“There is light and there is love in this world”: An Interview with Martha Hennessy

When I spoke with Martha Hennessy, she was at her Vermont farm, waiting to be sentenced as she faces over twenty years in prison. She and six other Catholics entered Kings Bay Naval Base in Georgia on April 4, 2018 to symbolically disarm the Trident submarines there, each of which can carry 5,760 times the power of the Hiroshima explosion. In their statement, the seven placed their action in line with Pope Francis’ writings which condemn the possession of nuclear weapons. 

Martha Hennessy is a Catholic Worker, public speaker, and gardener. She’s also the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker in 1933 in New York and is currently on the path for sainthood in the church. Day’s anarchist movement shelters homeless people in houses of hospitality and publishes a newspaper espousing radical, Catholic pacifism. Like her granddaughter, Day sometimes found herself in jail for protesting, and her movement has spread across the world. 

As we go to press, Martha and other defendants are due for sentencing on November 12 and 13, though the pandemic may cause further delays. Their action is the latest in the plowshares movement, which began in 1980 when eight Catholics entered a General Electric facility, hammered on nose cones for nuclear warheads, poured their blood on documents, and prayed for disarmament. The action sparked others like it under the banner of the biblical call in Isaiah and Micah, saying, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.” Co-defendants Liz McAlister, Steve Kelly, and Patrick O’Neill have already been sentenced for the Kings Bay action, while Clare Grady, Mark Colville, Carmen Trotta, and Martha await their date. 

Martha’s mother Tamar, Dorothy Day’s daughter, raised her nine children on a farm in Vermont. She spends half her days on her own farm there with her husband and family and the other half at the New York Catholic Worker. She started her career as an occupational therapist in 1992 and embraced Catholicism as an adult, returning to the community her grandmother started in 2010. I met her at the Maryhouse Catholic Worker in the East Village in 2013, and she quickly became a friend and mentor. We spoke here in an online video conference, with her voice quiet and patient when the topic is serious and loud and up an octave the many times she breaks out in laughter. She discusses prayer, resistance, Catholicism, being a woman in a patriarchal church, and why she decided to enter a military kill zone and risk significant prison time. 

Let’s start with your Vermont garden. You talk about it as a spiritual outlet. How much does gardening act as a prayerful space for you?

I think that is my base. Tamar, my mother, was a disciple of Peter Maurin [who co-founded the Catholic Worker with Day and emphasized agrarian work] and she had all the skills innately. Growing your own food is a good, subversive activity, and it’s also deep prayer. I have these grapevines and pear trees that I planted when I was young and I’ve been able to attend to them throughout my lifetime. And grapes and figs and all these biblical plants. And someday I really want to grow spikenard, what was dumped on Jesus’ head, the precious oil. So gardening is definitely a spiritual and theological foundation for me. 

You told me once that you were growing castor bean you got from Egypt.

Yeah! From Rafah border. I’d forgotten about that. One of my great aunts traveled the world and collected seeds. These were English people and they were really all about gardening. And my mother did the same thing, she collected seeds and slips wherever she went. And I kind of picked that up from her. She grew things like cotton and papyrus and dates and palms in Vermont for fun. 

But yeah, the Rafah border. Let’s see, it must be about six years ago I was trying to visit people in Gaza. Twice now I’ve tried to visit, unsuccessfully. And we were camped out at this fence line, this gate, you know we could hear the bombs thudding at night. The Israeli Defense Force was dropping bombs on the city nearby where they had the tunnels going underneath the barriers to get food to the Palestinians. And I just brought home some pastor beans and grew it one summer and it grew to be ten feet tall. Like the mustard seed.

You’ve traveled pretty extensively. Did that contribute to you becoming a Catholic Worker and joining the plowshares movement? 

Well, I would say that my travels brought me back to the Catholic Church before it brought me back to the Catholic Worker. I travelled in remote places where I felt like I had been swallowed by a whale and then spat up and told to go home and do the work of faith-based resistance. 

So that was really the beginning of taking very seriously my baptism. I remember a landlady of mine, a Catholic Filipino woman. She’d drag me off to church and all of that really changed me. You know, seeing the world is so important, especially for Americans, my God. My first trip was at seventeen to Spain and Morocco. And then I had trips to France and Italy and I always found myself going to these churches and looking at these incredible mosaics and icons. I’ve had three trips to Russia and in 1996 maybe I had a trip to Lisieux, the town that St. Therese of Lisieux came from. I wasn’t back in the church but I think all of those little exposures brought me to a place of receptivity. 

You brought up a different saint in court when you quoted Teresa of Ávila on the stand, saying you wanted to be the hands and feet of Christ. That made me wonder about your influences beyond Dorothy Day and your mother. What other historical figures guided you on your way to the Catholic Worker, plowshares, gardening, and everything else? 

Well, I grew up in a house that had [Alban] Butler’s Lives of the Saints [a classic compendium of Christian saints and martyrs]. It was Granny’s. Every once in a while, when she came to Vermont, she took some back to New York. I knew those figures were big in her mind and a very important part of our educations. She handed me a book of Joan of Arc when I was about twelve and, you know – this woman dressed in men’s clothes, riding on a horse. It was the coolest thing ever. 

Yeah, certainly the saints, and just people of courage. People of vision, people who over the course of everyday conversations you can sense something about that particular person that their level of awareness and level of understanding of compassion is really something to behold and something to be treasured. And you know Dorothy herself was that kind of a person. And I believe my mother was too. So, we just sort of had our antennae out for people whose world view really showed the compassion of Christ in an everyday sense. 

What about the 20th century?

Well, when I was a teenager my mother had a case worker because we were on welfare. And this social worker was a very kind and decent person. She would come to the house to visit, check up on us kids and such. She certainly impacted me. [Catholic Worker, sister, and plowshares activist] Anne Montgomery impacted me. I remember talking with her at Jonah House [a Baltimore peacemaker community] and being really touched at how she opened up to me. She was such a beautiful person. I ran into [anti-nuclear activist] Susan Crane early on and she impressed me with her single-sightedness. As for famous figures, I don’t know. I certainly was aware of Angela Davis and… Jane Fonda [laughs]. I dug Hanoi Jane. 

Why do you remember your social worker first? What was so impressive about her? 

You know the welfare office was a really painful place for my mother to go to and most of the people there were really uncompassionate. But this person really resonated with Tamar, she really loved Tamar. She was politically aligned with her, I think. They became friends when she was supposed to oversee her. 

My mother was so good that way, she was always befriending people, really developing attachments. I know that there were other families that my parents met through the Catholic Worker. And I remember visiting their homes when I was a kid. I remember those women being very warm and hospitable, mothers of many children. Those are the women that loomed big in my life when I was young.

That makes me wonder how being a mom influences the way you see yourself as a Catholic and the way you go about living your faith.

Of course, once you’re a mother you look at anybody’s child – you hear someone say “mom!” and you have a visceral response to that. Even as a grandmother today, my concern is for everybody’s grandchildren. And you know, that whole experience of giving birth certainly changes a woman in terms of her connection to humanity. And, you know, the whole definition of family was very different for me growing up in the Catholic Worker. Everyone was your brother and sister. You were responsible for everyone. And the motherhood was just an extension of that large family experience. 

How do you navigate a nakedly patriarchal church where so much of the work is done by women, mothers, and people who can’t wield the sort of ecclesial power that men can? Does that play into how you see yourself as an activist or Catholic Worker?

Oh, yeah. I think it impacts why I was out of the church for so long. You know when I saw the Madonna and child as a very young child, I thought Jesus and Mary represented all mothers and babies. And you know, that connection to the Blessed Mother, I feel that very directly through my mother and my grandmother right to the Blessed Mother. The rosary was very big in my childhood. 

But this patriarchy business… My mother, she left the church because of the corruption of the institution and the patriarchal treatment of women and children. And she had nine children with a man who couldn’t even take care of himself. She was following church doctrine and it left her in a lurch. So I’ve had these two extreme examples of Tamar leaving the church and the history of Dorothy’s intense conversion [to Catholicism]. 

But I had to come to a place of resolving this resentment towards these men who take charge and run things and are abusive and neglectful. And you know celibate men know nothing about the realities of life and family life most especially. And I do hope that that changes. I do think that women should become deaconesses. I do think that the whole business of making the sisters support themselves in old age by selling off their properties – that’s par for the course for these guys’ behavior. It’s heartbreaking to see, you know. Seeing [Cardinal] Dolan at the Republican National Convention – when are they gonna get a clue? 

What changed to allow you to come back to the church?

I came to the conclusion that – why am I letting this institution get in the way of the Holy Spirit? Why am I throwing out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, by just abandoning the whole thing? And then after I came to understand that the true church is something to stay with, and to just put up with these priests that give bad homilies. And, you know, the opportunity for disappointments will always be there. But I had to move beyond that.

So now you’re in the plowshares movement, which is based on a quote from Isaiah and Micah [two prophets, biblical characters who called people to repent in the name of God’s justice and compose a significant part of the Bible].What is it about the prophetic imagination that drew you in so far that you’re willing to go to jail for years for it? 

I don’t know. Maybe I’m attracted to these truth tellers who get it in the neck. [Laughs.] You know, that’s what Granny’s life was. The prophets are being brought to us every day in the readings. And I just had to come to a whole new level of understanding of who prophets are and what happens to them. We do the daily lectio, the Bible study, and Liz McAlister is just so beautiful in her Bible study capacity and I just learned more and more. The deeper I got into it the more I learned. And then also probably reading Daniel Berrigan. Some of his books gave me a whole different light on the function of the prophets. 

Speaking of Berrigan, your Granny didn’t really approve fully of the Catonsville action he participated in [when he and eight others burned Vietnam War draft files with napalm in 1968]. She said these actions are not ours. And you’ve told me you’re not sure she would have been on board with yours. How do you navigate being in these two worlds of the Catholic Worker – and not just being any part of it but being a descendent of Dorothy – and the plowshares movement? Is it hard occupying a space where not everyone agrees the two overlap neatly?  

Good question. You know, life is full of contradictions. And how do you simultaneously hold conflicting things? I would say that goes along with my re-entering the church. I had to hold controversy and conflict in balance. And I know this whole history. I got it in the neck from some folks for engaging in that kind of an action. But for me, I had to figure these things out in my own time, in my own life. 

Dorothy comes from a very different background. And I’m not practicing non-violence nearly as well as my mother and grandmother practiced nonviolence. Believe you me, I have an Irish temper. But she went to the trial of the Catonsville Nine. She understood what they were trying to say and do. 

Why did some people disagree with your action? 

Oh, “You’re betraying your grandmother. These plowshares actions are not nonviolent.” The secretness of it and the cutting of locks – that’s the big problem. “Gandhi and King wouldn’t have approved of that either.” 

This seems similar to discussions around the uprisings all around the nation, what some people call riots that are destroying property. People tearing down statues, for example [which Donald Trump has committed to harshly punishing].  How do you interpret this?

Didn’t people tear statues down when the Soviet Union crumbled too? I think that’s the nature of empire crumbling is you have to remove the idols, you have to remove the symbols that reinforce this system of violence and injustice. Pulling the statue off the pedestal compared to the guy on the statue who condoned slavery… you’re really faced with this double standard. 

But I don’t think people should be smashing store windows. You know, this guy on 2nd Avenue just opened up his shop. It’s just a small business and someone came through and smashed his window. What’s the point of that? I don’t get it. You know, you want to wreck property, go to Wall Street. 

There’s a conversation going on in the Catholic Worker movement about race. I remember sitting with you at a BLM event in Abyssinian Church in Harlem in 2015 and seeing your name on a list of sponsors. It surprised me to see “Black Lives Matter” and “Catholic Worker” next to each other. And now the plowshares movement has for the first time brought white supremacy into their conversations explicitly. How do you see both the Catholic Worker and Plowshares in relation to BLM?

Well, you know, it’s the whole question of oppression. I believe the nuclear arsenal is the ultimate white supremacist weapon. It’s the keystone that keeps white supremacy and capitalism in power. So, you know, participating in plowshares for me was addressing all these guys coming into the soup line on First St. at St. Joe’s [New York Catholic Worker House] and seeing the horrific condition they’re in. I mean they have nothing. And here we are spending trillions on nuclear weapons. 

So that connection was there. And of course, I grew up on Dorothy talking about the weapons industry as a theft from the poor. We’re using all of our money on these weapons and there’s nothing left for the poor. And you know so many of the poor are people of color because of the racist economic system. 

I know there’s been some discussion in the Catholic Worker about it being a white movement and a racist institution. Racism is just so insidious. I mean most of the homeless we serve are Black and most of us are white. You know, apartheid is just embedded everywhere. But I grew up hearing about my mother in the deep south, of her being shot at in the Koinonia biracial experiment farm. I knew that racism was very much present in our culture, even though I grew up in Vermont, the whitest state in the union. And a lot of what Dorothy focused on early on in the movement was the condition of Black people. You can go back in the [Catholic Worker] papers and see that that was very much an issue. 

But I think the analysis of the last thirty years is that we have neglected that, and I would agree. I think we have. 

Getting into the plowshares action now, when you all went to Kings Bay Naval Base you said it was a sacramental action. What does that mean to you?

I’ve been studying Pope Paul VI lately and I printed out this [grabs the top of a stack of papers on her desk] general audience talk he gave in April of ’65, “Signs of the Times.” And in that he says something to the effect of, “We like to place staunch confidence in the divine savior who exhorts us to recognize the signs of the times so that we see amid obscure darkness numerous indications that seem to announce better times for the church and for mankind.” Then he goes on to say, “Thus the supernatural order is communicated to us by the sacraments which are tangible signs of an invisible reality.” So, there’s that definition of what is sacramental. 

How do you understand that, though?

We were bringing the body of Christ literally to a place of such immense sin and desecration. You know, we are trying to actualize that there is truth and there is light and there is love in this world. And that base represents all the opposite of truth and love and light. And the reality of us bringing what we brought there, which is ourselves, part of the mystical body of Christ, and calling it a sacramental act of disarmament. 

I’m still learning about what any of that means. I have no theological training and background! I think there are many, many sacramental acts in our lives and we just have to learn how to recognize them. 

Just so you know, you’re one of my favorite theologians.

[Laughing] I don’t know what makes a person a theologian, but… we learn from each other.

You spray painted “may love disarm us all.” Is that right? 


What do you mean? 

Well, first and foremost I disarm myself. That was something I learned very early on in the process of the plowshares discernment. And one of the very first things I heard, I think from [plowshares activist] Paul Magno, quoting Phil Berrigan [of the original plowshares action], saying this is about self-disarmament. And I thought [smacks forehead], “Oh my God, is that why I showed up for this? I didn’t realize that at all.” So, may love disarm us all – it’s first and foremost to myself. And then to my family, my community. Then to the greater world. 

What about the church?

Let’s talk about the U.S. church, since it’s the U.S. that has these weapons. As Granny said, the great scandal of these nuclear weapons is that the vast majority of them are in the hands of white Christians. She was talking about the Russians and the Americans. 

I don’t want to poke a stick in the eye of the church. I really don’t want to do that. We talk about nonviolence, and that’s part of it too. But I also I get upset about the U.S. bishops not revisiting that pastoral letter from 1983 regarding nuclear weapons [The Challenge of Peace], and I’m so upset that Pope Francis is very clearly and deliberately calling for nuclear abolition and the U.S. bishops are not responding on the pulpit. How does it get lost in translation? 

The plowshares movement isn’t all dedicated Catholics, but our group in particular happens to be. I think this is certainly a wake-up call to the U.S. Catholic Church. But you know, it’s even bigger than that. It’s a message for everyone, including non-Christians. I found myself returning to my Christian roots after visiting these Muslim countries. I felt the presence of God in that faith, Islam. Stronger than I did here. So I want to convey to everyone of faith, not just Catholics that my action was an act of love for all of humanity. 

Can you talk about visiting these countries?

YEAH! [Martha waves her arms excitedly.] The call to prayer! It was so incredible. I heard it in Egypt. I heard it in Iran. I heard it in Northern Iraq. I heard it in Jerusalem. I heard it in Amman, Jordan. The call to prayer, five times a day. I thought, that’s incredible. God is here. And I just never felt that in my own country. We have to pay attention to other peoples’ faiths. 

I got to go on this beautiful trip in April 2008. It was shortly after my mother died. It was very hard. I went with Global Exchange, a group that [Code Pink co-founder and activist] Medea Benjamin co-founded. And it was like citizens’ diplomacy, getting to go there to know the people culturally. I had heard about Islam as a kid from my mother, the pillars, charity being a very important one. It’s clear that we all share one God in my mind. 

After 9/11 so many Christians’ relationship to Islam was one of fear and anger, not curiosity. 

That was manufactured. They got us to associate it just with bin Laden. It’s related to oil, to the crusades. 

Okay, back to your action. Catholics have this body of social teaching. And you said on the stand what you seven did there was a “Catholic social action.” Do you see your particular action as a form of Catholic social teaching?

It’s all in the encyclicals already. When Jesus walked this earth we didn’t have nuclear weapons, did we? I don’t see it as anything different than what we’ve been given. What’s different is the 21st century, the technology, advanced capitalism, the war machine, the current form of empire. I don’t know, I don’t see a plowshares action as any different derivative of the Catholic social teachings, other than century-to-century there’s these changes that inevitably occur. 

What personal things did you carry with you onto Kings Bay Naval Base?

I was wearing a medal, my St. Benedict medal.

What’s your St. Benedict medal? 

That was given to me when I became an oblate. [An oblate becomes associated with a monastery without formally joining its religious order.] In the first jail I was allowed to wear it the first month. And in the second jail they took it away from me. That was the only religious thing that I carried on me. 

Where are you an oblate? 

It’s a monastery in northern Vermont, almost to the Canadian border. Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Benedictine. I became an oblate – oh, my third anniversary is coming up – on the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. And I became an oblate along with a military woman. I thought that was fascinating. I was baptized with another baby of one of the unwed mothers at the Catholic Worker, and then I was made an oblate with another person and I just find that all of this has to happen with each other, in community. We’re never alone. 

Why the Benedictines?

‘Cuz I was born on July 11, the Feast of St. Benedict. [Laughing.] And because Granny was an oblate, I’m trying to copy her. [More laughing]. 

Because of ora et labora, I dig their whole charism. You know, work and prayer. I went back to the Catholic Worker thinking, “Yes, I want to work and I want to pray.” The Benedictines are on the land as well, and I saw [Catholic Worker artist] Ade Bethune’s artwork growing up and ora et labora was emblazoned on my mind. 

Pray & work : Ora et labora - - CLIC Digital Collections

[Ade Bethune’s 1935 “Pray & Work: Ora et Labora”]

Well, the action was obviously work. For you personally, was it also a form of prayer? 

Oh, absolutely. You know, Catholic action. Prayer. Moving prayer. Prayer that entails body mind and spirit. 

I’ve heard of Heschel’s idea of praying with your feet, but what do you mean, “moving prayer”?

Well, maybe it’s similar to Dan Berrigan saying, “find a place to stand and stand there.” Put your body somewhere. 

What did Jesus do? He went up Golgotha. You can’t just sit there and talk about it, you have to go out and do it. Maybe that’s the difference between workers and scholars. You know, it’s not just in the head and it’s not just in the heart. It’s head heart and body. I don’t know, I had to walk out onto that base. 

Well, if it was a form of prayer for you, did you experience God at all through the event or in the space?

Totally! Totally. I experience God in nature. And it was a starry night. There were frogs croaking. It was April, it was spring in Georgia. I felt the presence of God continually. And, you know, I was afraid. I was incredibly afraid. I didn’t know what I was walking into. I didn’t know how we’d be received. I could only imagine what the dangers were. I felt God when the arresting officer walked up to us. He had the presence of God in his voice, in his face. It was stunning. 

It’s striking hearing you describe the frogs and the stars. You’re experiencing God in creation while you’re there to disarm a threat to all of creation. It’s a strange theological landscape. 

It’s a natural, simple, obvious one to me. 

Well, how much were you motivated to go there to pray and embody the prophets, on the one hand, and on the other how much were you motivated to cause the removal of the actual, physical nuclear weapons? Clare Grady [of the Kings Bay Plowshares action] told me it’s impossible to separate the two. What do you say? 

I think it’s both. You know, Granny died feeling like it was all a failure. I mean, poverty was still there. The destitution, the wasting of money for weaponry. None of that changed in her lifetime. If you really want to look at it that way. And for me, things have only deteriorated in my lifetime. So what’s the takeaway from that? 

But our faith calls us to continue to retain faith, hope, and love. And another wonderful quote I remember from Dorothy is, “You can’t despair, there’s too much work to be done.” And maybe that’s where my solace comes. What’s the alternative to actually doing something? The alternative is to sit and go mad. So I was compelled to join Witness Against Torture [an interfaith collective organizing to shut down Guántanamo Bay’s U.S. detention facility] when I heard about the torture. I was compelled to go to Hancock Airport Base [where the Upstate Drone Action campaign resists the piloting of drones used in Afghanistan] after I learned about drones being used to kill people. 

I don’t know, it’s at a real visceral level. As far as the success of it, the other thing is the fool dying on the Cross. What did he accomplish? That’s when we have to look at resurrection. I would rather be screaming “no” against bad things than sitting silently. It feels better to me, physically and morally. 

Any last words about these hopes you retain, Martha? 

Cleaning the temple. The temple being those cathedrals, our bodies, and the damn nuclear weapons.  

Eric Martin is an oblate of the Catholic Worker who teaches with the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA.