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Fighter’s last rites



She equated the freedom to fight the powers that be with the freedom to fight cancer, her husband, Bill, explained. And Sunday, kin, friends and admirers — filling the ground floor of Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit and overflowing onto the balcony — could consider how both quests played out in Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann’s extraordinary life. She died at age 49, on New Year’s Eve, after a seven-year ordeal.

A writer, editor and activist, she was the daughter of a theologian and fell in love with The Chronicles of Narnia as a kid (her childhood copy was at her side as she was cremated). She snubbed President Richard Nixon’s handshake as a teen, and got herself arrested repeatedly in protests as an adult. She was arrested in protests against the city of Detroit’s seizure of property for a General Motors Plant in Poletown; she was arrested protesting at a Walled Lake plant that produces cruise missile engines; and she was arrested (and helped lead hundreds of others to jail) as a co-founder of Readers United, a community group supporting workers during the newspaper strike of the ’90s.

She wrote for the Associated Press briefly, but most of her writing was outside the mainstream: at Metro Times in the paper’s early years, at pre-fame Michael Moore’s Michigan Voice and in small journals like The Witness, a progressive publication rooted in the Episcopal Church, which she served as editor until 1991 and continued to edit into her illness. Along with lawyer George Corsetti, she created Poletown Lives!, an award-winning movie about that battle, and she was the author of Poletown: Community Betrayed, published by University of Illinois Press.

The service, though, was less about accomplishments than about the spirit that drove them. Metro Times co-founder Laura Markham recalled Wylie-Kellermann’s boundless compassion and humor, even interviewing GOP convention delegates. In defending the Wylie-Kellermanns in the cruise missile protest, Sugar Law Center Executive Director Julie Hurwitz said she learned what it is to be “a people’s lawyer.”

Jim Wallis, editor of the magazine Sojourners and one of the most prominent national voices of the Christian left, called her “a formidable woman of faith.” He captured her blending of beliefs and action, explaining that for her, “sometimes the end of a good liturgy was a good arrest.”

Her daughter Lucy performed an interpretive dance, and her daughter Lydia read a poem thanking her mother for showing that death “can indeed be beautiful.” Bill recited the wedding vows they took, following a romance that included being arrested together in the cruise missile protests.

“It’s still my intention to die with my eyes open and my spirit willing. ... But, God, it’s much harder than I imagined,” Wylie-Kellermann wrote in an online journal entry in fall of 1998, not long after being diagnosed with an “extremely aggressive” brain cancer. The journal entries continue for seven years, less and less in her voice, eventually all in the voice of Bill and the girls. Surgeries, hopes, setbacks and small victories were recounted as family and friends learned to interpret the longer and longer silences of a woman who once spoke bountifully.

On Sunday, person after person said they found grace in her life — and in those silences.

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