 29 court date. In recent years, those arrested have received 90-day to six-month prison sentences.

?We?re worried about her,? said Schultz, a mother of three who, along with her sister, Sheila Mays, accompanied their mother to the protest. ?It just shows her level of commitment, sacrificing herself.

?All of us, all the kids and our spouses are going to help out however we can while she?s in prison. Just even saying the words, ?in prison,? is kind of bizarre.?

Fillenwarth, who entered Maryknoll as a postulate in 1960 and stayed for two years, said that during the years that she was consumed with the work of raising her children, she didn?t keep up with world affairs. That ended, however, when news reached her of the Dec. 2, 1980, murders in El Salvador of four churchwomen, three of them from Maryknoll.

?It just slammed me,? she said. ?It just hit me so hard.?

After the killings of Maryknoll Srs. Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Maryknoll lay missioner Jean Donovan and Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel, Fillenwarth got involved with Witness for Peace (her husband Ed, a retired lawyer, is on the Witness for Peace board), and Pax Christi USA. In 1998, she made her first trip to the School of the Americas protest, where some of the men implicated in the killings of the four churchwomen had been trained.

In 2000, Fillenwarth crossed the line at Fort Benning, but instead of being arrested, she was given a five-year ?ban and bar? letter, which she honored.

On Aug. 6, 2005, Fillenwarth?s 17-year-old grandson, Ben, was killed in car accident. She said his death helped her to see how painful the death of a loved one can be. ?I think that helped me to understand what we are doing to the people in Latin America,? she said. ?It made it seem more real.?

Fillenwarth told Fr. John Beitans, pastor of her ?quite conservative parish? of her plans to be arrested. ?He grabbed both of my hands tight, right there in the narthex and said a prayer for me. ?May your voice be heard,? he said.?

So on Nov. 19, Fillenwarth, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the handprints of all of her grandchildren, joined 15 others and faced arrest at Fort Benning.

?We?re very proud of her,? Schultz said. ?They?ve always taught us to think of others and try to help people. It?s been wonderful to watch both of them, Mom and Dad, how they?ve just really taken this on as their retirement. ... It?s such a wonderful example that they?re setting for us and for our kids.?

Fillenwarth says she?s as ready as she can be for her likely prison sentence. Fillenwarth said she?s thankful that her husband, children and their spouses, will help care for her youngest son, Billy, who is autistic. ?I have the total support of my husband and the children and their spouses. There?s no way I could do this without them.?

While some of her loved ones advised her to seek other ways to work for peace without going to prison, Fillenwarth said she told them: ?To me, it?s like a sacrament in solidarity with the poor.?