Shelley Douglass lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where for more than a quarter-century she served as host of Mary’s House Catholic Worker, until this year. Previously, she and spouse Jim helped cofound the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action in Poulsbo, Washington, to organize resistance to the development of the Bangor Naval Base on the Hood Canal. Shelley chaired FOR-USA’s National Council from 1986-88.
What inspired you to become a FOR member?
I was familiar with FOR from my days at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s; when I was studying at Vancouver School of Theology in the early ‘70s, I was part of a small Canadian FOR group and got to know Mildred Fahrni, who had worked with Muriel Lester in London. At about the same time a group of us formed Pacific Life Community, and we had a very good relationship with FOR in Canada and in Washington State. For a number of years we would join FOR’s Seabeck Conference in July, doing nonviolence training and planning a joint action at the Trident submarine base. Somewhere in there someone asked me why I hadn’t joined. I’m not sure I had ever realized that you had to “join” – so I signed up.
What is your proudest FOR moment?
I think of many, but the one that stands out as being specifically FOR is the march against racism I attended with other FOR members in January 1987 in Forsyth County, Georgia. The Klan had been marching and organizing there, and a call went out for a counter march. It was a bit scary but exhilarating, again being part of a very large march against injustice, carrying a FOR banner. (Who knew we’d still be doing this 40 years later?)
When did you find your peace witness most challenged and how did you respond?
In December of 1990 Bill Webber and I co-led a FOR delegation to Iraq, just before the U.S. war began. That was a tense situation but it was made worse by one of our group members who joined at the last moment, refused to follow any of our group decisions, and continually operated outside our mutual commitment. It was very difficult and somewhat dangerous. We kept reminding him of the agreements he’d made when he joined. Toward the end of our trip he left us and joined oil man John Connally, and that’s when we realized he was an oil company plant.
And…. The most difficult challenges to nonviolence for me have often been from my own friends and community. When I was elected chair of the FOR National Council in 1986 it was a sort of watershed – a cohort of younger, feminist, more counter-cultural folks were taking over. One of the old guard remarked, “Well, the riff raff have taken over now.” We were trying very hard to deal with our own racism and sexism and domination attitudes, but we were novices in the process. Those years were so hard – I think everyone was operating out of sincere concern, but we were very ignorant about (our own) racism and sexism, about how to be allies, and so on and on. There were innumerable frustrations and confusions. People were hurt. We hung in out of commitment to each other and to FOR, and did our best to work things through.
What is the most critical issue we’re facing right now?
I think all the issues we’re facing are interlinked. We have separated ourselves from each other, from the earth, from nature. For me the issue that speaks most to my heart is confronting white racism and patriarchy, but I am also aware that we have to create major change in our economy and our relationship with nature in order to have a planet left to live on.
What song, book, movie, etc. is inspiring you/ giving you hope in this moment?
I listen to a lot of old movement music, and new music especially from the Poor People’s Campaign and Playing for Change. I’m still inspired by Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, because of course those are memories for me, memories of strong actions. And – not music, but I am continually inspired and instructed by the sermons of Alan Storey, pastor of Cape Town Methodist Mission in South Africa, who gives most incisive and stunning sermons that speak directly to our current condition. You can google Cape Town Methodist Mission and listen (no video) each week (click here to see the list of audio sermons available). I am always challenged and enlightened.
Shelley with her husband Jim.