|Cover story -- School of the Americas|
Issue Date: December 9, 2005
SOA rally expands in issues and numbers
By PATRICK O'NEILL
Before heading out to the annual SOA Watch protest Nov. 20, a group of Loretto sisters squeezed together into Room 243 of the Motel 6 for a Prayer for Peace.
Following a litany, the women, each clad in a green T-shirt identifying their order, prayed: Let us go in peace to the gate of Fort Benning and proclaim Gods jubilee of justice and liberation ...
When the service ended, Sr. Mary Frances Lottes noted the prayers were the same ones they used in 2004. It fits, she said. We havent gone anywhere.
Lottes, 83, had taken a bus with other sisters for the long ride from the Loretto motherhouse in Nerinx, Ky., to Fort Benning to add her voice to the call to close the U.S. Armys Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the School of the Americas. She has been eight times to the annual demonstration against the school for Latin American military, whose graduates have been implicated in human rights abuses in their own countries.
While some things about the annual gathering remain the same year after year -- Sundays powerful mock funeral procession in which hundreds of martyrs names are chanted in a memorial litany or the arrests of those who choose to do civil disobedience and trespass onto Fort Benning property -- it is also clear that the gathering has become a meeting place for activists of all stripes. The event has opened the door for many to other social issues. This year, for instance, opposition to the war in Iraq was a prominent theme, as were issues related to torture and military recruitment. And the crowds keep growing, with a record 19,000 showing up this year.
The Ignatian Family Teach-In, a regular feature of the event, addressed a wide range of issues. Its not just focused on closing the SOA, said Spencer Johnston, a Loyola Marymount student who is program associate for the Ignatian Solidarity Network, the group that organizes the annual teach-in.
Johnstons enthusiasm for the Ignatian Family Teach-In is of the sort college kids usually reserve for athletic events. His exposure to things Jesuit has also been life-altering for Johnston, who grew up in Rocklin, Calif., a tony Sacramento suburb.
Johnsons dual degree is in marketing and theological studies.
Six years ago I never would have considered a career in activism or in the nonprofit sector, Johnston said. Every year I come [to the SOA] Im transformed a little bit more, often against my will.
After a long pause, Johnston continued: Theres no other option. I couldnt not make these choices. If I were to ignore that I would not be living authentically.
Johnston calls the Ignatian Family Teach-In one of my passions.
Its a very life-giving, affirming event, but its not just an event, Its just an indicator of a way of life.
Fr. Robert Uzzilio is part-time on the staff of St. James Parish in Stratford, Conn. Uzzilio says he maintains a tension between his middle-class life in a comfortable community and his worldview.
Living only through American eyes is not really seeing things through the eyes of the Gospel, he said, especially regarding peace and justice issues. Coming to the SOA Watch demonstration is one of the ways of keeping my eyes open, my heart open in terms of compassion, Uzzilio said. I think it keeps me honest.
Martha Yonke, a Stevens Point, Wis., mother of two came to Georgia with a group of students and others from the Newman university parish associated with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
The Catholic church Yonke experienced at the SOA Watch rally is a church of hope ... a place of hope and vision, that things can be different.
Yonke said she brought her two teenage children, John and Alice, to Georgia to help them understand that the church is bigger and broader than our own small community. I wanted my children to see that my church is actively involved in resisting oppression.
Jesuit Fr. George Menke, associate campus minister at Cincinnatis Brebeuf Jesuit Prep, came to Georgia with 22 students and 10 adults.
We strive to let people know the facts as best we can, Menke said. Coming to the demonstration is the best way to teach the students, he said.
Thats the way they learn from the thousands of people that live it, he said.
I believe that the things that we hear [at the protest] are the truth, he said. I dont think I can deny it in any way, shape or form. So if I try to live my Catholic faith here in the United States, which I certainly intend to do, I do whatever I can.
One of the things I think weve learned here is that you take the first step. You do what you can do. As an American, he said, that means voting and trying to get people to understand the issues and to vote.
The wheels of change turn slowly, Menke said, but perhaps not as slowly as we think. If this started with 10 people just 16 years ago and theres 20,000 here this year, thats what gives me hope.
As a member of a religious order of women committed to peace and justice, Lottes, the Loretto nun who rode the bus to Georgia, has a worldview that is probably different from that of most Americans.
Having traveled to Vietnam, Cuba, El Salvador and Honduras, Lottes has learned a lot about the effects of U.S. foreign policy on the poor, she said. She keeps coming back to Fort Benning because Latin American soldiers trained at the school have been implicated in scores of human rights violations and murders back in their native countries.
She also keeps coming back because she wants to see the SOA Watch message grow deeper roots among mainstream Catholics. Lottes said she has noticed a growing number of young people coming each year to Georgia who are committed to working for peace and nonviolence, to getting rid of our wars, our munitions, our violence, our torture. The spirit here is just very special. I find it very stimulating.
Making the leap from American Catholicism to a wider worldview usually requires an intermediary, said Sarah Wannemuehler, principal of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic School in Cary, N.C., a suburb of Raleigh.
This was the first trip to SOA for Wannemuehler, and she wants to tell her eighth-grade theology students all about it. This has been a wonderful learning opportunity, which will turn into a great teaching opportunity, she said.
Wannemuehler said she knows shes fighting ignorance, even her own.
Its been a pretty humbling experience for me to say how much I did not know, how much I needed to know and how much I have to share, she said.
Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, who founded the campaign to close the school, credits the Jesuits for nurturing the message of peace and justice and passing it on to the thousands of students who attend Jesuit high schools and colleges, and who come to Georgia each November.
The annual SOA Watch protest falls on the anniversary of the 1989 massacre in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Twenty-one of the soldiers implicated in the murders had attended the School of the Americas.
At this years annual Ignatian Family Teach-In, all 28 Jesuit colleges and universities were represented. The annual Saturday vigil tent Mass drew an estimated 3,500 worshipers who received Communion from more than 50 eucharistic ministers.
Each year the Jesuit turn out at Fort Benning gets bigger and bigger, Bourgeois said. This is the hope. Thats why I feel a special joy, because theyre starting to take the baton from the older folks. You see what I mean. Theyre the future of the movement.
Dan Moriarty, 34, social justice minister at Seattle University, is a former Maryknoll lay missioner in Bolivia. Forming leaders for social justice is a centerpiece to the mission of our university at Seattle, he said.
The SOA Watch gathering and Ignatian Family Teach-In are a model of the church engaged in the world, he said.
Seattle University graduate Rebecca Saldana, 28, is now a union organizer, but she returned to the SOA Watch gathering with Moriarty.
Being an American is something that I have always struggled with, she said. I think its important that we reclaim what it means to be American.
Seattle University senior Kirby Grey, who was raised Lutheran, said her ministers did not expose her to things like the School of the Americas.
We didnt speak on issues like this, Grey said. We didnt speak on politics. Since coming to Seattle, Ive been able to immerse myself in things like this, and it just has opened my eyes to what our government is doing.
Seattle senior Katrina Hale, 21, is a student campus minister for social justice.
In addition to her political science studies, Hale has looked at Jesus life and what that means for her own faith life.
My call is to live like him and that is a radical, radical calling, especially in these times, Hale said. My calling as a Catholic is to stand up for those who are marginalized to fight for the dignity of every individual.
We are at a critical point. If we dont do anything about U.S. militarism and the way our foreign policy is enforced around the world, I see little hope, because we have a foreign policy of violence. The SOA is a symbol of that.
Patrick ONeill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.
National Catholic Reporter, December 9, 2005
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