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A history woven in her shawl.

It is the terrible truth that women's and children's bodies disproportionately bear the brunt of men's aggression and greed, often suffering at the hands of conquering enemy outsiders but not always. Sometimes they fear the men who love or once loved them. I cannot remove the haunted look from the eyes of gang-raped women and orphaned children I see in photos from Bosnia or Iraq or Darfur or wherever the latest atrocity is taking place. But I can report success stories like the work of Silent Witness, project created by women and artist volunteers in 1990 in Minneapolis to raise awareness of domestic homicide victims and to advocate for better accounting of instances of domestic violence and for its prevention.

The first "silent witnesses" were 27 red, life-sized figures representing each Minnesota woman murdered that year by a man she knew, plus one for the anonymous unsolved cases. Today, because of the tireless efforts of still volunteer-run Silent Witness, in some states and cities court monitoring and prevention and treatment programs are effectively reducing the numbers of domestic violence homicides as well as recidivism. Now with a presence in every state in the United States and 20 other countries, the Silent Witness National Initiative (www.silentwit wants to reduce domestic murders to zero by 2010.

Silent Witness recently held a noteworthy fundraising event: the Sheila Shawl Extravaganza. Named for the late Sheila Wellstone, long an advocate for the victims of domestic violence, it featured 75 exquisite handmade shawls commissioned by benefactors and created by amateur and professional knitters and fiber artists. Many of the shawls were offered at silent and live auction at the Weisman Museum in Minneapolis June 16. Others sold on e-Bay. Proceeds benefited Silent Witness and the Sheila Wellstone Fellowship at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work. Sheila and her husband, U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, died in a plane crash nearly two years ago.

Terry Ruttger of Minneapolis is unlike the women of Sudan or Bosnia or inner city U.S.A., victims not only of violence but of poverty, racism or ethnocentrism. Yet Terry shares with them the cumulative debasing effects of years of being struck down emotionally and verbally. Terry's ex-husband rarely hit her until divorce proceedings began, but his rage and denigrating behavior and words made her life miserable. He threw plates of food on the kitchen floor if he didn't like the dinner she had prepared. He laughed at her dreams of earning a master's degree in theology because he didn't see the earning potential. He once removed their two children from day care without Terry's permission; she didn't know their whereabouts until 11 p.m. that night.

During 10 years of marriage Terry worked to keep her family and her sanity together. She and her husband spent years with counselors and several doctors who diagnosed him with a mental illness for which he refused treatment. Finally, she chose her own spirit over the desire to stay married. One Tuesday in September 1997, Terry put her children on the school bus and began her first full-time job in the six years since she'd become a mother. The next day she filed divorce papers and started graduate school. She reclaimed her birth name. She talked with the priest at her church, who agreed to help her with the annulment process--if she went to confession.

"I said I'd listen to his [confession] first, then he could listen to mine," said Terry, who has since earned a master's degree in theology and a postgraduate certificate in pastoral ministry at the College of St. Catherine and has become a consociate member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ), who run the college. "When will organized religion talk about when it's a sin to stay married?" she asks.

By chance, Terry, who has loved sewing and textiles for years, learned of the Sheila Shawl project and knew immediately that she would make a prayer shawl. Terry's "story shawl" documents her journey from fear, victimization, oppression and loneliness as a woman in an abusive marriage to the risky freedom of her new life and the rediscovery of her creativity and spirituality. Her shawl of embroidered, beaded fabric, inscribed with poetry and symbols, was the centerpiece of the Sheila Shawl exhibit and was chosen to become a permanent installation at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work.

Terry described another prayer shawl she'd made earlier for the CSJ community. "It's about war and peace, and Guadalupe is in it. We need the divine feminine to counteract the warrior male god who is killing us."

Terry's recent work was a figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus, fashioned from a plastic water bottle she spied in the gutter on her morning walk. With beads, fabric, wire and other materials, Terry's Mary is both resilient and beautiful, an "after" from a cast-off "before." Just like the real Mary, whose own body bore the Incarnate Word to the world through the ordinary pain of childbirth and who suffered the grief of watching her son die as an act of capital punishment, a woman's body and her spirit may endure great pain but she also carries within the redemption of the world through her capacity to reweave the world in a universal "yes" of hope and healing.

[Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at]
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Title Annotation:Column; Silent Witness's Sheila Shawl fundraising event
Author:Berggren, Kris
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1U4MN
Date:Sep 10, 2004
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