A Missionary Spirit
S. Virgine Lawinger is a well-known and tireless advocate for peace. In her 60+ years as a Racine Dominican, she has certainly made an impression on both the religious community and the global community in general. From her local endeavors around the Milwaukee area, to national and international trips and protests, S. Virgine dedicates her life to walking with those in need. But how did she get so involved with this ministry in the first place?
In addition to having an aunt and several cousins who were Racine Dominicans, at seven years of age she moved from her family farm to live with her grandmother in Mineral Point for a year. There at St. Mary's School she met her second grade teacher, S. Eustace, who had a strong missionary spirit. “I was very moved by that,” remembered S. Virgine. “She shared the importance of the way missionaries carry the Gospels to others.”
Before focusing on political action, S. Virgine worked as a teacher and administrator in several schools. St. Benedict the Moor in Milwaukee served primarily black students and families. It was here that she was “awakened to a whole new scene.” Hearing the students’ stories of discrimination, she learned what it meant to be a minority. “Their struggles seemed an extension of the missionary stories of injustice I heard as a child.” In 1968, St. Benedict was transitioning from a diocesan Catholic school to a neighborhood community school. From St. Benedict, Racine Dominicans and laypeople opened Urban Day School, the city’s first truly community-oriented elementary school. The school provided an excellent education for Milwaukee’s urban poor, and popularity increased as parents got more involved. Forty-one years later, the school is still thriving. While working at Urban Day School, S. Virgine realized the injustice and discrimination she saw in the central city were very similar to what she saw throughout the world. Slowly, S. Virgine began to get more involved with groups and causes related to peace and justice.
The first national political movement in which she got involved was protesting the School of the Americas (SOA), located in Fort Benning, Georgia. When she initially learned of it, S. Virgine says it was “an unbelievable awakening.” She learned how the US military trains Latin American soldiers in military techniques which they then use on their own people. Among those targeted by graduates of the School of the Americas are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor in Central and South America. “It was the first time I had heard of the American government encouraging and training foreign forces to use torture techniques. SOA woke me up: I realized I had to be more observant and critical.” In this spirit, she helped organize trips to Fort Benning for protests and lobbied Congress to close the school.
In 2002, S. Virgine left Urban Day School to minister to the people of Iraq who were affected by the Gulf War and UN sanctions. “Few people are aware of the injustice in Iraq – the people there are still desperate,” she declared. “The unbelievably harsh sanctions kept the Iraqi people in poverty. Any Iraqi child born since 1990 has never known a time without sanctions or occupation.” In her first trip overseas, S. Virgine went with a delegation led by Kathy Kelly of 'Voices in the Wilderness' to Iraq in January of 2003 to bring much needed medical supplies and other basic necessities that the people didn’t have access to. “The Iraqi people are so strong and resilient, even in these dire conditions,” recalled S. Virgine. “They kept up their spirits and helped each other to survive.” S. Virgine particularly remembers marching with her delegation through Baghdad on February 15, 2003, a day of international rallies against the imminent war in Iraq: “I remember that as the day the people of the world said ‘No’ to war.” After her month long stay in Iraq, she returned to the United States, hoping to alert people to the Iraqi suffering and try to stop funding for the war. She became part of a strong, national anti-war movement in which the Racine Dominicans are still active.
S. Virgine’s last trip overseas was to Palestine. “Problems in the Middle East are exacerbated by the Israeli occupation of Palestine,” she said. During ten days in October, she and other delegates worked every day in the fields, helping farmers with the olive harvest. Here she saw the unjust domination of the Israeli government as the Palestinians’ homes were destroyed and their land seized for settlements and the dividing Wall being built between Israeli and Palestinian populations. This barrier often makes it difficult for Palestinians to access land, water sources, and medical services. When the group left, the people were grateful to them for their help but, as S. Virgine says, “what needed to happen even more was to change the policies of the US government.” Just like her return from Iraq, S. Virgine was eager to spread the word to people about the injustice in Palestine. Joining the Wisconsin Mideast Congressional Lobby Committee, she endeavors to inform people of the situation through emails and seminars, and to encourage others to demand change from elected officials.
S. Virgine’s work is certainly extensive and in keeping with the message of the Gospels. “I believe this ministry of peace and justice carries out the message of Jesus. His message was one of peace and reconciliation. We have to work together for a world of cooperation and sustainability.” What’s S. Virgine’s advice for other peace activists? “Take the first step for peace and change – educate yourself. Even if you don’t know where the next step will lead, the doors will open and each step will lead to another. Use your gifts and talents to bring about positive change.” Her favorite prayer for guidance comes from a well known hymn: “Here I am, Lord. It is I, Lord. I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart."