Focus on Faith: Peace activist willing to accept jail time

When Linda LeTendre asks God to forgive her her trespasses, she’s not simply reciting the Lord’s Pra

When Linda LeTendre asks God to forgive her her trespasses, she’s not simply reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

On eight different occasions, in places like the United States Supreme Court, the U.S. Capitol Building, the United Nations and Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate Office, LeTendre has been arrested for illegal trespass. A Burnt Hills native and Saratoga Springs resident, she’s pretty sure the Lord is OK with her criminal record.

“When you read the Gospels, it’s about a call to justice, and standing with the poor and the oppressed and making sure everyone has enough to get by,” said LeTendre. “It’s all about compassion and mercy, and it’s about holding yourself and other people accountable. Without holding people accountable, there is no justice.”

LeTendre calls herself a “Quakelic,” a name she came up with that gives a good indication of her Catholic roots and her love of Quakerism. But she also sings in the choir of the Presbyterian New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs, and volunteers baking bread most every Friday at Temple Sinai, also in Saratoga.

What she is mostly is a peace activist who engages in various forms of civil disobedience against war and the other evils she sees in the world. Don’t, however, call her a protestor.

Being a witness

“I don’t like the word protest,” she said. “I prefer the word witness, because that’s what I’m doing. I tell people when I get arrested that I’m here as a witness for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

LeTendre grew up in Burnt Hills with Catholic parents but never felt totally comfortable in that church.

“I had a problem with them and abortion,” said LeTendre. “If the Catholics had worked as hard against war as they did abortion, I’d be one of their biggest supporters. But they’re OK with war. I wanted to ask them, ‘Aren’t you afraid someone’s going to drop a bomb on a pregnant woman and kill an unborn child?’ ”

When she graduated from Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School in 1974, LeTendre headed north to Potsdam for four more years of education. She not only got a degree in psychology, she also got a new lease on her spiritual life.

“It was a Jewish couple in Potsdam that started me on this path by introducing me to the Quakers,” said LeTendre. “Here was this group saying that God calls on us to care for each other, not kill and maim, and these people were willing to go to jail.”

LeTendre, however, wasn’t done with the Catholics just yet.

“A Catholic friend of mine invited me to a retreat with [Roman Catholic priest and peace activist] Daniel Berrigan, we studied the Book of Amos, and I haven’t been the same since,” said LeTendre. “The book was all about justice and taking care of each other, not blowing everybody up.”

While she still adheres to the peace testimony of the Quakers and is still a member of the Schenectady meeting, LeTendre doesn’t usually attend their Sunday morning services.

“I haven’t been in a couple of years, and I guess it’s because I need a little more Jesus,” she said, “and they tend to be a little too amorphous for me. But, I still call myself a Quaker. They’re very socially active, they were instrumental in setting up the Underground Railroad, the early suffragettes were Quakers, and 150 years before the Emancipation Proclamation the Quakers freed their slaves. They’ve always been at the forefront of putting the Gospel into social practice. It wasn’t just something you did on Sunday. You do it every day.”

LeTendre started her own non-profit agency to work with mentally disabled people, and while that work was especially rewarding to her, she has opted to “semi-retire,” she jokes, so she can “spend more time in jail.” Her activism really took off in January of 2004 after a close friend died of leukemia.

Turning point

“I thought that if we were spending our resources on taking care of each other instead of war, she might still be alive,” said LeTendre. “Her death was the thing that pushed me over the edge, and it wasn’t hard at all. The hard part is knowing I didn’t do it sooner. That’s my only regret. I didn’t start sooner.”

LeTendre is connected with the Saratoga Peace Alliance and Witness Against Torture, the latter currently in the midst of a 100-day vigil against conditions at Guantanamo Bay. LeTendre recently returned from a week-long stint protesting in Lafayette Park across Pennsylvania Avenue from The White House. This time, she didn’t end up in jail, which is a good thing because she’s already serving a term of unsupervised probation from her arrest at the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

“I have a reservation at a time share in D.C., so if I get arrested anywhere I’m back in jail for a month,” said LeTendre. “But I made it clear if we went to war with Iraq or if there was any evidence of election fraud as in the 2000 and 2004 elections, I was going to risk arrest by performing civil resistance. There was no dissuading me on this decision.”

While her husband supports her efforts, he is, as you might expect, quite concerned for LeTendre’s welfare. Her longest stint in jail came after her group interrupted proceedings in the U.S. Senate last year.

“I spent the entire night in jail and part of the next day,” said LeTendre. “That was a tough one, and when I got home and walked into my house my husband didn’t talk to me. I can understand. He was worried.”

LeTendre doesn’t take the arrests personally.

“Father Berrigan said that the first victim of an unjust law is those who have to enforce it,” said LeTendre. “Most of the people, the police and the attorneys and judges are very respectful. Most of them are looking for a reason to let us go. There have only been a few people that were really looking for a fight.”

Not satisfied

Obviously, LeTendre was not a big fan of George Bush, and so far she’s also been a bit disappointed in Barack Obama.

“I had such high hopes, but I think the bloom is off the rose,” she said. “The conditions at Guantanamo are still not up to Geneva Convention standards, the abuses of the Bush Administration are still happening. I’m scared to death of what’s happening and I know this country can do better. My two favorite documents are the Gospels and the U.S. Constitution. If we actually follow them, we’d be OK.”

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