She was once arrested in a 1970s farmworker rights protest, and she works against human trafficking today. Sister of Divine Providence Betty Sundry has been on the forefront of social justice in the Pittsburgh area for decades. In this special episode of SisterStory Presents: Sister Betty shares her life story. It was recorded as part of Standup Sisters, a live event at La Roche College held during National Catholic Sisters Week 2017.
Sister Betty Sundry, CDP
I grew up in small town P.A., USA in Menaka which is about 24, 20 miles north of here. I don't say I had an idyllic childhood but I certainly didn't have...I think I was naive. I believed that everybody had the same type of childhood I have. You know, a two parent home, fighting with your brothers and sisters when you grow up, it's different. But, the thing was, that Pollyannish way of looking at life came abruptly, it was junior high when my best friend came to school one day with a big bruise on her arm and on her face. I thought she had fallen. But she confided in me and told me that when her father was a drunk he came home and he beat her mother and her. I still can feel that shaking inside of me. How can something like that happen? I thought, what do you do about it?
Well I was an avid reader and I remember going home and putting aside my Bobbsey twin books and my Nancy Drew murder mysteries. You know that kind of thing. I started reading the newspaper to find out what was going on in the world magazines that help me find out what was going on.
Few years later, I entered the convent, the Sisters of the Divine Providence, before I graduated from high school. Now they would never take anybody that young today. I guess they learned their lesson from us young ones, not to take them. Not to take them. Well at that time in our history, our ministries were basically teaching school or nursing in hospitals. I taught in a classroom for 17 years, the last three of which were in a very depressed area in Pittsburgh. And I have, in thinking back over that time, I realize that that's when I became an activist you might say. I would go visit legislators with a group about an issue, I would picket, I would march. At that point, I was still in the classroom, but on Saturdays a group of us would go downtown to this very popular fruit and vegetable market and the grape boycott and the iceberg lettuce boycott was in focus at that time for the farm workers of California. So we would go picketing at this place. I have to say, one of those Saturdays we got arrested.
We were in jail for about five hours. And the Lutheran society paid our bail. How about that? Two weeks later, the 14 of us that were arrested that day were acquitted, and the very same day we went back to that market and were picketing. So, when I think about those days I think 'oh my gosh what was I doing'? No. At the end of that school year, with the blessing of my community and my superiors, I started to do full time social justiceish working on issues. Fast forward to today. I am currently the director of social concerns for my community, the Sisters of Divine Providence, I have an office next door. I try to help the sisters to learn about the issues. Possibly if they can't do something; write a letter to a legislator, help make sandwiches peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the homeless. Come with me, we go visit the legislator.
So I got very interested a few years ago in the problem of human trafficking. Human trafficking is something that is unbelievable. There are three illegal moneymakers in the world. The selling of drugs, weapons, and human trafficking. Drugs have always been the most lucrative money maker. Weapons was second and human trafficking was third. Lately I've seen some statistics and human trafficking is rising and so they're surpassing weapons as the most lucrative.
Getting interested in that and people will say well 'how high did they get these people hooked into being trafficked like that'? Well you and I both know that there are many parts of the world that are very, very poor. People live in dire poverty. The traffickers go to these small villages. Philippines, Africa, the East Asian countries and they recruit. And here's how they do it. They look around and see these young girls as young as 9, 10, 11, 14 and they think, they'll go to their parents and say 'I can make your daughter a star'. They give these false promises of course. 'Or I can get her an acting job and she can send money back here'. Well, that sounds very, very good to them. So, they do sometimes hand over some money to the parents and they'll say 'she'll be sending more back'. Sometimes they recruit young boys, I have to say that, but it's mostly young girls. Well, what happens is they are taken from those countries I mentioned. And they're taken to places like Japan, Germany, France, the United States. Now those are the people that come in, crossing borders to come into this country, to come into those countries.
What about the ones, the American citizens, young girls, who are trafficked in this country? Well, we all know that young people liked to troll the malls. They like to go and walk around the malls. And this is one of the common places that human traffickers go to find their prey. They look around at some and they somehow sense the most insecure ones and they kind of cozy up with them, give them all kind of compliments, buy them things. And these insecure kids, no one ever told them they had pretty eyes. No one ever told them that they look nice in yellow or pink or whatever. So they kind of gravitate to this person. And this person, the trafficker, sometimes called the pimps, will lure them into or buy them gifts, buy them jewelry, and convince them that they need to leave the city. Of course they want to be far enough away from that person's parents. So they take him to another city.
This is how they do it with them.
They tell them that they must do what they tell them because they've been so good to them, ' well do me a favor and just spend some time with my friend here'. And of course he gets them more and more. They end up putting them in hotel rooms and they prostitute them. Well, I was determined I was going to do something more than just study about the issue and inform people about it. So what happened was this other sister and myself Dominican sister her name was Sister Joel. We decided we were going to make contact with the managers of the small hotels in Pittsburgh area and ask that manager if we could come and give talks to their hotel housekeeping. And sometimes you got an out right no, but many of them said OK you can come. So we would go and talk to these housekeepers and say look, there are red flags that tell you when something is going on they would shake their heads, they had seen it all. So what happens is the poor girls sometimes are rescued.
That's good. I've been doing this for many many years. Activism. 48. I realize that I have never lost my enthusiasm for doing it. I also know that I don't have the energy I used to have, getting older, but I know that I can encourage young activists to keep to the grindstone.
And so when I can't be there in person, I say to them 'I'm with you in spirit,' but I still do as much as I am able.
And I thank you.