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Activist Nun Faces New Challenge in Nicaragua : Director Leaves House of Ruth to 'Confront Injustice' in Central America

September 10, 1986|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

When Judy Vaughan entered the convent straight out of high school in 1963 her father made a comment that she took to be an admonition, she recalled recently:

" 'I hope you're not entering religious life because you see it as a safe vocation,' he said to me. Now he says he wonders why he said it."

As well he might.

As she has interpreted and lived her vocation, it has gotten Sister Judith Vaughan, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, into frequent trouble.

Year in Nicaragua

Right now she is facing a future, where perhaps the only certainty is that trouble will not be behind her. She is about to spend a year in Nicaragua and it was on the eve of her departure that she found herself talking about the irony in her father's remark.

"There's a freedom in religious life that allows you to confront injustice. We have nothing to lose. We know in the end what's important is what we can do to bring about the vision Jesus had. The safety . . . is in coming to understand the commitment, which frees you to do what others might find daring."

For example:

She has been arrested "nine or 10 times" for acts of civil disobedience regarding U.S. immigration policies, particularly as applied to Central Americans.

She incurred the wrath of the Vatican in 1984 by signing an ad, along with 96 other Catholics, among them 23 other nuns, saying that there was a diversity of opinion among Catholics on the subject of abortion. The Vatican's Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes called it a scandal and an act of defiance demonstrating a serious lack of "religious submission of will and mind." The Vatican threatened her and the other nuns with expulsion from their respective religious orders if they did not retract.

Locally, that action brought a directive in 1985 from the Welfare Bureau of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles forbidding social workers in its agencies from referring homeless women to the House of Ruth, the shelter for homeless women that Vaughan directed in Boyle Heights.

The matter with the Vatican has been more or less settled through negotiation--with her statement that she respected the sanctity of human life. The local dispute has been put "on hold" by the archdiocese until the new director, Nancy Berlin, has settled in at the House of Ruth. Now in her early 40s, Judy Vaughan, as she usually identifies herself, is moving on.

She left for Central America Sunday, first to study Spanish for several months in Guatemala and then to Jalapa, Nicaragua, on the Honduran border--an area that has seen much contra activity.

"I'm going to be with the people and to do whatever needs to be done at this present time," she said at the House of Ruth several days before her departure. "More important to me is to hear the stories of the people to give me strength to do what I do up here."

Women of Conscience

What she does up here is confront what she sees as injustice to Central Americans and abuses of their human rights by commiting acts of civil disobedience with a loosely connected group called Women of Conscience. She also works with the Women's Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean, which she described as part of a larger international women's front to change U.S. policy.

"I've done a lot of work trying to change U.S. policies and I feel (the situation) is worse off than when I started. So I feel it's a good time to be with the people who are impacted by those policies. The House (of Ruth) has been in good shape. I've been with it for four years. I felt it was time to move on."

This is a nun talking, a woman who has taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, who has worn, in fact sewn, a traditional religious habit early on in her vocation, who has taught second- and third-graders in parish schools and loved it. Her roots show even now that Sister is dressed in a raspberry striped skirt, lavender sleeveless blouse and huaraches (not a religious emblem in sight) and talking about getting arrested or disagreeing with ecclesiastical authorities.

She delivers her ideas and recounts her story in the carefully enunciated, clear diction and firmly polite, positive manner of a nun. It would not be surprising to have her come out with the plans for the spelling bee. However, she does not.

Rather, she describes her history as a somewhat socially aware nun, doing a little volunteer work in a soup kitchen in her free time from teaching at Mount St. Mary's College, who received her "first clue" of what lay ahead for her when she went off to the University of Chicago to study for a doctorate in social ethics.

"I said to my colleagues at the religious studies department, 'I think I want to be ordained a priest.' "

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