Through the 1980s Chris and Bridget Coll lived and worked in a poblacion, a crowded shantytown near the centre of the Chilean capital. They were Franciscan nuns, Missionaries of St Joseph. Their work was to help build authentic Christian community in the shadow of tyranny. “The central idea for us,” says Chris, “was that you can’t separate religion from politics, you can’t go through the motions of Christian piety on Sunday, then ignore poverty, injustice, and oppression the rest of the week. The scripture story that guided our work was the exodus, the long journey by which the enslaved got out from under the yoke of the oppressor.”
The yoke was imposed in September 1973, when the CIA-backed Chilean military overthrew the democratically elected socialist government and murdered its president, Salvador Allende. Since then the dictator Pinochet and his thugs had ruled the country by terror. Thousands of Chileans were imprisoned, tortured, and disappeared. By the early ’80s the “economic miracle,” as it was called in Washington, had taken hold in Chile. As usual with such miracles, the rich got richer and the poor more numerous and hungrier.
By then the oppressor’s yoke, though no less pervasive, had become more subtle. “To an outsider things might have seemed almost normal by then,” says Chris. “The military presence was much less overt. You rarely saw soldiers with machine guns in the streets anymore. The secret police had done their work so well that people had come to police themselves. No one trusted anyone, you could never tell which of your neighbours was a spy. You never asked the last name of anyone you worked with, so that even if you were tortured you couldn’t reveal their identity.” Everyone knew the particular houses in which the torturers plied their trade.
A few blocks away the Franciscan nuns and their allies helped organize food co-ops, community kitchens, and health teams to provide first aid and basic care, also to promote nutrition, better hygienic practices, and birth control. “None of this was charity,” says Chris. “The last thing we wanted was to take more power from people. Our goal was to support them any way we could in defining their own needs and creating their own solutions.”
On days and nights of escalating protest in the later ’80s, the meeting hall at the back of their house turned into a first-aid station where they would patch up the injured. For more serious cases, they knew where to find discreet doctors and nurses willing to help, and to do what they could for victims of torture. Chris and Bridget also joined the growing national movement against torture. Once a month a small group of people would protest outside one of the known torture houses in Santiago. “We’d plan very carefully,” says Chris, “so that we could be there for three minutes, just long enough for it to register that there were people prepared to speak out. Then we’d clear out before the police had time to arrive.”
As the women of the poblacion learned to organize co-ops and run meetings, they began to find their own voices and to talk more openly about their private concerns, which often involved men. “They’d hear the men give speeches about the dictator,” says Chris. “Then these same men would demand to be fed, and sometimes they’d even beat the women. By talking these things out with each other, women started to make connections between the reality of their own lives and the larger picture.” A team of women, natural leaders in the community, led a series of monthly workshops on women’s sexuality, reproductive rights, and violence against women and children. “That was an amazing process to see, how something would suddenly click for women at those workshops. Eventually they came up with a new slogan for the protests: ‘Democracy in the Nation and the Home!’”
With the two nuns living and working together so closely, their relationship had ripened over the years, almost unnoticed in the day-to-day struggle. As they “accompanied cohorts and friends on their journey to liberation,” as Chris puts it, she and Bridget began to question their own situations. “I had recognized and struggled with my sexual orientation since my early twenties,” says Chris, “but I had no experience, I didn’t even have any language to understand or express it.” At retreats with feminist theologians from the United States, she began to acquire the necessary language and to understand more clearly the life implications of being a woman, and a lesbian, in an institution that reviles both.
The only birth-control clinic in the neighbourhood was controlled by the Catholic church. The authorities there refused to distribute condoms and forcibly removed intrauterine birth-control devices from any woman who had managed to get one. Abortions, of course, were anathema. As a result, women stayed away from the clinic, and left their IUDs in place much longer than was safe. Self-abortions were common, often with disastrous outcomes.
“Looking at all of this and at our own relationship,” says Chris, “it was hard for us to see how this could be a whole – or holy – way to live, as we had vowed to do. We knew that if we stayed in the church we would have to remain closeted, which could only become more dishonest and stifling as time went on. We were too much at odds within ourselves, we needed more congruence.” In due course both reached the same conclusion as many of their sisters before and since: the only way they could hope to find that congruence, and wholeness, was to leave the church.