Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Rose for Sister Mary

By Erik Camayd-Freixas

When the Iowa Department of Human Rights awarded the 2009 Cristine Wilson Medal for Equality and Justice to Sister Mary McCauley for her defense of community after the Postville raid, she humbly said: “It is our duty to work for equality and justice.”

These are just the latest of this brave woman’s history-bound words in a ministry that started the day of the raid, May 12, 2008, when she summoned Father Paul Ouderkirk out of retirement with a phone call: “Father, we need a collar down here.” Ever since, she has been a pillar of strength and inspiration to many in Postville and across the country.

When I was inside Waterloo’s National Cattle Congress, interpreting the misguided prosecutions and watching authorities sworn to uphold the Constitution deny it to 389 ragged workers in chains and tears, I was reminded of Orwell’s Animal Farm: All are equal under the law, “but some are more equal than others.” I was dumbfounded, confused, and afraid, with no one to turn to for guidance on equality and justice. That is when I found Sister Mary.

It was the evening of May 13th. Eager to find out what was happening “on the outside,” I found an Internet video clip of Sister Mary, surrounded by trembling women and children, describing the tragedy. “This shattered us,” she said firmly. “Hundreds of families were torn apart by this raid. The humanitarian impact is obvious to anyone in Postville. The economic impact will soon be evident.” I had found a moral compass.

Sister Mary had told the world what was happening in Postville. The ball was in my court: Shame on me, if I didn’t follow her lead and tell what happened on the inside. After I published my essay on the Waterloo prosecutions, she wrote to thank me. Since then we have corresponded and spoken regularly about equality and justice.

Those who do not know her might think she is a passionate advocate. Yet it is not passion or politics that drives her, but duty, serene faith, sheer humanity, and intelligence. Sister Mary is the voice of reason and sanity in times of extremism and crisis. Hundreds of gendarmes in trucks and helicopters storm the town; wailing children, destitute mothers, hungry workers beg for shelter; community volunteers seek her direction; and Sister Mary delivers, calm amid the storm. Her composure and kindness are a source of strength for others.

I joined the Postville relief effort part-time from afar and found it heart-wrenching, even in small doses. I wondered over the months how those in Postville could cope day-to-day with so much misery. I understood when I met Sister Mary last October at Luther College and at the Postville anniversary vigil in May. A year of stress and sorrow had taken a visible toll on many of the relief workers, but Sister Mary was in for the long run.

Day in and day out they reckoned with the traumatized children; the desperate women with ankle monitors and deformed hands from 24,000 daily cuts on the meatpacking line; the starving families in Guatemala and Mexico, the workers languishing in jail, the persistent fear and despair, the bills, the legal and medical needs, the empty food pantry, the crumbling economy of the town, the homeless, and the long, cold, heartless winter of 2008. And they are still at it. Sister Mary’s work is far from over.

Almost a year and a half later, among many other problems, there are still women with electronic shackles and ankle sores, suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress. Sister Mary accepted the Human Rights Medal on their behalf.

In contrast with Mary McCauley’s leadership and grandeur stands the federal government’s callous disregard for the local community, both migrant and Iowan. Postville’s is the most egregious example of reckless enforcement, abuse of process, and domestic interventionism in American history. Yet no investigation, acceptance of responsibility, or assistance of any kind has been forthcoming. Instead, a follower, in this untoward prosecutorial debacle, is being promoted to a position of leadership as Northern Iowa’s U.S. Attorney.

The Cristine Wilson Medal, reserved for true leaders, is a fitting preview of how history will regard these events and their participants. It symbolizes the inspiring strength of the individual, and shows the world that in the end, big government was no match for the little nun from Iowa.
Camayd-Freixas, is a professor of modern languages at Florida International University.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Iowa Forum. 10/09