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Religion class studies problems, joins protests

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
San Francisco

Sixty seasoned activists had already gathered for a protest Nov. 12 in front of the Indonesian Consulate here when a half dozen high school students and their religion teacher showed up to join the action.

The arrival of the students from St. Ignatius College Preparatory School was one of two developments that gave the gathering a new significance. The other, of course, was the news that East Timor's Bishop Carlos Belos, an outspoken advocate for human rights for his people, had been awarded the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.

Three times a year for four years, East Timor Outreach, a tiny group of seasoned social activists, has gathered in relative obscurity in front of the Indonesian Consulate here to protest Indonesia's brutal repression of East Timor, an area the size of Connecticut on the island of Timor, between Indonesia and Australia.

The group includes nuns, priests, ministers, rabbis and lay activists who have supported a variety of social justice causes since the 1960s and who, collectively, have undergone probably hundreds of arrests for acts of civil disobedience.

The infusion of new, young support was an extension of teacher Jim McGarry's classroom. For the past 16 years, McGarry, director of St. Ignatius' religious studies department, has been awakening the social consciences of young people through his classes in morality and social justice and the New Testament.

Like students at other Catholic high schools, they study and discuss religious issues. But it is what they read and write about -- and particularly what they do -- that distinguishes this class.

McGarry's students study the Holocaust. They learn about the injustices and human rights abuses that have taken place in first century Palestine, Nazi Germany, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bosnia, Mexico and East Timor. They write letters to politicians and gather signatures for petitions. And sometimes they take to the streets to protest.

Each Nov. 1, McGarry's class designs an all-school liturgy dedicated to the martyrs of El Salvador, Nicaragua and East Timor. Gospel readings are often dramatized.

This year's Mass included a dance re-enactment of a cemetery massacre in Dili, East Timor.

A few of McGarry's students attend protest actions. Some decide to step across the barriers and get arrested, as Sharon Luk and Liz Lee did last summer.

"We had just gotten home from Guatemala the day before," explained Luk. Deeply affected by the injustices they had seen and heard about there -- issues similar to those now calling attention to East Timor -- the two young women joined a group of adults in a civil disobedience action by trespassing at the Indonesian embassy. They were arrested and quickly released.

Luk and Lee attended the latest East Timor action, but did not get arrested. After participating in a ritual that included an ecumenical Eucharist, the students took colored chalk and began writing names on the sidewalk outside the consulate.

The names are those of the 271 men, women and children gunned down by Indonesian soldiers Nov. 12, 1991, in East Timor's Santa Cruz Cemetery. They were attacked while attending the funeral of a 17-year-old pro-independence activist also killed by police.

Following the ritual, the students returned to school in time for lunch and regular afternoon classes.

McGarry hopes the demonstrations will be the first of many for his students. "What good is it," he asks, "to have an ethic of personal goodness if it isn't adequate to the depths of morality that can deal with its ultimate test?"

In his classes, students grapple with such questions as "What is true righteousness?"

McGarry uses the Holocaust as "a graphic example of Christian failure." After assigning books by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, he points to Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Central America and East Timor as examples of current genocide.

McGarry's gospel class for seniors provides opportunities for peer education. His classes do a sociological comparison of first century Palestine and East Timor. "Both were small nowhere lands occupied by huge empires," he said. After putting the results of their study on posterboard, the seniors present their findings to freshman classes.

Many who have gone through McGarry's classes credit their views of the world and lively social consciences to his challenges.

In many ways, he is just passing on a teacher's favor. He received his first lesson in social awareness, he said, from an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister when he was 12 years old.

"One day Sr. Mary Duana told us she was leaving our class for two weeks so she could march with Dr. [Martin Luther] King in Selma, Alabama. Her example was really a formative experience for me.

"I think kids are predisposed to be outraged by injustice," he said.

"There are a lot of intractable tragedies in the world, but East Timor is a perfect example of a situation that can be changed," he said. "If you give kids an issue that can be solved, they don't become fatalistic."

Indications are that some become deeply involved. Alicia Roca said she participated in a summer internship with the American Civil Liberties Union as a result of McGarry's class. She traveled to southern California and Mexico to study immigration policies.

During her internship, she said, she experienced racism for the first time in her life when people in Los Angeles called her a "wetback."

"Just because I looked different, I was accused of being an illegal," said Roca, who volunteers at the Holocaust Museum in San Francisco and plans to study broadcast journalism.

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 1997