Char Madigan will be praying for peace during the RNC this year, a continuation of a career of prayer and protest that goes back more than thirty years.
On July 4, 1976 in the Phillips neighborhood, near Portland and Franklin, Char Madigan started her peace activism. Out of her own apartment along with Rita Steinhagen and Laura Geyer, two other sisters of St. Joseph’s of Carondelet, she gave her personal phone number to the police and Chrysalis, a battered women’s shelter, to help anyone in need in her neighborhood … people on the run, new in town, etc.
“Over 30 years ago, I was teaching religion to high school students in the Phillips neighborhood and I was telling them to do community service works, even though I knew what they had to face when they went home and they knew that I knew.” said Madigan. “Then I decided I needed to start doing service work for this community and one of our biggest hurdles was housing. Rent could take up over 50% of a minimum wage earner’s salary. With the help of many volunteers and donors we bought up houses on two blocks. Some sold for $1 or $30,000. We used a lot of duct tape to fix a lot of repairs.”
Portland Enterprises evolved out of buying two house then four houses. One thousand individuals and 50 corporations donated money, including Virginia Binger from McKnight Foundation.
In the late 1980s, sellers of crack cocaine popped up on neighborhood sidewalks. Madigan tried to discourage the sellers by going up and down the streets at 4 p.m., which was high traffic time, with posters that read, “down with dope, up with hope.”
“But the dealers would march with us with their signs reading, “up with dope, down with hope.” said Madigan. “We had shootings, killings, and stabbings in our neighborhood.”
“We outgrew our apartment and moved into a house with six bedrooms which we called St Joseph House. It was run from the attic where the sisters lived. It was the beginning of what is now called Hope Community.
“We soon learned that people needed to rely on their own power and strength by gathering together, saying what they needed, and then acting on their goals.”
Community dialogues with more than 1,000 diverse adults and youth of immigrants, Native Americans and African Americans proved fruitful. Hope’s tenants and people of surrounding neighborhoods participate in leadership opportunities, Hope Learning Center, and a thriving multicultural community of 126 low-income rental units.
Madigan began to see a connection between money spent on the military expenditures as connected to the poor of the Phillips neighborhood.
“We condemn people for being homeless or poor when our wealth goes to Honeywell. Supporting the military is not about patriotism … it is about greed,” she says.
Honeywell, a Minnesota company, made cluster bombs and missile guidance systems. Char Madigan participated in protests of the Honeywell Project and, later, of AlliantAction, which protests against Honeywell successor company AlliantTech.
“Our system has to change,” says Madigan. “Every Wednesday morning I would go out to Honeywell with a banner and a prayer. They would lock us out or we would lock them out. I got jailed 50 times for civil disobedience and 12 years later I was known as a civil resister.”
“She makes us look good,” said Sister Virginia Webb, an acquaintance of Sr. Madigan since their early high school days. “She is faithful to her cause of peace. We were lawbreakers since the 17th century, the beginning of our Order of Carondelet Sisters in France. Some of can be activists, others cannot, and then some of us are just indolent.”
Madigan learned from an early age from the example of her father who said when bringing food to a hungry family, “This isn’t charity, this is justice.” Even though her mother was embarrassed to have her daughter arrested for her views, she never saw the priest nor mayor as having more power than her or her family.
During the Republican National Convention, Char Madigan will participate in Peace Island, a team of people trained to defuse any potential violence during the convention. She will lead a prayer vigil as close as she can get to the convention.
Jeanette Fordyce contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.