SOA Watch Report:
Thousands gathered at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia, standing up against oppressive U.S. foreign policy and speaking out in defense of real and direct democracy, for life, justice, liberty, dignity and peace. (www.saow.org)
We were at Fort Benning, GA this past weekend. The annual School of the Americas Watch Vigil was inspiring and challenging.
It was inspiring because thousands gather to protest US policies of oppression in Central and South America. It was inspiring because thousands marched in solemn procession chanting “Presente!” as the name of each victim of violence at the hands of graduates of SOA was chanted. Awesome!!!
It was inspiring because many of the thousands were students. I saw students kneeling, praying and crying after they had walked in the procession and placed their commemorative crosses in the fence which was keeping us out of Fort Benning. It was inspiring because a student from St. Louis University told me they would arrive back on campus by chartered bus about 3 AM Monday morning. It was inspiring because these students were so courteous and kind. If they saw us older folk coming toward a door, they would stop going their way in order to hold the door for us. It was inspiring because they put themselves totally into the closing liturgy.
It was challenging because, after so many years, the School of the Assassins continues to operate as evidenced by the graduate leaders of the coup in Honduras. It was challenging because the US and Colombia have entered into an agreement to establish 7 new American bases in that country. It was challenging because, despite the futility of our efforts thus far, we must continue the protest. It was challenging because back home we must now do what we can to raise awareness.
One speaker said that a lot of people are oblivious and neutral when it comes to what is really going on in the world around them. Our challenge is helping them become aware of our collective complicity in the structural violence that pervades the foreign policy of first world countries. I was reminded the other day of the Garden of Gethsemani statues at the Monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani. Beautiful and powerful bronze statues depict the scene at Gethsemani. The apostles are asleep. They are not awake. Jesus is standing, looking upward with his hands covering his anguished face. “My God, my God.” How often we are asleep while Jesus is once again suffering and being crucified!
During the vigil, young white males—someone said one of them wore a “Young Republican” button—came through the crowd passing out fliers chastising us for not having heroes. Their protest signs at the turn unto Fort Benning Road said that we need heroes not “Socialist Protesters.” I confronted one of them and tried to explain we did have heroes—the nonviolent Jesus. He rejoined in Latin with “If you want peace, prepare for war.” I responded, “You will never get true peace at the tip of the sword.” His final killer response was, “Dialogue will never bring about peace.” Stunned, I said, “I guess not if that is your attitude.” I had a real hearty laugh after the Mass on Saturday night, when I saw an elderly gentleman whose lapel sticker said, “Draft Young Republicans.” Yet, in our divided world and country, I am reminded that we must put aside all the rhetoric and divisiveness, we must search for ways to dialogue with staunch opponents of nonviolence.
By a bit of fortuitous serendipity, we ended up going to Columbus on Thursday. We ate supper in a Japanese restaurant near our motel. We met two Sisters of Mercy and their friend who is producing a film on the Sisters of Mercy. They told us about the action scheduled for early Friday morning in rural Lumpkin, GA. We met at the Convention Center and left for what should have been a 40 mile drive to the small town of Lumpkin. Why was the drive much longer? Because we had people with us who had been banned from Fort Benning and the direct route from Columbus to Lumpkin on US 27 goes right through the base and is patrolled by the military police. We went through Alabama and back into Georgia south of the base where a huge paper mill was destroying the environment and turning day into night.
As we drove into Lumpkin we passed the people in the 100 Mile Peace March replete with Buddhist drummers. We began to assemble on the town square. We then had a funeral procession covering the 1.7 miles from the town to the Stewart Detention Center. The center is run by a private contractor—the ubiquitous government contractors (the use of these contractors whittles down big government!)—Corrections Corporation of America. The procession with the drums and chanting commemorated Roberto Martínez Medína who died while incarcerated in this detention center for undocumented immigrants in March 2009. Roberto had complained for days that he was not feeling well. He died of a treatable heart infection.
As I was walking up a long, steep hill, the tape of a hymn written by a classmate of mine, Jack Miffleton, kept playing in my head—“Up to Jerusalem.” Yes, we were marching up to Jerusalem where the detainees in the center were being crucified by unjust and harsh treatment at the hands of local authorities and ICE.
We finally arrived at the center. Close to the closed and guarded gate there is sign for visitors, “You are important to us.” (I bet that the detainees feel anything but important when they are vanned into the compound.) We placed the Medína’s coffin” and candles right in front of the sign. After a few talks and prayer and reflection, we began to sing “Amazing Grace” and walked toward the gate. The gate was closed and four or five men with folded arms and smug, almost defiant stares just stood there. The walk leader tried to shake their hands but to no avail.
This was the last year for the Jesuit Teach In sponsored by the Jesuit Solidarity Network. Jesuit high schools and universities from across the country send student delegations that learn about the issues and participate in the Vigil. We attended their Eucharist on Saturday night. It brought new hope as we worshipped with wonderful young people from across America. The Spirit was present. The homilist reminded us that justice is fidelity to our relationships to God, one another, and creation. We commemorated once again the Jesuit martyrs from El Salvador. The singing was spirited.
We had a really scary moment or two on Sunday morning. On the way to the Vigil, I made a wrong turn. I ended up on Fort Benning roads. I realized I was wearing my red and black close SOA/WHINSEC shirt. I quickly took it off and stuffed it under the seat. Frantically, I searched for a turn around to get us off their road. I doubt they would have accepted my “I made a wrong turn” story if we had been stopped. Whew! Close call!
Today’s reading (Tuesday, November 24, 2009) from the book of Daniel provides a foil for reflection on the Vigil:
In the lifetime of those kings
the God of heaven will set up a kingdom
that shall never be destroyed or delivered up to another people;
rather, it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms
and put an end to them, and it shall stand forever.
In the Gospel from Luke, Jesus reminds us:
While some people were speaking about
how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings,
Jesus said, “All that you see here–
the days will come when there will not be left
a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”
Daniel and Jesus are telling us that a new order is coming. Empires and their temples will be destroyed—rather they, as usual, will self destruct because of the greed and violence inherent in the concept of earthbound empire-kingdoms.
Jesus is NOW ushering in the kin-dom where all are welcome at the table and where full justice will ultimately prevail. In the new order, dialogue will help bring about peace and justice. Faithfulness to relationships will pave the way for the coming of the kin-dom. But the work is ours. We are the hands, feet, ears, eyes, and heart of the nonviolent Jesus.
When empire acts unjustly as a matter of routine operations to secure our comfort at the expense of other people created by God, we must resist. We must stand up and challenge empires that act unjustly by proclaiming the nonviolent Gospel of peace and justice from the rooftops. We must stand up and let it be known that we are all children of one God and that the resources of this universe are for all to share on an equal footing. The young men with the fliers would call this socialism–whatever that is. I call it Christianity.