Honoring two fearless women who shaped me

by Jeannie Appleman, April, 2019

Most of us have been shaped by fearless women. I know I have. Two women in particular have had a profound impact on me, causing me to rethink my mission in life.  They shared with me their triumphs over adversity, and challenged me to act on my passions.  They modeled for me how to put legs on my values.  My gratitude compels me to honor their memory by sharing the stories of their courage and compassion:  Sister Sienna Schmidt, O.P., (Dominican sister); and Mary Goetz, my grandmother.

Sister Sienna Schmidt, O.P.: I was reminded last night, while watching the movie “Romero” of how Sister Sienna Schmidt, O.P. (Dominican Sister, O.P. — Order of Preachers) forever changed my life, 37 years ago. Romero was transformed from being an apolitical Salvadoran Archbishop, into to a lion for his people. He went from being an obedient, risk-averse priest into a man who stood up to the Salvadoran death squads for torturing and killing his parishioners, and was martyred for it in 1980.  Like Romero, Sister Schmidt had also grown up politically naive, and wanted to serve the poor in Central America, and Guatemala in particular.  I met Sister Schmidt in 1983, when I was a politically naive 25 year old, living in Houston.  I was Catholic at the time, with a side interest in Judaism and all things Jewish. Politics and justice work played little role in my life.  I taught two classes at St. Pius X high school, run by the Dominicans, Sr. Sienna’s religious order: The classes were “The Christian call to peace and justice”, no surprise there, and “Church History”.  I met five peers who had served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corp with whom I shared a deep desire to live simply among Central American refugees in a poor neighborhood of Houston, to make the world a better place than we found it, and to practice a spirituality that was alive and meaningful, both to ourselves and to those around us.

Before Sr. Sienna got a hold of me, I naively believed that America’s foreign policy was based on working towards  the best interests of not only average Americans like me, but also of the people in the countries in which we wielded our influence.  I knew nothing about the nature of that influence, which included providing resources to the military, propping up multinational corporations like the United Fruit Company, despite the disastrous impact that their operations had on local communities and the economy. Sister Sienna’s gentle yet direct arguments spoke to who I was and what I cared about.  She slowly helped me understand that U.S. intervention in Central America was responsible for the murder of innocent people. She spoke to the part of me that felt an affinity with underdogs, because I had also been one.  In the early to mid-1980s, U.S. military were training the Salvadoran and Guatemalan military personnel who murdered thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans. I learned American taxpayer money directly protected death squads, for the pursuit of profit and influence.  Sister Schmidt was unlike any other mentor I had up until that point. She went beyond waking me up to how the world works in reality. She challenged me to act on this knowledge.  She taught me about power and how to build it through the principles of liberation theology, and in particular through organizing villagers through small Christian based communities – communidade de base.  She translated into English for me, booklets in Spanish that she used to teach Central American refugees in a large Catholic parish in town. Sr. Schmidt was experienced in teaching liberation theology and organizing Guatemalan peasants into Christian base communities, and was nearly killed for it.

Over time, I discovered just how fiercely courageous she was.  I could not believe that this woman, who was so outwardly humble, had transformed the lives of so many, even at the risk of her own life.  The Guatemalan military threw four of Sister Schmidt’s parishioners out of a plane to their death, in an attempt to learn where they could find (and kill) her.  She escaped their clutches by the skin of her teeth and landed back in Houston.   She introduced me to scores of refugees whose heart-wrenching stories of torture at the hands of the Salvadoran military shook me to the core, and made me question everything I thought I knew about how the world operated, and what I thought I knew to be true.  These stories, and those I heard firsthand in El Salvador a few years later, when we met with the mothers of the disappeared, created a fire in me than seemed unquenchable.  Nothing in my traditional Catholic upbringing prepared me for what I learned and the effect it had.  I was so far from understanding or making sense of why I was so moved by their stories. I hadn’t yet connected my passion around justice to my own experience of being victimized years earlier.  But when I learned in 1983, about the rape and murder in 1980 of Jean Donovan, a lay Catholic woman, and three Maryknoll Sisters working in El Salvador, I felt like “it could have been me, instead of Jean Donovan”, and felt even stronger about  organizing against U.S. support in El Salvador and for the Nicaraguan contras.

I learned that it was possible to change how we think and act by actively engaging in the world, that it was possible to achieve this by creating Christian based communities and studying certain texts around liberation, (e.g the Exodus), and passages from Christian Scripture, and connecting it to our own lives.  I was deeply moved by Sr. Schmidt’s stories and teachings. I was particularly inspired when she introduced me to the idea that “none of us were free until all of us were free.” I was compelled to form my own Christian community among my colleagues and friends.  I realized later that what we were really doing was house meetings! We met weekly to learn together, discuss what was happening in the war in El Salvador, and what actions we could take to change things.  None of us had organizing training yet, though, and were flying by the seat of our pants when we met with Congresspeople to urge them to vote against continued aid to the Contras and additional military and financial support for the oppressive Salvadoran government.

My first organizing action though, before what I knew an action was, that got a strong reaction, was teaching about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement as a Catholic high school teacher a year after I met Sr. Schmidt.  Dr. King Jr.  inspired me, and I was proud to have had a poster of him hanging in my classroom. In the early 1980s, the ideals of the Civil Rights movement had not quite been assimilated into Texas culture. Three very influential parents from the PTA were upset by this poster, and threatened to fire me if I didn’t take it down. Other parents bitterly complained to my principal, Sister Heloise, that a black man’s image was on the wall of my classroom.  I was young, needed my job, and in spite of my passionate idealism, I was very worried, and felt intimidated.  But I refused to take King’s picture down or stop teaching about the civil rights movement, and Sister Heloise backed me 100%, despite enormous pressure.  She, like Sister Schmidt, embodied the mission of Dominicans — to preach the truth, no matter what.  I was intoxicated by the whole experience and wanted more.

Sister Sienna kept challenging me to act more powerfully on my passion to affect U.S. intervention in Central America. Then I learned that Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N) was launching a national campaign to stop aid to the Nicaraguan contras, which were fighting against the democratically elected Nicaraguan government. N2N was recruiting for organizers it could train to run the national campaign, in key swing states.  I was trained in N2N’s organizing boot camp in the summer of 1987 by Jon Adler, Fred Ross Jr., and Fred Ross Sr., one of Alinsky’s first organizers, who had recruited and trained Cesar Chavez.

Lesson #1:  So the first lesson that I learned from Sr. Sienna was: Don’t be afraid to take risks. Don’t back down from what you know is the right or strategic thing to do, no matter the cost.  I decided that if Sister Schmidt could be fearless and risk getting murdered for trying to help Guatemalan villagers, surely I could find the courage to follow my passions for organizing against U.S. support for the contras, and for continuing to explore Judaism.  The exploration of Judaism, in spite of the fear of losing the relationship with my parents, led me a few years later to conversion.  I’m fortunate that my relationship with my family survived it. Their support has meant more than I say.

Lesson #2: The second lesson I learned from Sister Sienna was that developing leaders requires a commitment to them as a whole person, not just the slice of them that is affected by the particular issue that brought them to me.  Rather, she suggested, develop the whole person, like she did with the Guatemalan villagers in her Church.  She developed the full range of who they were. Some went on to become insurgents, while others began to feel powerful enough to walk their children miles to a nearby school so that their children could have a better life.  Because of how she had developed them to discover and own their power, these families were transformed in every way.  It was many years later though, before I fully learned this lesson, thanks to Mike Gecan, from the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Mike taught me to uncover and engage the multiple layers of a leader’s self-interests, hopes and dreams, talents and challenges, and the experiences that shaped them.

Lesson #3:  The third lesson I learned from my Sister Sienna was: Don’t just defend the most vulnerable among you, the poor and oppressed.  (In Jewish texts, it is the widow and the orphan.) Rather, organize side by side with them, and be clear about why you care. Instead of being their champion, become their partner.

Mary Goetz:   Mary Goetz, my grandmother, was a 4’ foot 10” force of nature. “No” and “can’t be done” weren’t part of her vocabulary. Adversity just made her roll up her sleeves even higher, and put a gleam in her eye.  She was on a first name basis with Catholic Saints and gave the Almighty His marching orders every morning, Tevye-style.

It was this fearless woman who inspired my passion for building covenantal communities and training clergy to organize. Near the end of her 98-year rich and full life, she told me a story about her father, my great-grandfather. He had died when my grandmother was very young, leaving my great-grandmother penniless, and with five children to support. Without the means to support her family, the local sheriff threatened to tear her and her siblings away from their mother and dump them in an orphanage.  Refusing to accept it, my great grandmother gave Mary a desperate mission to keep the family intact.  My grandmother, still a child, ran to the Church, begged to the young parish priest to intervene on their behalf.  This young priest not only stood up to the authorities preventing the family from being torn apart, but he also provided my great-grandmother with odd jobs at the Church, rent, and groceries. While this act of compassion certainly saved my family, the approach of serving individual needs fell short.  My great grandmother’s shame about this experience kept them isolated from the rest of their Church because no one ever spoke about “private” matters. Like many synagogues today, they attended each other’s weddings and funerals, but never spoke to each other of their struggles or dreams. Their interactions were superficial.

If the parish had been a covenantal community, it would have encouraged my great-grandmother to share her story. She would have met others who had also suffered under the crushing weight of abusive power, and they could have joined together and fought for laws that protected families.  But community organizing wasn’t around in 1908, and clergy weren’t trained yet in how to engage their parishoners in addressing their own issues.

When my great grandfather died, my grandmother dropped out of school after completing 6th grade in order to work in the ball ban factory in South Bend, making rubber soles for tennis shoes. Many people would succumb to self-pity in such circumstances, bemoan the loss of their childhood, and become resigned to a life of poverty. But not Mary Goetz. She looked adversity in the face and laughed.  She and her sister Ann saved every penny they could.  They dreamed of purchasing a farm, where they and their other siblings could make a living.  Few women of that time, especially those with my grandmother’s background, would ever dream of buying their own farm.   She refused to accept poverty, and it propelled her to fearlessly overcome daunting obstacles, defy social norms, and work to create a stable home for her and her siblings, my grandfather, and eventually my mother and her brother.

Like Sister Sienna, my grandmother went far beyond what most people would do in their circumstances. Mary could have just worked a job, given her money to her mom, and let that be it.  She went further. She did more than ensure that her family was fed and under one roof.  Her life became a testament to the power and impact that one person can have through compassion, generosity, hard work, and doing the right thing.

Her fearless drive to pursue her dreams included not only buying a farm, but also marrying my grandfather, Hal Goetz, who was the son of a Nazarene (a small Pentecostal denomination) preacher, Maude Goetz.  In those days, marrying outside the Nazarene denomination — even to another Christian like my grandmother — was unheard of, and considered intermarriage.  Marrying a Catholic girl was about the worst sin my grandfather could have committed, in the eyes of Maude. But the heart wants what the heart wants, as they say, and my grandmother wasn’t about to be detracted.  Family lore has it that Maude didn’t attend their wedding, and ran down the street screaming that her son was marrying a “heathen.”

My grandmother was generous to a fault, especially to those who had even less money than she had. She would give you the coat off her back. She always knew other people’s troubles, and offered to help in any way that she could.  She spent Sunday afternoons delivering food and comfort to the neediest in our Church.  She taught me how to listen for what is underneath someone’s story.

Lesson 4:  I learned from my grandmother that there is no obstacle that can’t be overcome, even a future mother in law like hers, who wouldn’t accept her because of her religious observance.  She always told me to stay true to my dreams, no matter what.  She didn’t allow the meager circumstances she was born into, the tragedy of her father’s death, or the abusive power of the sheriff, to define or limit her.

Lesson 5:  I learned that clergy have power, when they decide to wield it.  My grandmother’s priest used his power to help save her and her siblings from being torn from their mother’s arms.  This experience of my grandmother shaped my passion to work with Rabbis and to train them to wield their power for good.

These lessons that I’ve learned, and will continue to re-learn, from Sister Sienna and Mary Goetz, have become part of my DNA, and imbedded in the recesses of my soul.

My hope is that my daughter will encounter fearless women who will shape her in profound ways, just as these two women have shaped me.

One of the Salvadoran leaders I met during a delegation of elected officials and community leaders I led to El Salvador in 1989, told me that even when our heroes die, they are still present with us to continue to inspire and agitate us, when we say their name out loud and say “presente” (present).

So I will honor Sr. Sienna Schmidt, presente! And Mary Goetz, presente!

———————————————————————————————————————Jeannie Appleman is a senior organizer and trainer at JOIN for Justice in the United States.  She can be reached at jappleman@joinforjustice.org.


One thought on “Honoring two fearless women who shaped me

  1. I really appreciated this essay, as I not only learned about the stories of women whose power made a difference, but am also inspired to think about women in my own life who have inspired me to act in public life. Thank you Jeannie Appleman!


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