Go Where the Energy Is
Donna Toliver Grimes
Mary Liepold interviews Donna Toliver Grimes about her work in the peace movement.
Who are you, Donna? How do you describe yourself?
I am the Poverty Education and Outreach Manager in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development. I am also a catechist in my parish and active in JustFaith, an exciting adult education program that works in parishes. I have served on the National Council of Pax Christi USA, which partners with Just Faith, and currently serve on the DC-Baltimore Regional Board. And I am active in various empowerment projects in my community. So, with humility I am learning and doing and learning some more.
In addition to various peace and justice efforts, I enjoy reading, writing, cooking, and travelling. I am an African-American Catholic and consider myself politically progressive, spiritually charismatic, and prolife all the way, from conception to resurrection. Not by any means least, I have three wonderful children.
My impression is that there are more people of color in the US peace movement now than there were 30 years ago, but the numbers are still not proportional. Is that your observation?
I’m a child of the 60s and 70s so for me advocating for peace is natural, coming straight from my high school and grade school exposure. I grew up with consciousness around the Vietnam War, and I’ve always believed wars are unnecessary. I’ve been taking in alternative radio and TV for a long time. I can’t imagine serving in the military. But many in my community, while they may have a sense that the wars are not justified, they’re not anti-military because they have brothers, sisters, uncles in the service. It’s a way to get off the streets, a chance to get ahead.
At the same time, they are conscious of justice issues. We’re starting to make some progress, but we have to do things from the grassroots up and we have to constantly link peace with justice.
When I started this job in 2000 I would look out at the annual national Catholic social ministry gathering and see very few people of color. So I talked to the few who were there and we decided to caucus. We knew there had to be more of us outside who would be interested. They may not know the language of Catholic social teaching, but they have a rich tradition of helping each other. My grandmother who had 14 children always managed to take in others who needed food or a place to stay.
Our African American social ministry caucus wrote a letter to John Carr, the Executive Director of the (now) Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It didn’t make everyone happy, but we were respectful and we made specific suggestions. Where were the speakers of color on these programs, and the books by authors of color? Where were the others―Asians, Latinos, Native Americans―including people with disabilities, who have very similar issues?
We asked the conference planners to bring in presenters from these groups and ask them what issues are important to them. Let them have a role in setting the agenda. And don’t assume we are always recipients of charity and assistance. We have a lot to contribute. There’s a good way still to go, but I’ve seen progress.
What strategies work for you to get people engaged?
The way to involve people is to start where they are. My parish has a lot of focus on liturgy, especially music, dance and good preaching, so when I was social justice minister I encouraged them to take that out into the community, to nursing homes and public spaces. Be observant about what’s already happening and go where the energy is. It can start small. We have a card ministry that was created to send cards to people who are sick, but the members saw for themselves it wasn’t enough just to send cards so now they visit, deliver the cards, sing carols at Christmas, bring warm socks.
There’s lots of energy around get-out-the-vote campaigns, because that affects us very personally. There’s a definite concern about violence in the streets and that’s in the media, while the truth about the wars isn’t. I come at this from my background in social justice education, but often you have to act your way into understanding the issues and becoming committed to justice. It’s important to be welcoming, to provide the basic needs when someone has a house fire, doesn’t have enough food for their children.
I have friends who care about the larger issues but they don’t feel informed enough. They’re at the mercy of corporate news outlets. They want to know more and they don’t feel they have the time to learn the facts. It’s a long-term process.
Outside of the church, how do you engage people?
The church is the hub for many African Americans, along with our fraternities and sororities, but I talk to my friends about things. I invite them to come out to peace events, and they try to read more and become informed.
Get people together to watch a movie and discuss it, even a popular movie. I got one friend to go to Promises, a movie about Palestinian and Israeli kids in Jerusalem. It was very interesting, and quite sad. Our policies on Israel are so crazy, and many people are just too busy to think things through. I think a film series is an excellent way to get people thinking and engaged in these complex issues.
Reach people through their children, get into the schools. A friend did a peace camp one summer at a nearby church, and the kids loved it. Anything to do with family issues is very important.
My parish has a Haiti ministry and it’s slowly growing. This is something I was talking about years ago, and now we have a medical mission and a sister parish. Groups have made visits, we support economic development initiatives there and are building a relationship with the local Haitian community.
I think economic justice is the strongest connector. People are concerned about how to make their dollars go further, how to have more control over their lives at the most fundamental level. I’m starting to hear that people see the connection between the war abroad and the war at home, as Pax Christi USA describes it. In DC the public education system is so challenged, and we’re told constantly there’s no money for education. Parents don’t feel they have enough options. Some are trying to do anything they can to get their kids into a private school and it’s harder and harder. They want their kids to go to college and then to have a job when they graduate. They feel that opportunities are shrinking for them and their children, even to get a decent apartment. People are very focused on their lives.
We have to keep making the same points over and over, because that’s what the other side does. We don’t have money for housing and schools because it’s going over there―so drones can blow wedding parties to bits?
We have to have a tough skin too. People will say, here comes Donna again. I insert the message everywhere I can. As relentless as the conservatives are, that’s how relentless we need to be. Put your vision out there, the way I did with Haiti. Invite the not-usual-suspects.
At USCCB, we try to put out bite-size actions to get people moving. We’re going toward more use of Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes it’s like yelling into cyberspace: Yoohoo, is anybody out there? You’ve got to get a buzz going around justice and peace.
At the same time, you have to be committed to relationships, personal connections, and face to face is still the way to make connections. That’s how I was recruited to the national Pax Christi Council, by Jean Stokan and others, and the people I have suggested for the Board have all been very active, very engaged. Let people see your sincerity.
We don’t need to save the world. Christ did that already. But if something is bothering you, like torture or the situation of the Palestinians, maybe God is pulling you in that direction. We all have power we don’t realize we have. Learn more about the issue. Start with small actions that build up the community. Maybe buy something locally made instead of those Dead Sea bath salts.
The principle for today, the fourth day of Kwanzaa, is Ujamaaa, cooperative economics. Think about where you shop. Make gifts instead of shopping, or donate to just causes. Start somewhere, and see where God wants to take you.
Also in this edition of PeaceTimes
- Race, Class, Partnership, and Peace
- Peace Depends on Us Getting to Know Each Other
- Kim’s Corner: A Good Year for Women
- Generation Peace: Join the Mentorship for Peace Class of 2012
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