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Prisoner With a Cause

Wednesday, February 5th 2003

Albuquerque Journal


Judy Bierbaum is going to prison again, this time for twice as long as the last. I ask her about diminishing returns. She says she doesn't understand the question. I ask about the cost. When does the cost become too high?

"I know that I have to do what feels right to me, even if it doesn't make a bit of difference," she said. "I have to be clear that I do what I do because it feels like the right thing to do. When I make a decision, certainly there are costs involved; and when this happens, this is when I have to go to a deep spiritual place to answer what is mine to do and not weigh in the costs. As much as I possibly can, I can't let the costs dictate my choice."

She protests policies of the United States, but we are not talking about Iraq or Afghanistan or any part of the world that is so much on our minds today. We are talking about Latin America, an afterthought, if even that.

I first met her in 1997. She was arrested for illegally entering Fort Benning in Georgia in protest of the School of the Americas, where Latin American military officers are trained by U.S. personnel. Each year, thousands of protesters gather at Fort Benning on Nov. 16, the anniversary of the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador.

Before 1997, she had never been arrested for anything.

She was 41 years old, a clinical therapist at All Faiths Receiving Home working with sexually abused children. She works now at Rio Grande High School with a University of New Mexico program.

Then, as now, I wanted to know why she made choices most people wouldn't make, especially since 9-11, when so much changed in America.

"Something became more congruent when I matched my conviction with my action," she said.

She had worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta; she had written letters to legislators and signed petitions. But she had never crossed the legal line. She was let off with a warning in 1997.

In 1998, she crossed the line again, but wasn't arrested. Thousands of protesters overwhelmed the authorities. There were too many to detain.

In 1999, she went back, crossed again, and this time was arrested and charged for the illegal entry. The next year a federal judge passed sentence three months in prison, a $2,500 fine.

At the prison in Arizona, they photographed her, strip-searched her. (She doesn't know where she'll be sent this time.) She thought the woman in the photo looked like a hardened criminal.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," she said. "I had been to Calcutta. I had been to hell. But this was the hardest thing I've ever done."

She went to Georgia again in 2001, but didn't cross the line. She said she couldn't do so without her husband's agreement and that they were not "on the same page."

Last summer, she and her husband worked in El Salvador, Colombia and Thailand. She said the experience had been "transformative" for him.

Last fall, she went to Fort Benning, crossed the line, and in May, she returns to prison, this time for six months.

Asked why and she gives an explanation I have heard before through the years.

"It's a grounding in my understanding of a God of love and the invitation that God calls me into in terms of loving not only God but my neighbor," she said. "When I see my neighbor suffering, the questions for me are ones of justice. It's all held in my relationship to God and what that relationship calls me into about how to love my neighbor."

When I write about her, she invariably is condemned. Given the tenor of the times, maybe even more so now. It makes no difference.

"We can be faithful only to what is ours to do," she said. "If we're all faithful to our own small, little piece, then it all comes together."


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