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Peace activists Thanos, Schneider share experiences

April Thomas | Friday, December 3, 2004

In just one hour Thursday afternoon, activists Terri Thanos and Kathy Schneider attempted to explain their profound individual experiences working with peace and faith in South America.

Speaking first, Thanos expressed a specific interest in peaceful global relations.

“There are more than 40 wars going on as I speak. It is a time of conflict and despair,” Thanos said.

Thanos’ daughter’s involvement inspired her to support the Witness for Peace organization, specifically in Colombia. The group works toward untangling the complicated, dangerous conflicts around Colombia’s cultivation of the coca plant, used in cocaine production. Originally fearing for her daughter’s safety, the terrified Thanos eventually joined the group as well.

“I knew the only way to get rid of [that fear] was to go down there myself,” Thanos said.

Her firsthand experience shed light on Colombia’s challenging situation.

“In a population of 40 million people, 50 to 60 percent live in poverty,” Thanos said. Healthcare is sparse, and one minister informed her that “if we get sick, we die.” The country also faces land displacement, bombings and petty crime, narcotic trafficking of coca for a predominantly United States-based clientele and governmental corruption, she said.

“Last year, $2 billion in public funds were ‘lost,'” Thanos said.

This calamity has yielded three specific opposition factions, all violence-centered, including paramilitaries, who are gunmen hired to guard land and terrorize small towns; guerillas, formed of peasants to protect farmland and employing tactics like kidnapping and force to make money; and police/army forces trained – often in U.S. institutions – to terrorize.

The United States introduced “Plan Colombia” in 2000 to address the cocaine problem, but unevenly distributed its resources, said Thanos.

“80 percent of funding supported the fumigation of the coca crops; only 20 percent was used to find alternate food crops for these farmers to raise, and develop plans for peace,” Thanos said.

Without coca, most Colombian farmers are left with no means of sustenance and self-sufficiency.

Since its introduction, “Plan Colombia” has not reduced the availability of cocaine.

“The amount and purity of cocaine import is the same,” Thanos said. “As long as there is a demand, lots of money to be made and impoverished families, it will continue to grow.”

Her experiences taught Thanos that to truly be a catalyst for peaceful change, she must look inward.

“I have to find peace within before I bring peace to others,” Thanos said. “I have to be peace myself.”

Kathy Schneider, a Notre Dame graduate and former Holy Cross sister volunteer in Brazil, applies her past experiences to her director position at St. Margaret’s House in South Bend.

Schneider focused on liberation theology in Brazil post-Vatican II. The Holy Cross sisters’ goal was to educate and encourage leadership and community-building.

“We really believed that by forming a Christian community we were empowering them; to be a church leader there was to be a community leader,” Schneider said.

Through her work, Schneider, stationed as a missionary, began losing faith in God as she watched so many children dying of hunger, and tragic accidents taking the lives of the Brazilians around her.

“I didn’t want to believe in a God that would let this happen,” Schneider said.

Redemption came during her Lenten journey, as she discussed the Stations of the Cross with Brazilian community members through a translator. Through dialogue, Schneider was touched by these women’s life stories of hardship, heartbreak and death.

“My outlook shifted from a ‘Precious Moments’ God, to ‘my God died on the cross,” Schneider said.

The community’s acceptance awed Schneider. In Brazil, she learned the significance of sharing meals as signs of God’s presence. She also recognized the importance of personal relationships and vitality of community, values she encourages at St. Margaret’s House.

“All we do is create a space for the women to help each other. When we eat together, we break down barriers, letting in the spirit of God,” Schneider said.

Her overall experience contradicts the common belief that people in poverty will merely exude neediness and despair.

“When you go where people are suffering, you don’t just find brokenness, you find goodness,” Schneider said. “I went to Brazil to teach religion and they taught me faith.”

Senior Kate Weiss attended the lecture to extend her fall break experience of the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership-organized Catalyst Trip.

“What Kathy said really rings true,” Weiss said. “It’s not how much power you have-it’s how you use it.”