Cover story -- School of the Americas
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Issue Date:  December 9, 2005

SOA rally expands in issues and numbers

Columbus, Ga.

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 God’s 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 haven’t 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. Army’s 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 -- Sunday’s 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. “It’s 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.

Johnston’s 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.

Johnson’s 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] I’m transformed a little bit more, often against my will.”

After a long pause, Johnston continued: “There’s no other option. I couldn’t 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.”

“It’s a very life-giving, affirming event, but it’s not just an event, It’s 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 Cincinnati’s 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.

“That’s 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 don’t 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 we’ve 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 there’s 20,000 here this year, that’s 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 she’s fighting ignorance, even her own.

“It’s 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 year’s 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. That’s why I feel a special joy, because they’re starting to take the baton from the older folks. You see what I mean. They’re 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 it’s 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 didn’t speak on issues like this,” Grey said. “We didn’t speak on politics. Since coming to Seattle, I’ve 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 don’t 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 O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

Memory of women killed in El Salvador lives on

At the conclusion of a mock funeral procession at the Nov. 20 School of the Americas Watch demonstration, Maryknoll Sr. Kathleen Kelly leaned against a wooden police barricade to talk about the death, 25 years ago, of her friend Sr. Maura Clarke, a Maryknoll missionary who was among four U.S. churchwomen who were raped and murdered Dec. 2, 1980, in El Salvador.

A quarter-century after the deaths of Clarke, lay missioner Jean Donovan, Maryknoll Sr. Ita Ford and Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel, the significance of their martyrdom remains palpable among those who knew the women and among the thousands of Catholics whose views were shaken when they found out that U.S. foreign policy backed death squads that killed nuns who worked among El Salvador’s poor.

Three of the five soldiers eventually implicated in those murders were graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Ga., since renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. That’s where thousands of people gathered Nov.19-20 to remember and celebrate the lives of the four women and to protest the school, the war in Iraq and U.S. involvement in torture.

“I think it’s amazing the impact their deaths -- out of death came life -- had on many other religious communities,” said Kelly, whose short curly hair protruded from under her Maryknoll baseball cap. Overseas missions “blossomed” among other religious communities after the women were martyred, said Kelly, who got choked up as she remembered Clarke, with whom she served for 14 years in Nicaragua.

“They were like a seed,” Clarke said. After their deaths, people asked, “Why were they killed?” When the truth came out, the movement against U.S. Latin American policy grew stronger.

At the rally, many carried white wooden crosses bearing the names of the four, and prayer cards with their pictures were distributed by Maryknoll and were later stuck in the Ft. Benning fence as part of a makeshift memorial.

Former Maryknoll missioner Gail Phares, who was a housemate of Clarke’s, squeezed under a fence at Ft. Benning’s south gate into the hands of police, an act of civil disobedience that could land her in federal prison. Phares, 66, who was arrested Nov. 20 with more than 40 others, was released on $1,000 bond after spending a night in the Muscogee County Jail.

A founder of Witness for Peace, Phares is recognized nationally for her human rights work and has led more than 40 delegations of North Americans on fact-finding trips throughout Latin America.

Each time she was asked why she had trespassed onto Ft. Benning, Phares said she told police: “Because they killed my friend Maura Clarke in El Salvador.”

The murders of the four churchwomen galvanized the nation, and led to closer scrutiny of U.S. Latin American policies, Phares said. “Up till that point it was hard for the U.S. people to understand what was happening in El Salvador,” said Phares, who served with Clarke in Siuna, Nicaragua, from 1963 to 1966. “When they killed these four religious women, people said, ‘Something’s wrong if our government’s supporting people who are raping and killing nuns. Something’s wrong.’ ”

-- Patrick O’Neill

National Catholic Reporter, December 9, 2005

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