|| Peace group lauds activists
By ARTHUR JONES
The evening of Nov. 2 began with guitarist Roy Zimmerman singing Phil Ochs-style satirical lyrics about the Bush administration. Guitarist Ross Altman added fuel to the sardonic fire. It ended with actor Martin Sheen, Blase and Theresa Bonpane, and the United Farmworkers Dolores Huerta linking arms with a dozen others -- including Rabbi Leonard Beerman -- in the bima, the sanctuary, of the University Synagogue on Sunset Boulevard, to sing, We Shall Overcome.
None of this is hard to believe about an organization -- the Office of the Americas, often called the OOA -- that has a downtown thrift shop called The Closet Liberal. The organization, founded by the Bonpanes and based in Los Angeles, recently celebrated its 19th anniversary.
But this is not Left Coast radical chic -- this is serious organizing in the interests of nonviolent change sometimes linked to serious jail time. Board member Don White and both Bonpanes were jailed for protests against the first bombings in the 1991 Gulf War.
A war threat later, Office of the Americas has organized since mid-September the ongoing Friday evening peace vigils at Westwood Federal Building to protest administration war aims against Iraq. Mid-October brought members of the Office of the Americas with the Los Angeles-area Interfaith Community United for Justice and Peace to Loyola Marymount University on Los Angeles west side for a peace conference.
For the Oct. 26 antiwar demonstrations in San Francisco -- Blase Bonpane was one of the speakers -- Office of the Americas joined with local lead organizer, ANSWER -- Act Now to Stop the War and End Racism -- to fill the convoy of buses that went up from Los Angeles.
At the synagogue, the Bonpanes, their colleagues and supporters were marking the Office of the Americas 19th anniversary as an outspoken, frequently organizing, deeply involved world peace and justice program that started in the Bonpanes home.
Sheen, who plays President Jed Bartlett in the television program West Wing, was a founding member. He paid rent for the group the first three months when, in 1983, Office of the Americas formally moved into an office. The money came from the check Sheen received for work on a movie of the four U.S. Catholic churchwomen slain in El Salvador in 1980. He called Theresa Bonpane and said, I cant take money for making a movie on these great women, and asked her to name five organizations that could use it.
She included Office of the Americas in the five.
An underrated humanist
Forty years ago, Blase Bonpane was a Maryknoll priest in Central America -- from where he and others were expelled for their involvement in political protests and organizing.
Back in the United States, Blase Bonpane earned a doctorate, and was a UCLA professor when he and Theresa Killeen, who had been a Maryknoll sister in Chile, met and wed. They have two children, Colleen, a medical doctor, and Blase Jr., a musician. (A favorite Bonpane family aphorism is: Dont moan, organize.)
Blase Sr.s UCLA period was short-circuited, he said, when Californias governor at the time, Ronald Reagan, told the regents to oust him for outspokenness. Bonpane has worked as a commentator on Pacifica radio network and for two years in the early 1970s was in La Paz, Calif., as editor of Cesar Chavezs United Farm Workers newspaper, El Macriado. He twice made bids, unsuccessfully, for political office -- as a candidate for the U.S. congress and, later, for the California state assembly.
He returned to teaching, organizing for peace, and protesting. In the late 1980s, the Los Angeles Weekly called him as the most underrated humanist of the past decade.
Today hes Office of the Americas director, a professor of ethics at Los Angeles Harbor College, and a KPFK radio talk-show host. His books include Guerrillas of Peace: On the Air (Red Hen Press, 2000), a collection of his radio commentaries and reports.
The curriculum vitae of Office of the Americas executive director, Theresa Bonpane, almost outpaces her husbands for social issues involvement -- from Spanish-speaking specialist in L.A. public schools, to case worker, to secretary of the East Los Angeles Town Meeting. In addition to teaching educationally disadvantaged adults, she was a full-time volunteer for the United Farm Workers in the early 1970s, later twice department chairperson of English as a second language programs, board member of Women for Legislative Action, and manager of Blases political campaigns.
From the late 1970s for a decade she taught English at Santa Monica College, and is today active in committees that range from the Pico Neighborhood Youth and Family Center to the Free Lori Berenson Committee.
In 1998 she founded the Los Angeles Peace Center Coalition, and in 2001 co-founded the Coalition for World Peace.
It was honors night for 500-plus Office of the Americas anniversary celebration attendees. First honored were Kelly Campbell and Barry Amundsen, sister and brother-in-law of Craig Amundsen, who died in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. The two are founding members of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
Both have visited Afghanistan to commiserate with families there who lost loved ones in the resultant U.S. bombing (NCR, Aug. 2).
Greg Palast, the U.S. journalist who reports for Britains Observer Sunday newspaper and BBC television, was honored for his investigations into the Bush family money trail, the Florida elections irregularities that led to George W. Bush being elected by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Bush administrations quashed investigations of Saudi Arabias financing of terrorist organizations, and influence peddling in British Prime Minister Tony Blairs cabinet by Enron and others U.S. corporations.
(Few revelations could startle this gathering, one at which Blase Bonpane referred to the current head of the U.S. government as the resident in the White House, and acknowledged Martin Sheen as the acting president.)
Acknowledging one of its own, Sheen was the Office of the Americas other honoree. Yet Dolores Huerta, who introduced Sheen, had insights about Sheen fresh even to this audience.
Cesar Chavez, said Huerta, had only three photographs in his office: of Gandhi, of his own mother, Juanita, and of Sheen -- along with a keepsake straw hat birthday present with the tag, To Cesar, from Ramon Estevez (Sheens non-stage name).
Martin, said Huerta, had a spiritual connection with Cesar. When Cesar ended his fast against the use of pesticides, on behalf of farm worker children dying of cancer, it was Martin himself took up the fast to make it a chain fast. He involved his children in the fast.
When we did the 1994 March on Sacramento, she continued, on Holy Thursday, it was Martin Sheen on his knees who washed the feet of the marching farm workers. Sheen and his posse, she said, have been jailed for protests in Central America, for the United Farm Workers and against war. But Martins on probation and cant do anything right now.
Said Sheen, The world is in a much worse condition than when I first became involved in peace and social justice issues. There are infinitely more human beings with a far less certain future. Its a world made mad by the self-inflicted wounds of poverty, environmental disaster and continuous wars and violence.
Future generations deserve an explanation, he said, or at the very least an apology for receiving such a pitiful inheritance. Yet they have no choice but to accept this bitter cup as offered not altered, and the contents are staggering.
Yet what he found truly miraculous, said Sheen, is that in our dysfunctional culture there is no shortage of heroes or martyrs who spring up along the way. And he listed a dozen of them, from well-known Catholic and other political and social leaders to priests and people working for the oppressed, many being jailed for their nonviolent actions. He accepted his award in their names.
The answer to why a cynical culture such as ours motivates so many extraordinary and committed people, said Sheen, is complex in that we are all made so as to naturally seek a transcendence with a power greater than ourselves. And while it may appear our country is running the world, a higher power is actually leading it.
And when we surrender to and rely on that higher power, he said, we have discovered fire for the second time.
This is the fire, said Sheen. With a light that illuminates who we really are, it unites us with all of humanity, and when we commit to healing human suffering wherever we find it, in all its forms, we win our freedom and are made worthy of the long-promised blessings reserved for those who hunger and thirst for peace and justice.
Rabbi Beerman had opened the evenings ceremonies with a prayer for a world of reason and compassion. Courage to those who work to abate lifes miseries and heal its wounds. Those who are comrades in the only battle worth waging -- the battle to create a more humane world.
Sheen, the man who describes himself as a human being first and an actor second, helped close the event by linking arms with those around him, as guitarist Altman struck the opening chords to We Shall Overcome.
Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is email@example.com
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National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002