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A missionary recounts her encounters with imprisoned women

Those guerrilla women spoke of love

 Quelle guerrigliere   parlavano d’amore  DCM-005
06 May 2023

If I can tell these stories, I have Gloria to thank. I met her by chance in Madrid, where I was studying what is now known as a Master's degree in Social Service Sciences. I was struck by a flyer posted on a faculty notice board, which read a prison was looking for volunteers to periodically visit the foreign female inmates it housed. Many of them were serving long sentences and were completely isolated from their family and friends. I said I was willing to try, both out of curiosity to see a prison from the inside and because I was experiencing life abroad for the first time and - somehow - I thought they and I had something in common. The first time we met, we were both very embarrassed. We talked about our respective countries, the food we missed, how difficult it had been for me to learn Spanish decently and how complicated it was for her to understand the grammar and vocabulary used in Madrid, even though Spanish was her mother tongue. I pretended not to notice the glass dividing us, she never mentioned being in prison. Once the ice was broken we even managed to have a couple of laughs, and before I left I asked her if she wanted me to come back.

To her surprise, I returned a couple of weeks later. I did so because behind that glass I had unexpectedly discovered that the word “detainee” is not a noun, but an adjective; it does not define the essence of a person, but a situation that that person experiences. Gloria, like me, is created in God's image and likeness and unconditionally loved by God, regardless of why she had recently begun serving a 15-year sentence. We continued to see each other for more than a year, for the length of time I was in Spain. She told me about why she was there, her plans for when she would return to her country, we told each other about our childhoods, and looked at photos of our families together. For her birthday, I got permission to bring her a plant in a pot, because she had told me that there was nothing alive in prison. To this day, I think of her every time I am in an open space or on the beach and dedicate what I see to her, because the lack of horizons in prison made her suffer. We never spoke of faith. She knew I was a nun, but almost immediately in our relationship, she defined herself as agnostic, but I hope she felt - somehow - infinitely loved.  Years later, while I was living in a slum in Lima. Marina, a journalist friend of an Italian friend, who was coming to Peru as a tourist, wanted to visit a woman who was serving a life sentence because of her membership of Túpac Amaru, a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group that had been sewing terror in the country for some 20 years. Once I had obtained all the necessary permits, I accompanied her as an interpreter to the maximum-security prison. The officer accompanied us to a small isolated building, locked the main gate behind us and left, saying she would come back to pick us up in three hours. I looked around puzzled and confused. In the large lobby there were many women chatting amongst themselves, while two women walked down the stairs towards us smiling and welcoming us. It took me a few seconds to realise that one of them was the lady we were looking for, that the other women were inmates and that there were no prison staff in the building.

I was afraid, but I did not tell Marina.  Túpac Amaru was known for kidnapping foreign nationals so as to make people talk about them abroad. Instead, it was one of the most significant afternoons of my life. They took us upstairs, where some 15 women embraced us and offered us food they had set aside for us from their rations. They all spoke at the same time, happy to have a visitor. They sat us down in a cell and since there was not enough room for all of them, many sat on the floor in the cell and in the corridor. They were all fighters from Túpac Amaru, whom they had joined at a very young age. We talked a lot and cried together: for their children entrusted to grandparents and uncles who would grow into adults without them; of their comrades killed or imprisoned for life, whom they would never see again; of the lives they had taken “because it was necessary”. I asked if, with hindsight, it was worth it and if - given the chance - they would make the same choice again. I was surprised that they answered convinced that it was; the ideals that had led them to join Túpac Amaru were still valid and absolute. They were genuinely curious that I was a nun and asked me what had led me to this choice. I made a tremendous effort to choose the right words to tell the essence of who I am to women who are convinced atheists. I will never forget what one of them said when I finished, “you see, we are not so different after all: both our choices and yours are guided by love. Clearly, we understand love differently, but the experience of that afternoon allowed us to “see” each other, to “accept” each other as human beings despite opposite starting points.

For several years, I have lived in the USA, in Baltimore. Among other things, I facilitate multi-day workshops on non-violence and conflict resolution in prison with the Alternatives to Violence Project. A few months ago, together with facilitators who are inmates, we prepared and conducted a workshop on trauma awareness and resilience building for the women's section of the maximum-security prison in my city. The various preparation meetings with the “inmate” facilitators fostered an equal relationship between us, promoting a mutual trust and deep sharing that went far beyond working together on a project. The workshop then took place over two days. Although participation was voluntary, at the beginning there was embarrassment and reserve among the participants. One of the basic rules of survival in prison is to always appear strong and “tough”; showing oneself vulnerable, talking about oneself, expressing feelings, dreams, and fears is interpreted as a sign of weakness. Little by little, the ice was broken and during the workshop, very personal stories were shared and personal and community strategies to strengthen one’s resilience and self-esteem were offered and adopted. 

Sister Helen Prejan, a nun who has worked all her life for the abolition of the death penalty, often reminds us that we are all worth more than the worst thing we have done in our lives.

I am always struck by the intimacy that is created between people when what I call “the spark of God” is recognised in the other with openness and without judgement. I consider this a gift. I believe that my mission as a consecrated woman is to help those I meet to recognise and welcome their inalienable dignity. It does not matter if they adopt a language of faith; God loves them infinitely and unconditionally from the beginning.

Combonian missionary sister, social worker with a focus on restorative justice and resilience skills building