The people who gathered at the front gate of Fort Benning on Saturday appeared
bound by several common threads -- solidarity with the poor, a search for justice
and respect for creation.
The faith groups represented are vast and varied. Some demonstrators in town this weekend claim no faith. But most do, perhaps because the victims of the violence they decry were people of faith themselves. One of them, Archbishop Oscar Romero, was killed 22 years ago in El Salvador, and protesters who gathered near the gate of Fort Benning hold the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly named the U.S. Army School of the Americas) directly responsible.
Margaret Feit Clarke, of Skokie, Ill., walks toward the gates of Fort Benning
wrapped in a banner displaying the words 'LET US NOT BECOME THE EVIL THAT WE DEPLORE,'
a quote from U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Saturday, Nov. 16, 2002, in Columbus,
Ga. Thousands of protesters attended workshops and religious ceremonies Saturday
prior to Sunday's demonstration against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security
Cooperation, a military school that trains Latin American soldiers at Fort Benning,
superseding the former School of the Americas, which they say is responsible for
human rights abuses in Latin America. (AP Photo/Allen Sullivan)
Protesters say the institute teaches soldiers violent tactics used to maintain power. The institute, located at Fort Benning, has repeatedly denied the charges.
The School of the Americas Watch founder, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, is a priest in the Maryknoll order. SOA Watch supporters include Buddhists, Christians, Jews and pagans. Some are laypeople. Others, like Bourgeois, are ordained.
Many Christian protesters believe Jesus would be in town this weekend if he were still walking the Earth.
"If Jesus was for anything, it was justice and faith," said the Rev. John Quinn of California. "The power of the (Holy) Spirit is at work and alive. It's very much central to why we're here."
About 20 protesters headed toward Fort Benning on foot Saturday afternoon. They spent the past week walking from Atlanta to the protest.
"The walk is our basic practice for our order," said Sister Denise Laffan, a Buddhist nun walking with the group along Veterans Parkway near Victory Drive. The walkers toted banners and drums. Passersby honked their horns and waved.
"We believe it's our work to protect life and honor the sacredness of life. And we speak out against policies that negate that," Laffan said.
On both sides
However, some protesters recognize there are people of faith on both sides of the equation -- people who support the work of the institute as well as people who don't. John Quinn's father, for instance, is a retired general who once served at Fort Benning. Quinn, a Jesuit priest, graduated in 1967 from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic grade school in south Columbus.
"I think there can be Christians on both sides," said Quinn.
The father of Bill Masterson, a Jesuit layman from California, received officer's training at Fort Benning. Quinn and Masterson came to protest the School of the Americas when they met people involved in the movement. Masterson is friends with a man who was imprisoned for illegally crossing onto the post in 1995.
"That whole experience was pivotal. That's how I got involved," said Masterson, here for his sixth protest. "It's how most of us are impacted -- through personal relationships."
Col. Richard Downie, commandant of the institute, is an Episcopalian and a member of St. Thomas Church on Hilton Avenue. He has said the institute offers the most extensive human rights training of any school in the Department of Defense.
Local Catholic priests are on his side. Before the 2001 protest, the Rev. Lawrence Lucree of Our Lady of Lourdes in Columbus sent a letter to Mayor Bobby Peters that distanced the local Catholic churches from the work ofBourgeois. While acknowledging "a Catholic face to the protest," Lucree said Bourgeois is not associated with the Catholic Diocese of Savannah or the local priests.
An Episcopal laywoman in Columbus, Miriam Tidwell, is also a military supporter and has a tent and sign near the protest site on Benning Road. She said Saturday she's showing her support to military personnel and their families.
Tidwell said "faith in God, my country and my family" compel her to offer another voice.
"I'm only here to let the soldiers know we support what they're doing," said Tidwell, a member of Trinity Episcopal Church. "I want them to feel supported in the middle of all this. I say, 'Thank God for Father Roy' because he reminds us to be appreciative of our military."
Yet some protesters here don't understand how people of faith, in good conscience, can further the work of the military through the institute.
"I don't have to live in their skin. I only have to live in mine, but I don't know how they reconcile it -- the senseless killing, that they're doing it in the name of our country," said Rosie Pudish, a Catholic laywoman from upstate New York who's protesting against the institute for the first time.
A priest from her parish, the Rev. Tim Taugher, works with the Diocese of Syracuse's Social Action Ministry. Also a hospital chaplain, Taugher has a ban-and-bar letter from Fort Benning for trespassing during a past protest. If he crosses onto post again, he faces arrest and perhaps fines and a prison sentence.
"The heart of Jesus' spirituality was justice," said Taugher. "Over time I have discovered that the heart of my spirituality should be justice too. Justice is about right relationships -- with God, ourselves, creation. It's a re-ordering of relationships."
Rebecca Kanner, a Jewish woman from Ann Arbor, Mich., recently served six months in an Illinois prison for trespassing onto post. Back this year, Kanner said the Jewish concept of "Tikkan Olam" or "the repair of the world" compels her to act. In her hometown of Cleveland, Kanner also was influenced by a rabbi who was involved in social justice and acts of civil disobedience.
"He made a big impression on me," said Kanner, aligned with both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements of Judaism. Prison changed her life, she said, allowing her to see the need for prison reform. "Now it's important to do the work on the outside," said Kanner. Some protesters are from less mainstream faiths, but they see their presenceas equally influential. One man, 42-year-old Zot Lynn Szurgot from Gainesville, Fla., follows pagan beliefs, which teach a deep respect for all of creation -- primarily four elements, earth, water, air and fire.
"Like so many here, our conscience asks us to act in the name of justice and protecting life," said Szurgot, who's one of nine pagans here from Florida.
The Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, senior minister of the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C., spoke from the stage Saturday urging the group to "continue the struggle."
He said that his faith's emphasis on justice compelled him to travel to Columbus for the first time to support the SOA Watch. "The foundation of the faith is justice and love, and that means neighbor to neighbor. That means not exploiting but respecting others' dignity and worth," said Hagler, one of the few African-Americans at the protest.
A Benedictine Catholic nun in the crowd Saturday was listening to Hagler's speech. Sister Merle Nolde said she was protesting "a system, a school, whose graduates are not only complicit but responsible" for human rights abuses in Latin America. Over her rain gear, Nolde wore a poster-board sign reading "Benedictines for Peace."
"It's important for us to try and change those structures," Nolde said, referring to the institute, the military and the U.S. government in general. "Our foreign policy now looks like we want to bully the world. The gospel I know and follow doesn't allow for that."
Bourgeois, the founder of SOA Watch, has been spreading that message to college and high school students around the country.
"I'm amazed at how sensitive the youth are," said Bourgeois. "They are integrating their faith, the justice and the peacemaking. It's so good to see so many students whose faith is being put to work."
One of those students is 25-year-old Sarah Stafford of Bowling Green University in Ohio.
A member of the pacifist Church of the Brethren, Stafford believes "all war is sin," and the SOA is promoting the war on terrorism.
"It's pretty clear cut to me," Stafford said.
Copyright 2002 Ledger-Enquirer