When she was 12 years old, Katie Coldwell helped her mom serve dinner at a homeless shelter in Minneapolis and discovered what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
At that time, she couldn’t attach a label to her desire. Ten years later, at the age of 22, she could. Coldwell, Arts ’09, wanted to be a missionary. She discovered what that means behind the walls of one of Brazil’s largest women’s prisons.
Coldwell pulled three discarded pieces of white PVC pipe into a corner of the rock-strewn courtyard in the center of Sant’Ana Women’s Penitentiary in São Paulo, Brazil. She pointed the tips of the pipes end to end to form a triangle that became both a small garden plot and the root of a seedling prison ministry.
In the beginning, she admits, it was nothing more than ugly pipe, and the women who joined Coldwell in the courtyard came for the fresh air, not camaraderie. They were serving time for violent crime. They didn’t want to chat and preferred anonymity. All of which posed a great challenge and the perfect test for this chatty spirit who somehow weaves charm into prickly situations.
“Hi, I’m Katie, I don’t know anything about gardening, but I know this courtyard needs a garden.” Her introduction began to unlock one or two smiles in those stoic faces. “We were in about the fourth or fifth week when I knew this wasn’t about making a beautiful patio or courtyard,” Coldwell says. “It was about letting the women be touched, letting them feel like they weren’t in prison … for just a little while.”
Soon Coldwell warmed their hearts with lemongrass tea steeped from blades pulled out of their own garden and conversation about the families they longed for from inside this brick-walled compound.
What brought Coldwell all the way from her home in Excelsior, Minn., to Brazil really does reach back to that homeless shelter and the moment Coldwell realized that anyone can — at any time — wind up in need of help.
“I got into the car that day and said, ‘Mom, what do I need to do to be able to do this for the rest of my life?’ I remember having that moment and knowing I would study theology and social work,” she says.
Coldwell never deviated from that academic path, and she padded it with honest experience. She grabbed opportunities to do grassroots organizing, such as when she joined a carload of students who were driving to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “That was really formative,” she says. “We went to the school where the entire 9th Ward sat for days waiting to be rescued. We were on the real scene, all the evidence was still there, the chalking on the walls, everything. It was just a really powerful experience.”
She attended Marquette’s South Africa Service Learning Program and worked with the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. “I was the first intern they ever had,” she says with a laugh. “I got to meet Desmond Tutu and people from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. My theology teacher was Bishop Tutu’s personal chaplain,” she says, shaking her head in disbelief. “Could you get more amazing than that?”
She also participated in Campus Ministry’s annual trip to the vigil at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation — formerly the School of the Americas — where a particular priest’s protests caught her eye. “I kept thinking, ‘Who is that crazy priest?’” she remembers.
She learned he was a Maryknoll priest. “I thought, this is interesting, Maryknoll Magazine was always sitting on the back of my grandmother’s toilet when I was growing up.”
Coldwell was drawn to a table with Maryknoll literature. She signed up for a vocation encounter. “It was literally people from all walks of life who are interested in doing missionary work,” she says. “There was a guy who traveled the world with nothing but a backpack, a preschool teacher, a Lexus dealer — all interested in mission.”
She learned about Maryknoll’s lay missionary program the summer before her senior year. She waited the required year before applying. It stands out as a turning point in her life.
Coldwell didn’t anticipate being asked to serve in Brazil. She thought she’d go to El Salvador, learn Spanish, live near the ocean. She loved the history of the vigil. “There is a lot about liberation theology that appeals to me, and I wanted to go live that,” she says.
But Maryknoll Lay Missioners called: “We’d like to invite you to Brazil.”
After a 12-week orientation in New York, Coldwell arrived in São Paulo with every piece of luggage she could forage from home packed with every single possession she owned. “I was 22 and I had dreadlocks,” she says. “I got my passport paperwork and an airport official looked at me and said, ‘I’ve never seen a Catholic missionary with dreadlocks.’ I said, “Here, I am.’”
One of the best things about Maryknoll’s philosophy, according to Coldwell, is it lets missioners choose how they want to do God’s work in the world.
It took Coldwell awhile to find her way. Language was just one barrier in Brazil. The din of São Paulo was another one with 11 million people living in the city and 9 million more crowding into surrounding neighborhoods. Navigating public transportation without speaking Portuguese was challenging. But even after Coldwell conquered the rudiments of the language, she was still a woman without a mission. She spent three months working in a shelter for children and knew that wasn’t what she wanted to do. She taught art and music at a day program for teens and knew that wasn’t her mission.
Then she met Kathy Bond, a Maryknoll lay missioner since 1993 and expatriate American who has lived in Brazil for 20 years. Bond wrote a book about leading women’s groups in talking about health and sexuality. Bond had permission to bring classes on these topics into Prison Capital, a prison for foreign-born women arrested at São Paulo International Airport on suspicion of drug trafficking.
The number of women in prison in São Paulo is large — in May 2014 there were 11,953 women, or 35 percent of the total female prison population in the country, according to Bond. Most of the women are young, 18–30 years old, low income and mothers. “I believe that working on health issues assists participants to increase self-awareness in the areas of gender, integral health and mind-body connection,” Bond says.
When Bond was ready to begin the classes, she asked Coldwell for help. “I jumped on the opportunity,” Coldwell says, “and taught classes for more than two years. What was really powerful about the work is that we had some women who had literally never seen a doctor.”
Coldwell also began working on Projeto Estrangeiros (Foreigners Project), which focuses on preparing the paperwork public defenders need to represent the incarcerated women in court. “It was started on the premise that foreigners don’t get their needs met in prison. We build contacts between the women and their families, make sure their basic rights are observed, make sure embassies know they are there.”
During a Sunday visitation with the São Paulo Prison Pastoral at Sant’Ana Women’s Penitentiary, Coldwell spotted the barren courtyards. “I thought how cool it would be to have a garden there,” she says.
She found a class on urban gardening offered by the city of São Paulo. Applicants were asked to suggest ways to “multiply” the concept of urban gardening in the city. Coldwell and three other women submitted a proposal for a prison garden project. “They loved it,” she says, “and we got 200 plants as a reward.”
The local university, Universidade Federal de São Paulo, was so intrigued by the idea of a prison garden that a professor joined the team. The plants were soon nestled in gardens bounded by PVC pipe and hanging flower pots carved out of plastic soda bottles. “I had these grand plans for it to become this awesome self-sustaining prison garden,” Coldwell admits. But she realized things happen in little steps. First the women started coming outdoors, then they began telling Coldwell their names, then they took on ownership for pulling the garden plots into shape.
“Women were sent to us because they were confused and needed the opportunity to be outdoors. They were dealing with behavior problems, personality problems. The tea hooked them. Some were able to stop taking their meds. Some no longer had anger issues. One was so depressed that the only time she would leave her cell was when we were in the garden. I’d give her a hug and let God do the work.”
In time, the women looked forward to chatting together outdoors. In time, they carried harvests of zucchini, potatoes, lemongrass, flowers and papaya back to their cells.
Coldwell’s four-year commitment with Maryknoll ended in May. She hopes to begin graduate studies next fall. But even from a distance, maybe because of the distance, thoughts about the garden project and the women in Sant’Ana prison never leave her mind. And their letters addressed to “Dear, Katie” keep coming to the Excelsior post office.
Coldwell hopes and prays the garden flourishes. “We go in as a catalyst for change. That’s what being a missionary is about,” she says. But sometimes it’s hard to be home with her own family and realize the women are still in prison, away from their families, sleeping on a cold floor. “I loved visiting with the women and learning about their lives,” she says. “And I loved the way I grew with God, too. One of the Ignatian teachings is about finding God in all things, and, literally, when I got to São Paulo, I thought ‘Holy cow, how am I going to find God in this concrete jungle?’ But part of the reason I became a missionary is because I want to grow in my relationship with God. In Brazil, I grew with God in ways I never imagined.”