An Interview With Sister Elizabeth Yates FMM (Franciscan Missionaries of Mary)
Liz Yates RIP, 11th January 2021
Five years ago Elizabeth Yates came with three other FMM sisters to live in Brixton, the multi-racial area of south London where, the previous year, the tensions had produced a series of violent riots.
The four sisters live in a terraced house near the heart of Brixton. Community itself – to be rather than to do – is the priority for the group. To earn their living they have taken part-time jobs in the locality. Frances teaches in an Anglican school; Molly works with the mentally-handicapped; Joan, the senior member of the community, gives her time to ‘Age Concern’, a welfare group, and Elizabeth herself is a part-time community nurse in the area. What were the considerations which led them to Brixton and what does their presence there mean to local people?
“For most FMMs for a lot of the time in their lives the commitment to an ‘option for the poor’ is often worked out in the context of a mission to a country which has greater needs possibly than the one we’re coming from. Now that option for the poor has come a lot closer to home for many of us, so we have found ourselves returning to the West for various reasons. It so happened that there were five or six of our sisters who had come back from Pakistan, India, African countries, who said we’d like very much to have an insertion into a multi-racial area where there was a notable lack of peace and where we felt that our backgrounds from Third World countries would give us a chance of integrating there and so opting for a specific type of poor person in this country.
“The priorities of our community have a lot to do with open house hospitality, to take those who come to our door or who we bring to our home within whatever context – homelessness, youngsters in trouble with drug addiction, people who have experienced violence, all sorts of things. The second priority is to listen to what is said to us in a place like this, and the third priority has been prayer, which has grown in every way in our own community and with other denominations because in an area like this all the churches come together in the face of the problems of violence, unemployment and discrimination.”
These local churches unite to form the Brixton Council of Churches, led by an impressive Caribbean woman, the Rev. Esme Beswick, Pastor of the New Testament Church. “Down the way we have the Methodists who also have a well-mixed congregation and their church is actually on Railton Road, which we call ‘the front line’ and which I think most African and Caribbean people understand to be where the problems have occurred. Then there are smaller churches which are Pentecostal, which we have also been involved with. There’s a lot of solidarity witness in a place like Brixton. On Good Friday, for example, we walk through Brixton in a procession carrying a cross and there is always an ecumenical service. Most of us don’t go any more to our own church: we go and make our witness procession together. We pray a lot together and we also help in a practical way.”
There is no mosque or temple in the area and the opportunities for interfaith dialogue are fewer than, for instance, in a city like Coventry in the Midlands where another FMM community is living. “But,” says Elizabeth, “we also have a very high percentage of people who don’t practise any type of structured religious activity. We have a lot of marginalised people in the religious context and I think this has brought us together as Christian groups. Not that there are any problems with other people’s religious way of being. It’s not within the Brixton community itself that problems of racism and discrimination occur. There’s a violent element, anti-authoritarian, which perceives authority as a source of oppression and racial harrassment. Otherwise, no one really cares where you come from, who you are, what you do. So Brixton itself is a very free area really. In this context it’s not poor at all. That’s what you find out.”
For Elizabeth one of the most dramatic results of her coming to live in Brixton has been her growing involvement in the peace movement. Earlier this year she was arrested and imprisoned after a peace liturgy and act of civil disobedience in London. What developments had taken her along that road?
“When I think of myself in the 1960s in relation to the peace issue – I just didn’t think about it. I spent years in Pakistan during an unjust war – I was in West Pakistan when they raped East Pakistan. I’m amazed that these things didn’t cause extraordinary changes in me. They didn’t, although they must have come to bear their fruit. Coming to Brixton had a very serious effect on me in the context of what I understood to be reconciliation and the need for understanding: how, for example, an African woman and a woman from this country might come to understand one another. I had lived in both countries. This developed my awareness of what was meant by peacemaking.
“What I experienced in Brixton, and had already experienced in Liverpool, was that whole sections of our society were suffering abominably due to lack of funds and input to enable these people to live as full lives as possible. Knowing poor people, I realised that in the face of nuclear weapons we are all poor.”
Two other experiences also helped to change her thinking. “I had problems with the person in authority over me at work and I found myself enlisting the support of other colleagues to take my point of view. I suddenly realised what I was doing – that I was building her up into an enemy figure. So with thought and prayer I tried to change and to make peace. I asked forgiveness of all the people whom I thought I had wronged.”
The other moment of insight came on a beautiful spring day when Elizabeth was out walking with friends on nearby Clapham Common. “The blossom was magnificent. A friend said to me ‘Do you know that Clapham Common has been designated as a burial ground in the event of a nuclear war?’ and I thought: it’s all true. Our Government actually has the intention of using nuclear weapons.”
In 1984 Elizabeth went to South Zaire (Shaba) for six months to work on the Angolan border with other FMMs setting up an emergency post for the many refugees coming into Zaire. Afterwards she felt called back to Brixton and to be more involved in work for peace. “I felt that apart from my work locally and our presence here as a community, I had to be part of a national effort to oppose these nuclear policies.” So she went in search of the peace movement. She joined Pax Christi and also a small group called Catholic Peace Action whose focus was on the need for both dialogue and resistance – two things which Elizabeth feels should always go together.
With others from this group, Elizabeth took part in nonviolent civil disobedience when they chained themselves to the doors of the Ministry of Defence in London during a religious service held outside. At that stage few other Franciscans were involved in the peace movement but after this act of witness an Anglican Franciscan, Terry Tastard, wrote to Elizabeth. They met and formed a network called ‘Franciscans for Justice and Peace’. 80 Franciscan women and men, Roman Catholic and Anglican, now belong and they have held their own events and prayer vigils.
In undertaking civil disobedience, Elizabeth became engaged in a difficult and sometimes painful dialogue with her own sisters. “The sisters in this province have over a period of years come to an understanding that there are some people who find it impossible to refuse the call to make some sort of statement about what is really God’s will and what is the will of human authority. If there’s a clash that statement has be something quite serious – a statement in which a law is broken which is considered an immoral law, in fact an illegal law.
“I don’t believe in confrontational acts without dialogue. That’s not Franciscan. One perhaps has to make a rather startling statement but not without dialogue. At no time can I as a human being confront and judge the truth of another human being who has perceived something differently. Without dialogue ‘Franciscans for Justice and Peace’ and civil disobedience don’t even come together – and they must.”
On Ash Wednesday 1987 300 Christians from various Christian groups came together for an act of worship to be followed by an act of civil disobedience. “At the act of worship we prayed for forgiveness for our sins individually and as a nation and we took the blessed ashes and marked our foreheads with the cross, like Christians throughout the world. Then as a worshipping community we went to the Ministry of Defence, the ‘nerve centre’ of all plans for nuclear war and any other use of weapons. In prayer, we marked that building with the same sign of the cross, using the same blessed ashes, in acknowledgement of the sin of our society of which we are a part.”
For that public action 45 people, including Elizabeth, were arrested and charged with criminal damage. Those involved considered civil disobedience to be ‘holy obedience’ – an assertion that God’s law is above human law. At her trial Elizabeth told the court that she would not pay any fine once she was found guilty by the law of the land. Having acted in conscience on behalf of the poor, she felt obliged to accept any punishment in the same way a poor person would have to. The court’s decision was to send her to Holloway women’s prison for a week. What was prison like?
“I personally didn’t suffer in a way I might have suffered had I been younger. I was ready, prepared spiritually, in a way I might not have been before. I can’t say that what I saw appalled me, I suppose because I’ve seen so much worse. I know what really oppressive regimes can do. Nevertheless I was considerably distressed by the knowledge of the forgotten, which is what all these women were. They were forgotten women, for whatever reasons they had landed there, and some of the reasons were pathetic. One was that she hadn’t paid her television licence. Another one was offered bail of £2,000 and she had only received £8 worth of stolen goods. Other people had been involved in crimes of violence and many were involved in addiction. One little woman hadn’t been able to speak to anyone for three months because she didn’t speak English. She spoke Urdu and I happened to speak Urdu…
“The experience was that of the forgotten. There appeared to me to be vast numbers of women for whom much more could be offered which would be therapeutic rather than punitive. It seemed to be a vast lost opportunity because what I experienced most among the young women I was with was that they had no inner resources. So to be left in a room on their own – which you are in the first couple of days while they’re sorting out where you should go – some young girls couldn’t cope with being alone. One kid completely destroyed all the bits of furniture she had, screaming and howling with almost fear of herself. It would seem to me that this could be a place where people might learn something about inner resources which would build them up.”
Did Elizabeth find any common threads of faith or community amongst women from such diverse backgrounds as she met in prison? “There were problems as regards cultures which is perhaps new to the prisons. There was no problem with anybody’s faith at all, but neither did it surface in any way. There was a friendship and kindness one towards the other pf people in a common trouble, but ultimately it didn’t happen quickly. People were very wary. Then little things started to happen. Odd things were said to me like ‘It’s almost like having my mum in prison, you know, with you to look after me’.
“I felt guilty that I had only five days there when people had five years, ten years, fifteen years and I couldn’t get over the generosity of those women when they said on the Monday ‘You’re out tomorrow. Wonderful. Think of us.’ – I couldn’t get over their generosity. All I could offer was a kind of solidarity and a caringness and I think gentleness. I wanted to be gentle. I felt pretty meek. It would have taken me a lot longer to know what I could give really.
“It was an experience of solidarity with poor people. If you feel called to make a statement against that which is making us all poor, and it is the nuclear weapons which make us all poor, then of course it is part of the programme to know the poor in their poorest way. I feel grateful more than anything.”
On her way out of prison Elizabeth met a Quaker woman who was being released at the same time. In the peace movement Christians of every denomination come together because of their common purpose: “However we may be perceived socially, the authenticity of the Christian peace movement lies in that we come together in the name of Jesus Christ, with all our weaknesses and with all our differences. The other things don’t even get remembered when that happens.”
Work for peace by building up the local community in a place like Brixton and by building up the global community of the whole world is integral, Elizabeth believes, to the FMM calling. “We have had quite a period of renewal and we have emerged, I am happy to say, from the last few international meetings with four important themes: evangelising community, option for the poor, inculturation and dialogue.
“We’re asked to go to where the poor are and that can change constantly. We’re asked to try to become part of that, and we’re asked to try and keep all the doors and windows open, in the name of, and the Lord, Jesus Christ, and in the style that our foundress Helene de Chappotin, and St Francis of Assisi, offered. So I don’t personally believe that if that is what you follow that you can at any time avoid the issues of peace and what peace is about in the international situation today and in our local situation. I don’t think you can turn your back on the problems of racism and discrimination because of what we are asked to do. I don’t think you can ever opt out of choosing life rather than death, which brings you into the area of abortion, euthanasia, etc. I don’t think you can ever forget those who are unemployed, those whose lives are so limited – the elderly, the handicapped, the Aids sufferers, the outcasts. You can’t avoid what’s happened to the Third World, where Western aid is going, the refugees, the expense of the arms race. All this you can’t avoid if you follow what we have been asked to live.”