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Retired peacemakers continue their commitment to build just, peaceful world

For 20 of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane’s 40 years, Rusty Nelson was director and for many years co-director with his wife Nancy, both working nearly full-time for one salary.

Nancy and Rusty Nelson live out tenets of Mennonite faith.

They educated people on Central America, the School of the Americas, Cuba, the Iraq war, death penalty, police accountability, criminal justice, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, military recruitment, veterans’ strugglesa, civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance.

They taught people through writing, public speaking, workshops, protests, partnerships and civil disobedience.

 Nancy worked with the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane (PJALS) from 1985 to 1988, then with the Central America Solidarity Association (CASA) until former PJALS co-director Kathleen Donohoe quit in 1990 because of health.

Rusty began editing the “Handful of Salt” newsletter when he joined the staff in 1988.

He worked full-time with KXLY radio from 1981 to 1987, and for many years worked half-time with PJALS and half-time with KXLY, so he had benefits PJALS could not provide.  They were insured when Nancy had successful treatment for fourth-stage breast cancer for four months in Seattle. 

Rusty and Nancy, who met in Croatia in 1971, had moved to Spokane from Minneapolis in 1981. Nancy stayed home with their children, Nate and Lara.

Nancy graduated from Mankato State University in 1967 and received her master’s in French in 1972.  Rusty, the son of a Presbyterian pastor, graduated in 1966 with a bachelor’s in English from Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., where he was in ROTC. 

He worked in Washington, D.C., for Senator Richard Russell of Georgia before beginning his two-year obligation in the Army.  He was assigned to the Army Signal School in Fort Gordon, Ga., near his parents’ home in Thomson, then to a year in Vietnam.

Rusty returned to start a radio career in Gainesville, Ga., in 1969.  Laid off in 1971, he joined his brother, who was studying in Lyon, France. Traveling around Europe with a rental car, they picked up Nancy and a friend in Croatia who were hitchhiking, and drove them to Amsterdam.

Rusty and Nancy married in November and moved to Georgia.  She struggled teaching in a school system that questioned offering foreign languages and resisted integration.

In 1975, they moved to Minneapolis. Rusty worked in radio and Nancy sold insurance until the arrival of their adopted son, Nate. They moved to Spokane with a group from the Presbyterian Church they attended.

Using the “Mennonite Your Way” network, they stayed more than a month with Nick Kassebaum, a Mennonite pastor and PJALS director. They visited other churches but were drawn by Mennonites’ taking the Bible “seriously and literally on Jesus’ call to love neighbors and enemies.”  They became pacifists.

Wanting another racially mixed child, they adopted Lara in 1983.

As they began at PJALS, they saw their role as being prophetic voices, helping people stand apart from “the general malaise toward righteous violence that cripples our society,” said Rusty.

“We feel called to point out travesties and injustices, and to lead people to rectify the situations,” said Nancy.

Over the years, Rusty has seen the most measurable shift in public attitudes on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. 

“After the first Gay Pride March, I found our involvement empowering and life changing,” he said. 

He would like to have the same impact on war and racism.

“Much has been baby steps because people are so set,” he said.

“Civil disobedience is just one of many ways to call attention to issues,” said Nancy.  “Many changes happen in the United States and around the globe because people engage in civil disobedience and are willing to be arrested.”

When Rusty and Nancy engaged in civil disobedience, they did it as individuals, not as PJALS staff.

For Nancy, the first of 12 times she was arrested was in 1985 after a PJALS retreat, when Daniel Berrigan invited participants to consider civil disobedience. 

She stood on railroad tracks to block the White Train that took nuclear missiles for Trident submarines at Bangor, Wash. 

“I felt called to stop the trains,” said Nancy.  “We had no training.  We were clueless on what to expect.  Now we insist people be trained.  We were cited, but not booked in jail.  For the trial three months later, the judge allowed us to prepare a ‘necessity’ defense. Experts planned to fly in to testify, but the judge dismissed the case because the prosecutor didn’t identify me as a woman.”

On Aug. 31, 2016, she was arrested again on railroad tracks.

This time she was with the Raging Grannies, blocking a train carrying oil through Spokane, because oil worsens climate change and its transport poses threats.  On Sept. 22, Rusty was arrested on the tracks with three members of Veterans for Peace.

Both actions were sponsored by Direct Action Spokane.

He has been arrested seven times.  When their children were young, they took turns.

His first arrest in 1987 was at a Marine recruiting station challenging the war in Nicaragua.  He was charged with trespassing and sentenced to community service, which he did by volunteering with PJALS, before he was hired in 1988.

Several arrests for Nancy related to Central America—twice at Rep. Tom Foley’s office after Jesuit priests and housekeepers were killed at the university in San Salvador.

Other times were after Washington reinstated the death penalty in 1981, during the Gulf War, Desert Storm, at the School of the Americas (SOA) and about National Guard recruiting.

In 2003, they joined others blocking the entrance of Fairchild Air Force Base before the war in Iraq.  Nancy spent a day in federal prison. Rusty was there overnight.

At the SOA in Columbus, Ga., they were arrested separately and together over several years. 

“My first time there, I stepped over the line with Paddy Inman, who had been detained the year before and had invited me to help him train peacekeepers.  Because it was his second time, he spent six months in jail,” said Rusty, whose mother was among 605 stepping over the line. 

The next year Rusty did not cross with 2,000. No one was charged, because there were so many.

“Direct action is one way to share my faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said.  “For me, it means standing up for civil liberties and against unjust laws and corporatism.”

For Nancy, it was a natural progression from calling and writing public officials, marching in protests and going to public hearings.

“In the last 10 years, they did not put us in jail because they did not have the time or room.  Jails are full with many held on old charges, drug charges or breaking parole,” said Rusty, adding that they now advocate for alternatives to jail—like drug or mental health treatment. Concern about criminal justice arose from spending time in jails and experiencing the powerlessness prisoners feel.

“We can’t talk about criminal justice without talking of racism,” said Nancy, hoping awareness of recent arrests, police killings and sentence disparities make more people aware of racism. 

In 1986, Nancy and three activists in Western Washington established the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Rusty recently resigned after 17 years on the Center for Justice Board, helping to expose more local people to the experience of justice.

In 1989, he helped start and is still active in Veterans for Peace. 

“I had some combat experience in Vietnam and luckily survived without PTSD,” he said.  “It has been helpful in peace work to bill myself as a veteran.  It opens doors.”

Rusty said PJALS members are diverse, coming from many faiths or no faith. 

“The word ‘peace’ is considered suspect or unpatriotic by some.  We have a long way to go to teach it in schools,” he said.  “We will be a stronger country if we learn not to use military power to bully the world. War is an abomination.” 

PJALS has also advocated for economic justice, addressing the minimum wage, livable wages, unemployment and underemployment. Rusty said he has lived an upper-middle-class life on a lower middle class income, benefitting from white privilege.  In Georgia, he had respected blacks, but did not work for integration. 

“We were naive when we adopted black children,” said Rusty.  “I thought racism would disappear, but we have experienced the racism our African-American children faced and have seen how our children have been bridges.”

The hate in the 2016 campaign shows there is much work to do, they said.

In retirement, they continue their activism, but do less, sometimes just sending an advocacy email.

“Working with PJALS, we saw the interconnection of issues,” Nancy said.

In 2000, they built a sustainable, passive-solar, straw-bale home north of Rockford.

For information, call 291-4646.

Copyright © November 2016 - The Fig Tree