December 2 marks the 25th anniversary of the martyrdom of four U.S. churchwomen, killed in El Salvador by graduates of the then-known School of the Americas ( SOA). Lay missioner Jean Donovan, and Catholic Sisters Maura Clarke, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel were murdered in the countryside of El Salvador in December 1980, sought out because of their prophetic stance and commitment to accompanying the poor in El Salvador, and challenging the economic and political systems that continued to oppress and victimize the people of El Salvador.
Since 1980, the SOA has changed its name to the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). Its reputation for training soldiers to kill and silence labor organizers, human rights advocates, community leaders, and student activists has not changed, and its graduates’ legacies extend beyond the 1980 murder of the four U.S. churchwomen. Archbishop Oscar Romero, Fr. Rutilio Grande, those murdered at the 1989 massacre at the University of Central America and thousands of innocent civilians have died at the hands of graduates from this U.S. school. Two weeks ago, Colombian troops commanded by SOA graduate General Luis Alfonso Zapata Uribe attacked and killed Arlen Salas David, a leader of the Colombian Peace Community of San José de Apartadó.
But since 1980, the mission and work of the four U.S. churchwomen has carried on, in activists that have put their lives on the line, and indeed, in those who have given their lives working for peace. Their legacy bears fruit in the courageous witness of those who risk everything by speaking out against war, violence and oppression.
These four churchwomen were alive in the work of Rachel Corrie, the volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement in the Occupied Territories who was killed when a Caterpillar bulldozer ran over her as she tried to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home. Rachel’s parents said her death “illustrates dramatically the madness of war.”
The churchwomen were alive in the work of Marla Ruzicka, killed in 2004 by a car bomb blast in Baghdad. Marla co-founded the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), and dedicated her life to innocent Iraqi victims of the U.S.-led war. She persuaded the U.S. to offer $20 million to civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq who were injured by U.S. military operations in those countries by mistake, and after her death Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said, “She was a champion I would follow everywhere.”
And they were alive in the work of Margaret Hassan, who while working as director of Iraq operations for CARE International, was kidnapped and killed in November 2004. Hassan spent 30 years in Iraq, working closely with many Iraqi children to help them access drugs and medical treatment. Kirsten Zaat, who worked for the U.N. mission in Iraq in 2003, said that Margaret’s life “was dedicated to lifting up the downtrodden, to holding out the hand of hope to the destitute, to protecting all human beings wherever she found them.”
The bond that ties these women together was their commitment to stand in radical solidarity with people who were poor and oppressed in their struggles for justice. It’s the same bond shared by the four Christian Peacemaker Team members, kidnapped in Iraq earlier this week. Tom Fox, Norman Kember, James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden dedicated their lives to living alongside Iraqi citizens during the U.S. war and occupation. As the international community comes together to call for their safe release from captivity, their witness is an important example of the radical solidarity practiced by the four churchwomen commemorated this week.
Though December 2 marks a very tragic anniversary, it should also mark a celebration of the spirit that motivated the four U.S. churchwomen, Marla, Rachel, Margaret and the four Christian Peacemaker Team members. Their lives are seeds born into us.
December 2 is a day to remember prophetic witness in our world.
Michael Jones is the communications associate at Pax Christi USA, a national Catholic peace and justice organization. Pax Christi USA is currently participating in a U.S. delegation to El Salvador, sponsored by the SHARE Foundation, to commemorate the martyrdom of the four U.S. churchwomen. Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.