When Fairhaven professor Shirley Osterhaus grew up as one of ten children in rural Iowa in the 1940s, the sustainability movement wasn't even conceptualized yet. Her family's 180-acre farm, however, used no pesticides, raised their own meat, eggs and grew their own vegetables, she said, as that was the way of the times.
It is from this upbringing, in a large family closely tied to the earth, that Osterhaus said she gained her sense of the deep connection of all things in the cycle of life and her values of doing what is the best for whole community.
“There is death but there is also life, nature tells us over and over again, out of death comes life,” Osterhaus said.
Osterhaus attended Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, Iowa. After graduation she joined a religious community of Franciscansï‚¾more commonly known as Catholic sisters, or nuns. Here, Osterhaus describes living communally and with simplicity by following the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi who, likewise, renounced material goods to dedicate his life to the people.
This was a time of Vatican II which sprung to life during the mid 60s to early 70s. Osterhaus described it as a time of radical change for the Catholic church.
“People united with the goal to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, meaning you challenge the systems and at the same time you comfort those who are being negatively impacted by those systems of injustice, whether it be systems of racism, sexism, classism, militarism, homophobia or any of those systems that hold people down,” Osterhaus said.
It was during this time that Osterhaus's attention was drawn to international causes when she heard that the Archbishop Romero of El Salvador was assassinated while in the middle of mass. Four U.S. church women also were killed while working there. She decided to go to El Salvador and Guatemala to see for herself what was happening with an education delegation through the Chicago Religious Task Force. Osterhaus said that during this time there were many U.S. groups of this nature that would take U.S. citizens down to meet with the leaders and peasants actually living in the country to hear firsthand what was going on in their country.
In El Salvador and Guatemala Osterhaus learned of U.S. involvement in a war led by the El Salvadorian government against the poor and those supporting them in their attempts to create justice. The Vatican II's push for change could be felt in heavily in the El Salvadorian churches. The people used the teachings of the Bible to demand equality and change in governments and those in power became incensed and fearful. At this time peasants, students, labor activists, church members and university professors were being killed as they rallied against unequal land distribution and military repression.
In 1984 Osterhaus was hired by progressive Seattle Archbishop Hunthausen to lead Western's Campus Catholic Ministry. During that time there was a large movement taking place in the churches called the Sanctuary Movement that led the way by finding and providing housing to Central Americans fleeing their countries due to their government's repression. During that time these refugees were not granted political asylum by the United States and would be deported if found with in our borders, although this violated the Geneva Convention, Osterhaus said.
“There were over 400 churches providing this housing during the eighties,” Osterhaus said, “which was in direct defiance of the US government, as it was considered a felony.”
Osterhaus was interested in starting a similar Sanctuary Movement here and in 1985 she started a Sanctuary Education Series at Western to educate the community on the injustices happening in El Salvador and Guatemala. The board didn't support the Sanctuary Movement but the ads for the education series in the local papers soon drew phone calls from missions and homeless shelters in the area. They asked if Osterhaus could help the Central American refugees they were housing flee to Canada, where they would be offered political asylum.
“It just started with one person calling saying we have a person here who wants to go to Canada. It grew very slowly, that's what I like to tell students, it just starts with one little event and you don‘t know where it's going to go,” Osterhaus said. “You just have to follow your heart, follow what's placed right in front of you.”
Osterhaus and a few others formed a group they called Central American Refugee Assistance (CARA) and started the underground railroad network in Bellingham. The refugees, from all their years of avoiding detection from the government, were talented at networking, and word of the group spread.
“Sometimes I would ask them [the refugees] how did you get our name, or how did you find us and they would say, oh well a priest in El Salvador told us, or a group in Arizona gave us your name.”
As the knowledge of the group grew CARA soon learned there were hundreds in need of assistance. CARA would transport the refugees to a unseen spot along the border and instruct them on what to do next. The refugees would walk across into Canada and ask for political asylum. Then they would receive temporary paperwork to stay in the United States until they could be processed. CARA and community members, including students, would house them for six to eight weeks until their processing date. Osterhaus said over a hundred families assisted housing refugees, while others translated, transported, and provided medical assistance. Some of them were very outspoken and would come into classrooms and churches to tell their stories.
“It was incredible the stories that people came with,” Osterhaus said. “Horrific stories of what they went through whether it was torture, disappearance of loved ones, finding heads on fence posts.”
Aiding the Central American refugees inspired Osterhaus to visit other countries. Shortly after the flow of refugees ended in 1995, Osterhaus visited South Africa. At this time apartheid had ended about 10 years prior and the country was just starting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an organization set up by the government to help deal with the contentious effects of apartheid. The mood was tense but hopeful, Osterhaus said.
She also traveled to Cuba, Columbia, Palestine and Israel to learn about similar human rights violations and U.S. involvement in them.
“Justice is the passion of my life,” Osterhaus said. “Wherever I feel like I can do something around situations of injustice, I'm certainly invested in wanting to understand and wanting to know and when I can also act.”
Osterhaus describes her time working with students in the Catholic Campus Ministry as filled with social justice work, whether it be taking them on trips to Mexico or working in town with the homeless.
In 2000 Osterhaus, who was still working as the head of the Catholic Campus Ministry, was fired from her job.
“I was terminated, without any clear or sound reasons. It became more evident that being a social justice educator, activist and woman in the church was too threatening to the conservative male leadership,” Osterhaus said in an email after her interview. “I'm no longer a member of the Franciscan community or the Church anymore.”
Originally Osterhaus was drawn to the Catholic Church in the Seattle area because of Archbishop Hunthausen.
“He was a real hero of mine, he still is,” she said. “He was somebody who really believed in the people and was a man of deep justice. He walked his talk.”
She described him as a progressive leader, who was constantly under critique by the Church in Rome. He welcomed gay members and gave them access to the cathedral for services. Weekly he would travel to Bangor and protest the nuclear submarines docked there, and he protested the militarization of the United States by withholding the 50 percent of his income tax that would go to the military, Osterhaus said.
Around 1996 Hunthausen was pushed out of his position due to his progressive practices, Osterhaus said. Other archbishops, who differed ideologically with Hunthausen, were sent to “help” him, she said. Hunthausen realized that the Church officials were trying to replace him and after three years of ideological head-bashing, he decided to retire early, Osterhaus said. A conservative archbishop Alexander Joseph Brunett, was put into power and three years after his appointment, Osterhaus was told that he wanted to install a priest to her position.
“The amazing thing about Hunthausen was he would never speak evil of a person—he would only speak evil of the systems of oppression,” she said.
Osterhaus's students were angry at the Church's decision to replace her and brought the story to the local press immediately, also giving it to the National Catholic Reporter, an independent paper. The archbishop started to get phone calls from the press which greatly upset the office, Osterhaus said. They told her she had to contact the press and tell them that there was no story, as well as to construct a letter stating the “facts,” sending her a list of reasons for her termination which Osterhaus said were not congruent with what actually happened.
In April, she, with the help of a lawyer, did write a letter, this one refuting their “facts.” Osterhaus was supposed to leave her position in July but once the Church received this letter she was told she had 24 hours to leave her office.
“With my own experience of oppression as a woman in the Church, I have come to see how all systems of oppression are interconnected,” Osterhaus said in an email after her interview. “I've come to realize that when one works to bring justice and human rights in any one situation, it is linked with a much larger web. That's why I strongly encourage students to listen to their passions and get involved in something since it will affect the whole.”
She was hired by Ron Riggins, the dean of Fairhaven in 2001 to start the World Issues Forum, a Fairhaven class open to all students. Originally the class started in response to student questions and concerns in response to the 9/11 attacks but the class has grown each year to include all world issues concerning social justice and media literacy. The class brings in local and international speakers to educate the community on issues of injustice at home and around the world. The forums are held at noon on Wednesdays in the Fairhaven auditorium and are open to the entire community.
Osterhaus' has continued in her dedication to social justice, starting the Whatcom Human Right Task force in 1994 with professor Vernon Johnson and other community members. This group was formed in response to a cross burning at a migrant worker camp in the local area. She has served on the board of the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center and helps facilitate the Whatcom Human Rights Film Festival every year.
“When you do justice work you're in it for the long haul. There are no quick answers,” Osterhaus said.
Next fall she will be teaching a class entitled “The Spirit of Justice,” which will explore the how the spirit of compassion and solidarity are infused with justice work.
A few years ago she purchased her first house which is close enough to Western and downtown so that she can bike and walk for groceries and work. Her backyard, like the farm from her childhood, is full of vegetables grown organically. The front is full of flowers, which she said are there to feed the soul.
“People want to do what's right and good,” she said. “They really do.”