From a reflection I posted on Facebook: Our beautiful, beloved friend, Dianna, has gone home to God. Sister Dianna Ortiz, OSU ¡PRESENTE!
Many of you also knew Dianna and are mourning with us. Many more of you may have known of Dianna, as I did for over 20 years, through her public witness as the survivor of a horrific kidnapping and torture by the Guatemalan military. She lived through unfathomable violence and responded with awe-inspiring grace, courage, strength, and compassion. You can read all about that elsewhere. But our family had the unique privilege of becoming Dianna's friends at the culmination of decades of hard work putting together the shattered pieces of her life, and living into her fullest self in new ways.
Before getting to know Dianna in 2019, I had met her once or twice over the years, very briefly. I must confess, I was somewhat afraid – not of her, of course, but of her pain. There was a depth to it that was palpable. I couldn’t tell how much I projected onto her and how much she actually projected herself, but I sensed a fragility and trauma I felt unprepared to confront, and a kind of holy gravity of which I suppose I felt unworthy. When I moved to Washington, DC two years ago and I was offered the chance to live at Assisi Community, I was both honored and a bit apprehensive to know that I would be living in community with Dianna. I could not have imagined what a profound gift and honor it truly would be.
There is something strange about a human rights hero and living saint making you a sandwich. It’s transcendent, but it’s also just a sandwich. Dianna and I forged our friendship in the kitchen and the dining room at Assisi Community. She loved strong coffee and – a proud daughter of New Mexico – spicy food. She was gentle and sweet, she had an almost impish sense of humor and a smile that quickly melted away all of my apprehension. Yes, we talked about her trauma and her work – for justice and human rights, for peace, with torture survivors. We prayed in community. We went to vigils and demonstrations together. Her wisdom and intelligence and experience were all formidable. But when I think of Dianna, I’ll always think first of sharing food and laughs and beauty. Dianna was a symbol and an icon of a lot of Big Issues for a lot of people, and rightly so, but she was also a daughter and a sister and an aunt and a friend. And while her pain and her witness were real, so was her joy. She wore faded jeans and a Janis Joplin t-shirt. She gardened. She enjoyed an occasional beer.
Dianna was the first one to suggest I invite my family to come live at Assisi. I had orginally come alone to look for work and housing before bringing my family to DC from Bolivia. We all ended up joining the community, and Dianna and my wife became fast friends. They did crafts and gardened together. They went to farmers markets and shops together and bought each other little gifts – treats, plants, small decorations. Our two teenage boys love Dianna, too. We invited her along on family outings. Her life in DC had largely revolved around community and work, and she took public transportation, so even in 25+ years here, she hadn’t explored a lot of spots. Twice we went to Old Town Alexandria – she’d never been before. I introduced her to my favorite chili joint, Hard Times Café, and we walked along the waterfront. She loved it. We made plans for an early morning picnic breakfast at a spot our family discovered along the Potomac, but it never happened.
Her illness was shockingly quick. I cannot believe she’s gone. Her passing leaves a huge hole in our lives. But I am also overwhelmed with gratitude for the monumental gift of having walked with her these past two years.
A lot of people will talk, rightly, about Dianna’s resilience. Strength, grace, prophetic witness. She taught and inspired me with all of those. But she also taught me the real meaning of joy. Joy is different from mere happiness. Joy endures. A person can be joyful and still experience sorrow. Joy is a deep reserve. It happens when faith, hope, and love come together. It springs from the place where our lives touch the divine. Joy is cultivated. And Dianna worked hard – systematically, patiently, painstakingly, and yes, with strength, grace, and resilience – to cultivate joy. She never denied or escaped her wounds. Trauma and survivor’s guilt were always there. But she survived them, and showed love to be more powerful than hate, nonviolence stronger than violence, faith greater than despair, by finding and sharing joy. When her long-time friends, Fr. Joe Nangle and Marie Dennis, together blessed her with the sacrament of the sick last weekend, Dianna was at peace. She told them she’d been spending a lot of time with God – and that God is Mercy. Joe said, “We went to minister to her, and she ended up ministering to us.” How’s that for sacrament? I can think of no greater testament to God’s mercy than Dianna Ortiz’s joy.
Dianna, thank you for being such a good friend. And for all the chilis. I made the coffee extra strong this morning. You are one now with the God of Resurrection and Joy: pray for us, that in our mourning, we too might find joy.
PS Oh, one other thing I meant to mention: Dianna loved snow. As soon as the temperature dipped below 50 and the first fall cloud appeared in the sky, she anticipated it with childlike excitement. Today, as we woke to the news that she had passed, a beautiful, peaceful, quiet snow fell in big fluffy flakes and blanketed the ground. A hug and a wink on her way past the curtain.