Sacred Journeys

[Editor’s note: In the coming months, Sacred Journeys will explore the meaning of the sacred and the spiritual as they relate to the local, national and international issues that affect our daily lives. By talking with area residents across a broad spectrum, Mickey Mahaffey will try to elucidate the common ground we all share, however diverse our understanding of a fundamental subject that, too often, becomes a source of friction and strife rather than unity. He welcomes reader feedback (send your responses care of: P.O. Box 2416, Asheville 28802).]

Clare Hanrahan refuses to remain silent in the face of injustice. Her spiritual integrity demands that she speak and act — even when she’s trembling at the knees and her voice is quivering.

Thirty years ago, as the dawn light broke over the city of Memphis, Tenn., she stood with a dozen or so men and women in the middle of the railroad tracks as an approaching train blared its imminent arrival. Armed only with the courage of their convictions — and watched by a SWAT team, a sea of police, a contingency of railroad officials, and the media — the group braced themselves for an uncertain fate. They had no idea whether the “white train” hauling a load of nuclear warheads cross-country would stop. But bolstered by their awareness of what Clare describes as a “very tangible, spiritual force” moving through them, they held their ground until the train stopped — a mere 20 yards from where they stood.

The aftermath of that action marked the first of many times that Clare Hanrahan has experienced the cold, steel finality of a jail door slamming behind her.

A few years later, she and her daughter marched with a band of homeless women and children through the streets of downtown St. Petersburg, Fla., protesting the city’s razing of old but affordable homes to clear the valuable land for “economic development.” Every day, for days, they paraded through 5 o’clock traffic clanging spoons and soup pots, demanding equal opportunity for the fastest-growing segment of the city’s population — homeless women and children. They stood silent at City Council meetings, brandishing signs that called attention to the plight of those for whom the American dream had become a nightmare.

Working with the marginalized and the dispossessed, who’d been rejected by the system because of their emotional and mental scars, they learned what Clare describes as “a simple, living faith, not articulated by any particular dogma … that if we step out in right action, everything else is there for you — usually at the last moment.

“At the very last moment,” she adds, laughing at the memory of meals appearing out of nowhere when there was no money to buy food.

In 1990, she traveled to Fort Benning, Ga., for the first time to take part in the annual protest against the School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). The military facility has trained more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers in the arts of counterinsurgency. No stranger to anti-war demonstrations, Clare had long since become familiar with county jails all over the Southeast. Crossing the line of trespass at Fort Benning, however, meant risking an extended stay in a federal prison.

After crossing the line numerous times in the following years without serious consequences, she was arrested once again in November of 2000. “This time was my lucky year. I was indicted … and I felt very calm about it,” she reports. Through a process that remains a mystery to folks in the anti-SOA movement, the government chose 26 people (from among the thousands who crossed the line) to be indicted. Clare was one of them. She was prepared to go to prison, and she knew what kind of women she would meet there. “I’d worked with them in the homeless shelters; these are not people who frightened me. I considered it a tithe of my time for a movement I believe was rooted in truth.”

After teary farewells amid a throng of friends who gathered at Pritchard Park, Clare left Asheville on July 16, 2001 to begin serving a six-month sentence at the Federal Prison Camp for Women in Alderson, W. Va. When she crossed the threshold at the prison, joining the ranks of more than 900 other incarcerated women, she admits that “I felt surrender for the first time in my life.” But despite the inevitable wrestling with her own fears — and the trauma of being herded like cattle into stalls in a concrete-and-steel warehouse that afforded no privacy — Clare looks back on her ordeal as “a sustained opportunity to experience in my own person some of the abuse of our system. I feel it in my bones: I smell it, I taste it. It will inform my every step from now on, that awareness.”

From the outside, she says, Alderson prison looks more like a college campus; surrounded by beautiful old trees, it’s touted as a place for healing and rehabilitation. On the inside, however, it’s a different picture. Clare estimates that about 75 percent of the women in Alderson (who range in age from 18 to 80) are there on conspiracy drug charges — serving 10- to 20-year sentences while, more often than not, their drug-dealing husbands, boyfriends or family members get much shorter sentences or remain free. The women survive on a diet dominated by sugar and white flour. Even getting basic medical care requires running a lengthy bureaucratic gauntlet. The inmates are constantly humiliated by male guards who are free to enter their sleeping quarters and pat-search them at any time. After every visit from a friend, Clare was stripped naked and searched “to make sure I wasn’t concealing a submachine gun or something,” she jokes — her eyes all the while betraying the enduring terror of this invasive abuse.

Often, she reports, prison employees would throw the prisoners’ mail on the floor at their feet and intentionally mispronounce their names. Clare remembers friends’ hands reaching to her shoulders to restrain her when she bristled at the indignity. The women watched out for one another; the camaraderie was crucial to their survival. And Clare says she’ll never forget the wise words of a 70-year-old woman — a friend of Martin Luther King’s who’d been on the receiving end of fire hoses and vicious dogs during civil-rights marches. The woman advised Clare to “smile a lot, speak little and live in the eternal present.”

Easier said than done. But Clare learned that when she could “reel myself in from all the fears … all the things that could arise in such a place … that Alderson became a most beautiful place, and the moments expanded into incredible, wide-open spaces.” That kind of dramatic interplay of light and darkness astounded her. Her deep blue eyes glisten as she recalls the courage of women who, despite the burden of abuse, found ways “to subvert it on a personal level so that in [their] spiritual lives, they were transformed into shining, shining lights.”

On Jan. 17, 2002, Clare Hanrahan returned to her home in Asheville. Many months later, she still feels those women’s energy. Often, she thinks of them as she’s working in her garden. “I brought back little plant starts from the [prison] greenhouse — tiny little slivers of many plants, which are now growing up here. I feel this living connection with my time there,” she relates. The plants help her stay mindful of every step she takes.

Prison gave Clare a chance to scrutinize herself and her integrity at the deepest levels. Now, she’s determined to let that enhanced understanding illuminate her unflagging commitment to resisting war and standing shoulder to shoulder with the dispossessed. When I talked with Clare, she’d just returned from Washington, D.C., where she stood with more than 100,000 fellow citizens protesting the war against terror. But Clare remains clear that her central task now is “to continue to work at disarming my own heart and to bring that disarmed heart to activism. A lot of my early activism was fueled by absolute outrage at the injustice. The edge of anger drove me in an unconscious, reactive kind of way.”

Her last night at Alderson, Clare dreamed that all the inmates were suddenly decked out in brilliant-colored ethnic garb. It was a great swirl of sound and light, music and dance, inspired by women who exuded truth, beauty, power and an invincible spirit. In the dream, she saw “the women transforming before my eyes, reclaiming their rightful place in a world gone crazy.”

As she exited the prison the next day en route to freedom, the last thing she heard was the ringing voice of one of her friends proclaiming, “Hanrahan has left the building!”

Darcel Eddins, Clare Hanrahan, Sharon Martin and Elizabeth Roebling will discuss their recent grassroots witness in Vieques, Puerto Rico, on Thursday, Sept. 19. 7 p.m. at UNCA’s Karpen Hall. Phone 277-0758 for details. Hanrahan’s new book, Jailed for Justice: A woman’s guide to Federal Prison Camps. is available at Malaprop’s, from P.O. Box 7641, 28802, or via

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