Nancy O'Donnell di New York

attivista nel difendere i Diritti umani dal proprio vissuto scopre la "vera giustizia".

Nancy O'Donnell from Living City February 2010

Is love strong enough to bring about true justice?

A civil rights activist finds answers and direction for her life

As a child I was a passionate champion for the oppressed. When I was six, some kids from a neighboring block came over and made fun of my girlfriend’s brother, who was deaf and could not speak. I was so incensed that when they came back I got my stick. It was lightweight but gave quite a sting to the legs of those boys. They went running and never came back.

I realize now that both my faith and my sense of justice were fostered in me through the example and belief of my parents. We lived in a small town, but there was nothing “small town” about their mentality. We sometimes disagreed, but thinking critically about the world around me was always encouraged by both of them.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s provided me with the right arena for my campaign for justice. In my freshman year, a group of students were traveling down to Birmingham, Alabama for a protest march following a particularly brutal police attack in which a minister had been killed. Sister De Lellis, dean of students, traveled with me and another student from our college.

The long bus trip was followed by a day of attempted organization with hundreds of young people. There was much confusion over who was in charge or what kind of permit we had. On the day of the march, we were told to stay tightly bound in our group, should the police attack. The rally began, and after a while everything stopped moving. The singing also stopped.

I was toward the back of the march, and at a certain point I turned around and saw a line of police on horseback blocking the road behind us. I began to hear screams coming from the front of the crowd.

The horsemen charged from behind. It happened so fast that I found myself separated from the marchers, with a policeman on horseback right behind me swinging his billy club. Running, I turned to look at him. His face was distorted with anger and hatred. He swung, aiming at my head. I ducked, feeling the club almost part my hair. As he prepared to swing again, someone grabbed me and pulled me back into the crowd, which had begun marching back toward headquarters. He followed alongside for several blocks. It seemed to me that I could feel the horse breathing down my neck, but he did not attempt to strike me again.

As we regrouped, police on motorcycles blocked off the street to keep us from leaving. Sister wanted to go to a nearby convent to receive Communion, and I offered to go with her. It was strange to feel less safe in the white neighborhood than I had in the black one, but entering the little chapel of the convent brought me a moment of peace in the midst of that turmoil.

Later that evening, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived. As his car drove through the crowd, Sister and I got close to the front. Dr. King took my hand and thanked me for coming. I was speechless. The contrast between the love I saw in his eyes and the hatred I had seen earlier that day left an indelible mark on my soul.

It also brought on a crisis within. Was love strong enough to bring about the true justice
I sought?

God’s response came some months later during a retreat at my college, when a Focolare group came to campus in the fall of 1966. I was fascinated by these women and men and especially intrigued when they spoke of Chiara Lubich. A few things remained very clear: we have to love everyone (even that policeman); suffering has value; we need to act, not talk; and we do not need to be many to have Jesus in our midst.

I put into practice what I understood. One day my roommate looked at me and said, “I have a feeling this isn’t going to be just one of your causes.”

I had many plans for my life. After hearing that the greatest need for nurses was in the field of psychiatry, I decided to specialize in this area, and eventually in psychology. I had a boyfriend and hopes of getting married. Where did God fit in? I had basically been saying to God: “If you want to come along while I pursue my goals, fine. Otherwise I’ll just have to leave you behind.” I tried hard to forget the Focolare, and was polite but evasive when they called.

After graduation, I moved to New York City for graduate school. The Focolare community was now close by, and they called almost immediately, inviting me for dinner. I stayed very late, and they offered to drive me home. As we arrived, my roommate was just coming in, drunk. As I looked at her — it could have been me — I felt the painful contrast between my lifestyle and the experience I had had that evening. That night I couldn’t sleep.

I plunged into my studies, my work with a student organization at the U.N. — my causes. Yet I accepted the Focolare’s invitations. I agreed to go to a 5-day summer Mariapolis to help with the children’s program. There, something was stirring inside, and it was getting harder to ignore it.

One day I stayed a little longer in the chapel. I felt as if my soul was being pulled in two opposing directions. In reality, it was my will fighting God’s. On one side there were all my goals in life. On the other, I felt a calling. This time I said “yes” to God. I found myself telling a focolarina that maybe I wanted to be one. She responded by embracing me.

I’ll never forget the joy I experienced at that moment. Everything seemed clear and bright. I knew exactly what to do and where God wanted me. I knew his love could conquer any form of hatred and was the source of true justice.

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