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Living Their Faith: And Those Who Trespass
Published on Sunday, June 30, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Living Their Faith:
And Those Who Trespass
by Stephanie Salter
 

Given that the guests of honor face federal prison terms for civil disobedience, there was a fair bit of joking last week at a going-away party for Bay Area Roman Catholic priests Louis Vitale and Bill O'Donnell.

"My speech before the judge will be short," said Vitale, a Franciscan friar.

Jesuit Fr. Bill O'Donnell & Martin Sheen
Jesuit Fr. Bill O'Donnell of St.Joseph the Worker in Berkeley with actor Martin Sheen (Photo/National Catholic Reporter Online)
Pointing at his longtime friend, O'Donnell, Vitale feigned fear and repeated the Apostle Peter's denial of Jesus: "I do not know the man!"

About 150 friends and supporters at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley laughed and shook their heads in amusement and affection. By just about any standard, both Vitale, 70, and O'Donnell, 72, are considered near- saints in their activist communities.

Vitale has garnered respect and devotion as pastor of St. Boniface Church in San Francisco's Tenderloin District and through decades of peaceful protest against everything from nuclear weapons labs to the purported drug eradication program, Plan Colombia. Earlier this year he received a Paul VI Teacher of Peace Award from the international pacifist organization, Pax Christi.

An Oakland diocesan priest, O'Donnell has become something of a legend during 30 years of similar peace-and-justice activism at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley and through a drug-and-alcohol rehab center, Options Recovery, that he co-founded with Dr. Davida Coady. He logged his first arrest for civil disobedience alongside Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the 1960s. The count now stands at 224, many with his pal of 20 years, actor Martin Sheen.

If previous cases are any indication, Vitale's and O'Donnell's social works won't impress U.S. District Judge G. Mallon Faircloth next month in Columbus, Ga.

On July 8, both priests will join 35 other defendants in Faircloth's court to be tried for "crossing the line" during a mass demonstration at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation -- better known by its former name, the School of the Americas -- at Fort Benning, Ga.

Louis Vitale
Louis Vitale, O.F.M.
Instructor in Spirituality and Practice of Nonviolence
Despite its dramatic sound, crossing the line means peacefully trespassing onto the Army base. Each November, hundreds of protesters -- who contend that the school trains foreign soldiers in such black arts as assassination and making biological and chemical weapons -- trespass and get themselves arrested.

The following summer, dozens go before Faircloth; most receive maximum six- month sentences.

Among the many people Faircloth sentenced last July to six-month stays in federal prison was an 88-year-old Franciscan nun, Dorothy Hennessey. Three years ago, he slapped consecutive six-month sentences on Charlie Liteky, a Vietnam War hero who won the U.S. Medal of Honor for dragging 27 G.I.'s to safety during a firefight in 1967.

Liteky, a former Catholic priest who lives in San Francisco with his human rights activist wife, Judy, was among the well-wishers at last week's bon voyage party. After he listened to O'Donnell read a speech he plans to give in Faircloth's courtroom, he told the throng: "Say goodbye to Bill now because you're not going to see him for a long time if he reads that statement."

Along with calling the court "a pimp for the Pentagon," O'Donnell will ask Faircloth to sentence him to study at the Fort Benning school so he can "tell the world: indeed the new institute has amended its ways and teaches only nonviolence and democracy to its students."

For all the joshing, Vitale and O'Donnell both know that what's ahead is serious business. Besides his usual pastoral duties, Vitale is in the middle of a multimillion-dollar renovation and earthquake retrofitting of St. Boniface. O'Donnell's Options Recovery center, which primarily serves the East Bay poor, is perpetually in need of funding.

But both men also believe priests can be called to live their faith in ways beyond their pastoral duties.

"I really, actually, did not intend to get arrested at Fort Benning," said Vitale. "But there's something just deep down inside of me that says this is the right thing to do. I'm really glad to have the opportunity to make this witness."

©2002 San Francisco Chronicle

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