“Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel…” wrote the Bishops, in 1971, in their synodal document “Justice in the World”. Their message prompted the Sisters of Divine Providence in Melbourne, Kentucky, to want to establish an office for peace and justice in their Community. They selected in 1973 Sister Alice Gerdeman to start it and be its coordinator and thus, indirectly, determined her path ever since.
Born into a Roman Catholic family, Gerdeman was exposed very early on to the Catholic faith. Her parents were devout Christians, and prayer, high moral values, kindness and charity permeated their daily life. She was also introduced since childhood to issues of social justice, her father, a farmer, hiring every year at harvest season, migrant workers for help.
“Texan and Mexican workers will spend few months with us every year,” she says. “My father treated them well, equally and equitably, always concerned for their well-being.”
After grade school, Gerdeman went to boarding school at the Sisters of Divine Providence, and at the end of high school, joined their order. It was a natural progression, one she did neither seek nor question.
“I had a strong consciousness of the presence of God in my life; a kind, generous, and forgiving God, one who is everywhere, who could be felt even if not always understood,” she says. “I was also very drawn to the Eucharist, to the Catholic teachings, to the joy of faith, and to serving the poor.”
After professing vows of a Catholic nun, Gerdeman taught for several years in schools staffed by her religious community and later was appointed principal of a Catholic parochial school. She was asked at the same time to become educated about issues of peace and justice and to inform and involve the Sisters whenever possible. What started initially as a hobby grew progressively more serious as she studied, learned, read, attended workshops about the various issues. One year spent interning at Global Education Associates in New Jersey provided her with the administrative skills and the global vision needed to lead, upon her return, the Community’s peace and justice office. Part of her role was to involve the Sisters to read about the various social justice issues as they presented, ask questions, receive informational material, pray and take a stand. She also catered her work around their various ministries: for teachers, helping them introduce in their teaching curriculum relevant peace educational information; for nurses, opening their eyes on justice issues relating to health; for cooks, on issues pertaining to hunger and to unfair trade practices…Well informed, the sisters often resorted to action, demonstrating, picketing, participating in meetings and discussions… Their focus was initially anti hunger, then anti nuclear because of the proposed Zimmer power plant in Ohio, against the death penalty, for immigrant rights, anti violence and anti war.
In 1992, and after 11 years of working at the Sisters Community office, when the Cincinnati Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center (IJPC) needed a director, Gerdeman applied and was hired. She succeeded Louise Akers, a sister of charity, who with 4 other orders, had founded the Center 5 years earlier. The focus of the work, initially primarily educational and involving mostly women, became progressively more activist and more diverse in its audience. The death penalty having been reinstated in Ohio, working with prisoners on death row and with their families was a priority; IJPC provided education, training and needed support to advocate for loved ones and effect legislation. Immigrants’ rights were also a big concern, a natural extension of the Sanctuary movement of the 80’s which saw the flood of refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador. Promotion of women rights and their empowerment were also at the heart of the daily activities. Other issues were tackled as they became timely and prevalent; they included opposition to wars, food-based boycotts, anti nuclear proliferation… Economic justice, the needs of the poor and the establishing of an equitable society in the sharing of resources and in narrowing the wealth gap were always important considerations; they led for instance to IJPC’s strong involvement in the “Occupy Cincinnati”, triggered by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. A branch of IJPC was also started in Northern Kentucky in order to address specific issues to the area, especially when targeting local politicians and legislation.
Even though the Center was staffed by individuals each in charge of a given issue, Gerdeman remained the moving force behind its operation. She strongly believed in community building and in the power of prayer for effecting a change, strategies IJPC also used in complementing its actions.
“I could not operate without my beliefs,” she says. “God gave me the talents and the ability to be effective in ways I often do not expect. My faith, moral and ethical backgrounds prevent my discouragement and give me strength.”
In this doing, Gerdeman also benefits from the Sisters of Divine Providence, the community of sisters to which she belongs.
“I am blessed to be supported by 100 sisters who share my views and accompany me daily with their prayers. Ours becomes a communal effort, essential for long term effectiveness. IJPC was also a community; we all worked together, cared for each other, nurtured each other.”
For fourteen years Gerdeman also hosted a regular radio show on WVXU then part of Xavier University. Topics pertained to peace and justice, charity and community involvement and featured individuals form the local community who were instrumental in promoting a better world.
When asked about the impact IJPC and her work have had, Gerdeman points out that, partly due to their efforts, people were more aware of justice issues, attitudes were changing, respectful dialogue and peaceful exchanges were promoted, some executions were being stopped…
“We wanted to become smaller than larger,” she says, “to see conditions get better, legislation that has the needs of the poor and working people passed, peace achieved… and, therefore, our work less needed.”
Three years ago, Gerdeman was voted by the members of her congregation as the Provincial leader for all the Sisters of Divine Providence in the United States. She accepted humbly the responsibility and as a result left IJPC. In her new position she tends to the administrative and relational issues that her role demands, making sure that all the needs of her sisters – physical, psychological, social…- are daily met. Passionate about peace and justice, however, she also facilitates her sisters’ engagement in these matters.
“We write cards to prisoners on death row; we take stands as a community in support of immigration and the sanctuary movement, against war and death penalty; we keep an eye on legislation and how to affect it; on how to eliminate poverty in the world… We put out petitions and go to marches…,” Gerdeman says. “Our congregation has a deep commitment to peace and justice, and it is not just me.”
In addition and thanks to her leadership role, Gerdeman belongs to the national “Leadership Conference of Women Religious” an association of the leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States. She serves as the chairperson of its committee “Global Concerns” which has a special focus on peace and justice.
“As a group we try to effect change by working through legislation,” she says, “but also by trying to change attitudes. For instance, we encourage our sisters, and provide them the means to live a contemplative life, letting goodness seek into them and God be present in their spirit, so this will naturally come out when they deal with people, with war, with agression…”
When she thinks of her role, Gerdeman likes to quote the gospel of Luke, 4:18:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”
She is not sure of where life will take her from here and at the end of her mandate as Provincial Superior of the Sisters of Divine Providence. She knows, however, that wherever it is, it would be a place she would suddenly realize she needs to go to and that it would be part of her natural path.
A Christian Text Gerdeman Likes to Quote: “Rejoice in the Lord Always. Again I say Rejoice! Be gentle with everyone for the Lord is near. Don’t worry but place your requests before God with prayers and supplications with thanksgiving and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything we love and honor, and everything you learned to be holy and worthy of praise. Keep doing all these things that you have learned and heard or seen. Then the God of Peace will be with you.” (Philippians, 4:4-9)