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Life Preserver: Carol Crossed and the Consistent Ethic of Life

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Carol Crossed on the stairs of the Susan B. Anthony birthplace, Adams, Mass. (Photo by Mark E. Rondeau)

Published in U.S. Catholic, March 1, 2007

By Mark E. Rondeau

FOR CAROL CROSSED, FAITH IS INEXTRICABLY TIED UP with activism for a consistent ethic of life. It's no surprise then that she calls getting arrested twice in one day with legendary peace activist Father Daniel Berrigan "a spiritual journey of the soul."

One of the arrests on this Pilgrimage for Life and Peace retreat in 1990 occurred in front of an abortion clinic in her hometown, Rochester, New York, the other at the nearby Seneca Army Depot, then the eastern seaboard's underground storage facility for nuclear weapons. "We hoped to achieve a mutual respect in the community for those who opposed abortion and those who opposed war," she says. "We wanted these joint actions to connect with people's hearts and minds."

As one of the retreat's organizers, Crossed had shown up unannounced at Berrigan's New York City apartment to invite him to participate. "He didn't hesitate even a second," she says. "I think he was waiting for someone to ask him."

This mother of six and grandmother of 14 has been arrested 19 times for civil disobedience. Crossed's most noteworthy activism, though, was purchasing Susan B. Anthony's birthplace in Adams, Massachusetts last year for Feminists for Life, which seeks to preserve the legacy of early suffragists "who fought for women and children--born and unborn." Fighting abortion, however, wasn't always Crossed's passion.

CROSSED'S JOURNEY THROUGH SOME OF THE DEFINING causes of our time began during her short time at Howard University in the 1960s. She was admitted to this historically black college in Washington, D.C. in part because of her Cherokee heritage. "It was enough to get me involved in the civil rights movement," she says.

Years later, as she was starting a family, Crossed became concerned about world hunger. It became apparent to her that the problem would not be solved as long as so much money was being put into the arms race. By the mid-1980s she was involved in the anti-nuclear arms movement.

By the end of that decade, Crossed's activism moved in a new direction when she got to know a woman who had been criticizing her in newspaper letters to the editor. "She was challenging me, calling me a Marxist and a socialist and all these things. I decided to go over and have coffee with her."

The result: Crossed became involved in the woman's activities against abortion, and Crossed's critic became involved in her work against the death penalty. "That's how I was converted. I just made myself vulnerable," she says.

Although Crossed previously questioned what she saw as a narrow, single-issue focus of prolife activists, this woman dispelled that impression. "It wasn't that she supported war because she wasn't actively against it, anymore than I supported abortion because I wasn't actively against it," she says.

Crossed has since put her energies into fighting for a consistent ethic of life as a founding member and past executive director of Consistent Life, a board member of Feminists for Life of New York, and a founding member and vice president for state chapter development of Democrats for Life.

Activism is the key that unlocks Crossed's Catholic faith. "I don't understand faith without activism. It is a weakness of mine, I know," she says. "That faith is God's love in action is the only way I know faith."

While she applauds the Catholic Church's vision of the dignity of life regarding abortion and war, she says church leaders sometimes fear offending people from the pulpit. It helps when speaking hard truths to recognize that we all have some role in enabling or supporting violence, including paying taxes. "We're all in this together, so we have to be vulnerable together and make one another feel uncomfortable," she says. "And unless the church is doing that, it's not doing its job."

CROSSED'S CONVICTIONS AS A CATHOLIC AND A FEMINIST helped make buying Susan B. Anthony's birthplace an easy decision. "Our foremothers' brand of feminism is prolife to the core," she says. "Buying the house is an opportunity to demonstrate that claim."

Owning the birthplace, which she bought at auction for $164,000, has been somewhat overwhelming, with many exciting ideas to oversee and direct, she says. Committees are studying several concepts for the house, including a home for young women, possibly students, who are pregnant; as a women's studies and retreat center; or for a historical display on textiles and a contemporary women's art and weaving center. Each concept also includes a small museum.

Susan B. Anthony provokes strong feelings in Crossed. "I love her," she says. "She refused to keep her mouth shut and consequently made herself vulnerable. She was not afraid of being hurt for the sake of others."

CAROL CROSSED, ROCHESTER, NEW YORK

CONSISTENT LIFE ACTIVIST, OWNER OF SUSAN B. ANTHONY BIRTHPLACE

DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN ONE SENTENCE: I'm optimistic and happy.

FAVORITE SAINT: Therese of Lisieux.

PARISH: Our Lady Queen of Peace.

FAVORITE FOOD: Mexican.

FAVORITE BOOK: Markings by Dag Hammarskjold.

HOBBIES: Biking, reading, sewing.

A QUIET OR A LOUD PERSON: Quiet--and productive.

"We're all in this together, so we have to be vulnerable together and make one another feel uncomfortable. And unless the church is doing that, it's not doing its job."--Carol Crossed

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