A conversation with Mary K. Meyer – Part I

For an audio (and extended) version of this conversation, go here.   

Mary K. Meyer is a well-known activist for peace and the director of Shalom Catholic Worker House, a shelter of homeless men in Kansas City, Kan. 

That, as many readers here will know, doesn’t begin to tell her story. What makes Mary K. such a powerful witness for peace is not simply her work or her faith. It is her very being. She is a person whose rare mix of kindness and strength has gained admiration from people of every faith, every ideology and every disposition one can imagine.

Recently Mary K., 76, was diagnosed with lung cancer and opted to forgo the painful treatments. Like everything else in her life, she has faced the news with a courage, and even a peace, that astounds most of us.

I have known her for nearly 20 years, thanks to a summer internship that led me to Shalom House the same year she took on the role of director. We talked on a recent Sunday afternoon for the benefit of KC Olive Branch readers. The contents of that talk will be posted over the next several weeks, beginning with this transcript.

In Part 1, Mary K. talks about her work, her faith, her illness and the peace community. Next time, Mary K. will talk about what led her to drastically change her life from a businesswoman in a small town to one that put her in solidarity with the poor and afflicted.

— Michael Humphrey

MH: One of the pieces of advice that I’ve always carried that you gave me was to ‘trust your journey.’ How has that idea worked out in your life?

MKM: Very, very well. I could not have planned out my life. But just trusting the leading day by day, responding to what I felt was right and was true, has led me to wonderful places. This house. There’s a scripture that says, “The Lord will give the barren woman many sons.” That’s true. I have many sons.

And then my journeys that have taken me out of the country, like to Israel, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Iraq, those are journeys I could never have planned.

MH: They all came to you in a certain sense.

MKM: They did, they came to me. It’s like I heard of the opportunity and I thought, ‘Yeah, I need to do that.’ It seemed like each step led to the next one. Because I responded to the call to go to Israel in 1983, that gave me courage to go to El Salvador and Honduras. And when the opportunity came for Iraq, that did not seem difficult, because all these opportunities led to it. I didn’t have to labor, at all, over that decision. I wanted very much to go to Iraq. I went the first time because of Matt. 25: “I was in prison and you came to see me.” And I believed from everything I heard and read that the Iraqi people were in prison. They were in prison to Saddam Hussein, they were in prison to the cruel sanctions, they were in prison to the ever-present bombs and missiles. And because of that scripture, I thought I want to go and be with them for whatever good I could do.

MH: I was always amazed by the amount of calm and faith (that you showed) when you came to Shalom House to be a member of the community and then suddenly were the leader of the community. Can you talk about what got you through that.

MKM: Four months after I came as a volunteer, Fr. Wempe decided to retire from Shalom House. And Sr. Barbara (McCracken) had already left. I knew that if the house was to continue, I would have to pick up the reins. As I recall, it was not a hard decision. I did ponder it for a day or two. Again, it just seemed like the next step. That’s why I don’t feel like my life was a big deal. I never really had to labor over decisions. It just seemed like the natural thing to do.

Now … the Christian challenge for me in late years has been to move from doing something because it’s the right thing to do and moving to do it out of love. And when you’re dealing with some difficult people, that’s hard to do. You can do it out of knowing it’s the right thing to do. But to move to doing out love is a huge next step.

MH: I don’t think most of us get there.

MKM: But the grace is there. And I do believe it. If we really want it, the grace is there. I think the greatest blessing in life is when God lets you live long enough till you know you can trust him. That you can really say, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” And mean it. And be okay with it. Thy will be done, whatever that is, God. And knowing that you are saying that to a God who loves you and a God who knows what is best. I just count it a great privilege, a great cause of thanksgiving to be able to have lived that long.

Right now, to be looking a diagnosis of lung cancer, knowing I could die any time, I’m peaceful about that. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done. Because I know that I want what God wants. I want to stay here as long as God can use me. And whenever that time is up, that’s fine.

MH: You amaze a lot of people in the number of deep relationships that you’ve fostered over the years. Can you talk about how you enter into relationships and how important that is to you.

MKM: Yes, it’s very important. Yesterday, a young friend … came from Topeka, because she thinks I’m going to die. I’ve known her for 28 years and we are truly friends. When I met her, she was a college student who really needed a friend. And she told me that.

I guess I just love people and I love different kinds of people and I love connecting with them. I love their journeys and for whatever way I can be a part of that, I am glad. I’m very grateful for that. … I don’t know why we’re so connected, but we are.

MH: I think it interests me, because it seems to me that what’s made you so effective in the peace and justice movement is your ability to relate to people where they are.

MKM: Yes.

MH: And I think I’ve learned from you that peace and justice work is a work of relationship.

MKM: It is. This young woman who was here yesterday, her husband has gone to Afghanistan. He’s a military man, he loves the military. She’s a pacifist. And through the years I’ve encouraged her to love her husband, make the best of it. (Laughs.)

MH: What’s your thinking about the state of the world right now?

MKM: Oh, I’m very sad. I’m very sad and I’m very puzzled. I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t think like I do, of course. That we’re all brothers and sisters. And how we can kill each other. When I was in Iraq, I’d ask the people, “How can you treat us so well, when you know what we’re doing as a country.” And they’d say, “We can separate you from your government. You’re people, just like we’re people.” And I felt that very strongly. I felt that these are my brothers and sisters, we are family. And I don’t understand why that’s such a hard concept. Because in every religion, that’s a basic tenet, that the same blood flows through us. But we don’t act on what we know. The Christian message, “Love your enemies, do good to those who spitefully use you.” We’re so far from that.

I’m embarrassed to be an American.

MH: Do you know when that feeling started to emerge in your life?

MKM: Yes, in the late 70s, early 80s, I became aware of the move for nuclear disarmament. And wholeheartedly I threw myself into that. Lot of peace walks, a lot of protests, a lot of activism. I think when I began to see that our country was going to build them, and use them, and prepare to use them, where we could have been a leader for nuclear disarmament, I think that’s when I saw … 9/11, when that happened, we had the sympathy of the world, we had the good will of the world. I only know two people in Germany, they both called for the specific purpose of saying they are so sorry. And so what did we do? We started to pick up the guns.

The influence that we could have had, at different times, different times, we failed as a country.

MH: I’m hearing you say that it’s not just a matter of the decisions that we made, but the place we are in the world, there’s a great responsibility to act justly.

MKM: Justly, because we are the people that the rest of the world looked up to in those areas.

MH: What do we do? For those Americans who see the wrong in the policies that are inflicting so much pain the world. What should all be doing?

MKM: I think live what we believe.

MH: And what does that look like?

MKM: What does that look like? I guess, for all of us, if we were all just to live what we know to be true in our own little area. The lives that we touch day after day after day. To be a living example of love and mercy and truth, justice, I think that’s all we can do.

I don’t see much hope in affecting the power structures as such. I wish I did. I don’t know, I guess I think that if enough people just lived what they knew, then eventually it would happen from the bottom up. I guess I feel that strongly. Radical change does not happen from the top down. It happens when the people call for it.

MH: Do you think there are improvements that the faith-based peace and justice community could make to better affect that change?

MKM: Yeah, I think maybe we have alienated a lot of people unnecessarily, in the peace movement and in the church, by not taking into consideration how others think and feel. Maybe we haven’t reached out in love like we could have.

MH: And it sounds like what you were saying, just before this, would change that to some degree.

MKM: Yes, I think so. Too many times I think we take on a righteous stance and we come across as feeling very righteous. And then, of course, the bottom line for believers is through prayer, through prayer for ourselves, to change our hearts and be truly loving people. And then the courage. If we pray, we’re going to have courage to speak when we need to speak what we need to speak.

MH: Like you said earlier, in love.

MKM: In love. And to persevere for what we know to be true. Now, in looking back, I think we all kind of gave up on this nuclear disarmament thing. I think maybe we too easily give up and move on to some other concept, to something else. For me, that seems to be at the very heart of the matter. This idea that we can have all kinds of nuclear weapons and other people can’t. It’s so absurd.

I think when you say what could we do differently, I think we can question. And maybe we’re too quick to drop our questioning. And take it for granted, well this is just the way it is. And we do the same thing in the church.

Return to kcolivebranch.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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