Call her a late bloomer: She took up peace activism in her 50s. But from that point on, Betty McKenzie – Catholic nun, ex-convict, humble thorn in the side of the military-industrial complex – participated with an open heart and matter-of-fact resolve.
McKenzie, originally from Rochester, Minn., wasn’t raised in a religious or political family. “We never talked about religion at home,” she said. “I had to enter the convent to learn how to discuss questions of faith.”
Political discussions could also get dicey. In the late 1940s, when McKenzie was about 17, Hubert H. Humphrey (Minneapolis mayor and soon-to-be U.S. senator) came to town to speak. McKenzie was in the crowd.
“I got so excited – I was almost mesmerized,” she said. The young woman rushed home to tell her parents about her encounter with the Happy Warrior. Her dad’s dismissive response: “He’s a crook.”
“I thought, ‘No, he isn’t.’ But I didn’t say that,” McKenzie recalled. “You didn’t contradict my father.”
Still, it marked a turning point: McKenzie realized that her conservative parents weren’t always right and that she could think for herself. Nearly 40 years later, she made the leap from independent thinker to activist.
After high school, McKenzie attended the College of St. Catherine (now St. Catherine University) – for one year. During her freshman year, she felt called to religious life. After initially resisting the call, which came as “a jolt,” she entered the convent, becoming a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and a teacher.
McKenzie taught every subject to seventh- and eighth-graders – math, English, music, social studies and more. She recalls with a sigh the era’s history textbooks, which emphasized wars and the exploits of the economic and political elites.
“I so regret what I didn’t know,” she said, “and what I didn’t teach.”
McKenzie’s activism began when she accompanied friends to a 1986 protest at Honeywell Corp. in Minneapolis. The Honeywell Project waged a civil disobedience campaign for decades against the company’s armaments production.
“Some people there were risking arrest,” she said. “I decided I could do that, too.” One of McKenzie’s friends, having been arrested before, knew the ropes. She knew to bring along her ID, since those without it were kept in a separate holding cell. Because McKenzie didn’t have hers along, her friend hid her own ID in her sock so McKenzie wouldn’t be alone in the cell.
That was McKenzie’s first of many arrests – 18 to 20 total, she estimates. Her time behind bars includes six months in a federal prison in Illinois for crossing the fence line (that is, trespassing) at the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Georgia, a combat training facility for Latin American military officers.
“I learned a lot in prison,” said McKenzie. “For one thing, the people there are absolutely normal. I can only think of one who seemed like a criminal to me.”
“I also learned what a stupid system prison is,” she continued. “They have some good things, like GED courses, but they don’t do enough to make good use of all that time.”
McKenzie spent her own time talking with other inmates and writing letters. The imprisoned protesters got mail from supporters and fellow activists from all over the world. McKenzie decided from the start that she’d answer every letter she got.
“I remember a letter from someone in Brazil … thanking me,” she said, her voice wavering with emotion. “It humbled me so much, because they were the ones doing the hard work.
“All we did was cross the line.”
Lending an ear
Twenty-two years after her first arrest, McKenzie fainted upon being arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul. She heeded her body’s message: “I only do sit-down jobs now.” That includes volunteering at the office of Women Against Military Madness (WAMM) and making regular forays to the Peace House Community, established in 1985 by Rose Tillemans, also a Sister of St. Joseph, in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.
“I just go there and talk to people,” McKenzie said. That simple, profound act is the heart of Peace House’s mission: providing a space where poor and marginalized people can come and talk, be listened to, be treated with respect, pray, meditate and have lunch. “I just learn so much from them. I just get touched by them,” she said.
The Twin Cities peace activist community has enjoyed an abundance of elders. Many are gone; others may not be with us much longer.
Tillemans died in 2002 at age 79. Another well-known Twin Cities activist nun, Rita Steinhagen, died in 2006; she was 77. Marv Davidov, Honeywell Project founder, died two years ago at 80. Elmer Zoff – a fixture at WAMM’s anti-war vigils on the Lake Street Bridge – died in December 2012. He was 99.
Today, you can still find McKenzie at Peace House, talking and listening to anyone comes in the door – speaking comfort to the powerless after decades of speaking truth to power.