Although Ellene Miller was already a grandmother in 1985, her age did not keep her from following her faith into complicated situations. In June of that year, Broadway Christian Parish in South Bend, Indiana, commissioned Miller, along with thirty others, for an act of civil disobedience.
At the conclusion of the commissioning service, the group read aloud these words:
We understand that times such as these require a new witness, born of renewed spirit. We have felt called to take a new stand, a new obedience. We call upon God and the community for strength and support knowing that we are not alone. We commit ourselves to the witness ahead, praying for courage and faith.
The next day, June 12, 1985, Miller and the others—part of a much larger national movement known as the Pledge of Resistance—entered U.S. Representative John Hiler’s office in South Bend.
Since 1981, the Reagan administration and the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States had been supporting armed groups who opposed Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. In 1984, Congress had approved $24 million in aid to these groups, known as the contras. Increasingly, however, evidence emerged that the U.S.-funded contras were systematically killing, torturing, and kidnapping innocent civilians.
On June 12, 1985—the same day Miller and the others visited Rep. Hiler’s office—Congress was scheduled to vote on sending further money to the contras, this time packaged as “humanitarian aid.”
The South Bend chapter of Pledge of Resistance had repeatedly contacted Rep. Hiler about U.S. aid to the contras, asking him to respond to their request that he vote against sending additional aid to the contras in Nicaragua. But the group never received anything but a form letter in response.
Ellene Miller had never been to Nicaragua, but she was closely connected to the country through her sons’ work with Witness for Peace, an organization that documented human rights abuses there. Miller had also helped to host Central American refugees at her congregation of Hively Mennonite in Elkhart. Hively, along with South Side Fellowship, served as “sanctuary churches” offering safe housing to Central American refugees passing through the area. The stories these refugees had shared with Miller prompted her to action.
“We can spend more time looking into the face of Christ,” wrote Miller, “reflecting on His way of life and what he taught—that He is who He said He is—the One who mandates love of God and neighbor as ourselves. What would happen to the whole issue of war if we took that commandment seriously?”
For Miller, the command to love God and neighbor prompted her and others to stage a peaceful demonstrating in Rep. Hiler’s office, sharing, advocating and singing.
Many of our group had lived in Central America for 5-7 years and others had worked there for months at a time. Stories were shared for 10 hours—stories of torture, funded by our tax monies; stories of pillage and rape; stories of dismemberment of bodies and family members not allowed to bury them. Basta, enough, no more killing.
To offset the heaviness, we sang—how we did sing! It was the most educational seminar I had ever attended. A pastor pled with the congressional aide, ‘Do you hear—can you feel the grief of the people? Will you do something to change policies…?’ Basta, enough, no more!
As the office was closing, Rep. Hiler’s assistant informed the group that they would have to leave or face eviction by the police. The group quietly and firmly refused, since they had still not received a response from Rep. Hiler.
Ellene Miller was the first one arrested.
She and the others were handcuffed, taken to the county jail, fingerprinted, given uniforms, and assigned to the men’s or women’s section of the jail, where they spent the night.
After their arraignment the following day, the group began to prepare for their trial date on October 8. Law professors and students from Notre Dame University assisted them in securing expert witnesses who could testify to the connections between U.S. funding and violence in Nicaragua.
Four days before the trial, however, the group received word that Rep. Hiler had requested that the charges be dropped.
Miller was disappointed; she had hoped the information that had been gathered for the case would make others more aware of the situation in Nicaragua and the involvement of the U.S. “Truth was suppressed. After all the preparation, we had mixed feelings, to say the least.”
In a sermon soon after the cancelled trial date, Miller reflected on her role in the June 12 action: “Why would a mother/grandmother make this decision to be a part of that action? Why would community and church leaders take this risk of faith?”
In response, she appealed to her Anabaptist heritage.
Look again at the Anabaptists of our own heritage who were often accused of being dangerous, radical and irresponsible. Others saw them as beautiful people who did not abuse workmen or family and felt faith was genuine only if it was visible and expressed in action. Their lives of discipleship were reasons for drawing others to their community. We call it evangelism but the living out of those lives were also reasons for persecution. What do we do with our past, our heritage?
Miller saw in the early Anabaptists a model for choosing faithfulness over comfort and non-violent action over passivity. Rather than safely resting in her heritage, she stepped out to join others who shared her convictions, crossing religious boundaries and acting in solidarity with those whose stories of suffering she had heard.
Written by Elizabeth Miller, using the personal archives of Ellene Miller.
Sources: “Pledge of Resistance Commissioning Worship Service,” Broadway Christian Parish, June 11, 1985; Ellene Miller, “Hively Lay Sermon,” October 1985; Catherine Kellenberg, “Protesters at Hiler office concerned about rule of law,” South Bend Tribune Nov 15, 1985; Ellene Miller, “Lay Sermon,” July 6, 2003.