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Sister Elizabeth Kelliher: A life fully devoted to social justice and solidarity

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A short tribute to Sister Elizabeth Kelliher, originally published in The Source / La Source. 

A few years ago, during Israel's Operation Cast Lead against Gaza, I was participating in a protest rally and march in downtown Vancouver. It was early January, during a cold snap, and the wind and snow had mixed with freezing rain in conspiracy against us, as the crowd of several hundred marched down Robson Street.

As I shuffled along, alternating bare freezing hands between pocket and umbrella, I looked over and saw an old friend coming towards me. She was taking off her gloves, "You look like you need these." I must have muttered some objection. But she quickly produced an extra pair from her bag for herself. I put on the gloves and we carried on together. That person was Sister Elizabeth Kelliher.

I have many fond memories like this of her. The nun and life-long social justice activist passed away at the age of 89 last month. Sister Elizabeth of the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement lived and worked in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside for over a dozen years, starting in the late '90s. She made an indelible impression.

Sister Elizabeth and her colleagues worked to provide shelter and food to those most in need in our city. This wasn't mere charity, however, it was just one component of a life fully devoted to social justice and solidarity.

What strikes me about the memorials for Sister Elizabeth, is that her years of activism in Vancouver cut across the full spectrum of the progressive community. She was incapable of limiting herself to one or two issues; it was an holistic practice of striving for justice.

Here's how the Globe and Mail obituary put it, "she led or attended meetings for almost every peace and social justice advocacy group in the neighbourhood, raising Cain everywhere from City Hall in Vancouver to Parliament in Ottawa to defend the rights of the city's unhoused, addicted and afflicted, and to better the lot of its poorest and most marginalized people."

We can take strength from Sister Elizabeth's spirit and example as we carry on in the struggle for social justice. It's very easy to get bogged down in our own silos of concern. But we need each other, and we need to see and make connections between the issues.

Michelle Alexander reflected on this need to come together, in a recent article in The Nation on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington at which Martin Luther King gave his 'I Have a Dream' speech:

"[King] saw the connections between the wars we wage abroad and the utter indifference we have for poor people and people of color at home. He saw the necessity of openly critiquing an economic system that will fund war and reward greed hand over fist, but will not pay workers a living wage. In the years following the March on Washington, Dr. King ignored all those who told him to stay in his lane, just stick to talking about civil rights…"

I have been staying in my lane… But no more.. In the years following the march, [King] did not play politics to see what crumbs a fundamentally corrupt system might toss to the beggars for justice. Instead, he connected the dots and committed himself to building a movement that would shake the foundations of our economic and social order.."

Today, there are more pressures -- political, economic, social -- than ever for people to "stay in their lane" or stay home from activism altogether. I'm hopeful these can be overcome. But we'll need new organizational forms to help make it happen. I'm encouraged by projects like the People's Social Forum that will bring together activists from First Nations, Quebec and the rest of Canada in 2014 to build new and stronger coalitions to oppose the Harper government and neoliberalism.

Here in Vancouver, we can draw upon many past models of multi-issue coalitions. This is where Greenpeace got started, after all, combining the concerns of the peace movement with the then nascent environmental movement. The global crisis of climate change will never be solved without putting an end to war and plunder, so it's urgent that we put 'green' and 'peace' back together in practice.

Sister Elizabeth is missed by everyone in Vancouver struggling for a fairer city and a better world. She's with us in spirit, at protests against the latest U.S. threats of war on Syria, and everywhere that people are standing up against big developers and slumlords for affordability and dignity.

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