Let us lie in wait for the just man, since he annoys us and opposes our way of life, reproaches us for our breach of the law and accuses us of playing false with our upbringing… the paths he treads are unfamiliar…he proclaims the end of the just as happy and boasts of having God as his  father. Let us see if what he says is true.
Wisdom 2.12-17

Crossing the line

This weekend, peace activists will converge on Fort Benning, Georgia, USA, while others will gather in parts of Central and Southern America under the banner of School of the Americas Watch for an annual “crossing of the line”.  Together, and in numbers too big to be ignored, we will take a stand for justice, peace and accountability…  

The story of Fr Ray Bourgeois, from patriot youth and Vietnam soldier to non-violent peace activist, epitomises the possibility of change.

by Vacy Vlazna

American Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois’ life is a story of conversion on a long road to Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. The road from a gung ho patriot serving in Vietnam to the dissident founder of School of Americas Watch witnesses that metanoia can strike the politically conservative with the illumination that ‘the interests of God and country might not be one and the same’. (Roy Bourgeois)

Metanoia is a change of heart; a radical conversion and transformation in which we are rooted in the centre of God’s grace, in the Christ-mind of compassion and justice. Meta means both ‘change’ and ‘beyond’ the noia – the mind. It is a crossing of the line from false upbringing to justice in action.

For some, like St Paul, metanoia is instant; for others, like Roy, it is a gradual radicalisation. 

Roy’s background was from a very conservative, hard-working, working-class family. Public high school. Sports were important. Off to college, at the state university, to study geology, hoping to get rich in the oil fields. I wanted to get rich, you know... The poor, the struggle, solidarity - they weren't a part of my vocabulary. I was a product of my home town, my college, football games. I got out of college, the Vietnam war was on. I was a patriotic young man - "My country needs me!" I became a naval officer... They started asking for volunteers for Vietnam... I wasn't critical. The President, the generals, they know best!

He volunteered for duty in Vietnam in 1965. There, Roy, along with some mates, spent his weekends helping out at an orphanage run by a Redemptorist, Fr Lucien Olivier, who through compassionate example, taught the ebullient Roy sensitivity to the needs of the Vietnamese people and to their culture. While Olivier planted the seed of metanoia, the tragic truth of the war was its germination: "We're going there to kill the communists, man!" Well, what happened was, I saw how these kids were suffering. A lot of their parents were killed with bombs, with napalm. A lot of these kids were wounded by the napalm we dropped...  it became evident that I wasn't called to stay in the military.

On returning home, Roy entered the seminary of the Maryknoll Missionary order while continuing to support the war in Vietnam. Earlier, his youthful patriotism resented the anti-war protests and the threat to the ideological status quo on war and patriotism from the likes of Jesuit, Dan Berrigan, but after a return to Olivier’s orphanage, after the immersion in the Gospel’s call to non-violence, after the My Lai massacre and the acquittal of Lt Calley and Capt Medina, Roy became a committed peace activist. In hindsight, he came to realise that his military training had routinely assaulted the Sermon on the Mount and he eventually turned in his Purple Heart in Washington D.C.

In 1972 Roy was ordained a priest and spent five years working among the poor in La Paz, Bolivia, setting up base communities, a cooperative, health clinic, literacy programmes and ministering to political prisoners and their families. He was arrested and deported as persona non grata for denouncing the US-supported Bolivian dictator General Hugo Banzer, a School of Americas (SOA) graduate. 

In 1980 Roy moved into the St Francis Catholic Worker House in Chicago.

The Catholic Worker commitment to non-violence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken, sustained Roy’s commitment to go on with the work with the poor.

School of Americas Watch: Abide here and watch with me (Matt. 26:38)

After the assassination of El Salvador’s Archbishop Romero and the murder and rape of  four American churchwomen, Jean Donovan, Sr Dorothy Kazel and his friends – Maryknoll Sisters, Maura Clarke  and Ita Ford – by the Salvadoran National Guard, Roy became an outspoken critic of US foreign policy in Latin America.

In 1990, he moved to Fort Benning’s military town of Columbus, Georgia, and rented an apartment (Casa Romero) where the School of Americas Watch (SOA Watch) was founded.  SOA Watch is an organisation resolved to closing, through non-violent action, the School of the Americas, now known as Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation  (WHINSEC);  “The US Army School of Americas  trains Latin American security personnel in combat, counter-insurgency, and counter-narcotics. In 1996 the Pentagon was forced to release training manuals used at the school that advocated torture, extortion and execution.”

Roy comments: Shortly after I got out of prison, the United Nations Truth Commission report on El Salvador was made public... It showed that 73 percent of those cited for human rights abuses in the report were graduates of the SOA.

In the case of the massacre of the six Jesuits, 19 out of 26 were graduates. Archbishop Romero, gunned down at the altar - of the three responsible, two were graduates of the School. The biggest massacre, El Mozote, when 900 men, women, and children killed - of the 12 officers responsible, 10 had trained at the School.

We discovered that it wasn't only El Salvador. We had human rights reports coming out of Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras. …In every case, we could be sure of one thing: that that atrocity, that rape, that torture, was connected to the SOA. We discovered a School of Assassins!

Crossing the line

For his acts of civil disobedience, Roy has endured the strain of an accumulated four years in tough US federal prisons.

Since the first trespass, arrest and imprisonment of Roy, Linda Ventimiglia and Fr Larry Rosebaugh, every November, people far and wide, attend the annual demonstration and the illegal entry, crossing the line, into Fort Benning which incurs prison sentences.

Like the multiplication of loaves and fishes, the courage of the original three to cross the line has multiplied yearly: in 1998,  2319 people crossed the line; in 1999, 4000; in 2000, 3500 and among the 24 selected for prosecution, there were two Franciscan nuns and sisters, Dorothy (88 years old) and Gwen (68) Hennessey. In 2005, 19,000 participated.

On the weekend of November 17-19, 2006, simultaneous demonstrations will take place in Ecuador; El Salvador; Paraguay; Colombia; and at Fort Benning.

Abu Graib and SOA

Two and a half months prior to the US invasion, Roy visited Iraq.

"Because my country is talking about bombing, I felt it was important for me to come here - as a U.S. citizen, as a Catholic priest," he said. "People here have been doing a lot of suffering [from sanctions]. Now they are fearful they will be killed… My coming to Iraq has only confirmed and clarified how important it is for us to close the SOA/WHISEC and change U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.

The sinister link between SOA/WHISEC is made by Argentinean torture survivor, Patricia Isasa:  "When I got the newspaper and saw the pictures of Abu Graib, they looked familiar. It's incredible, but how is it possible that throughout all of Latin America it's the same torture and it's the same in Iraq? It's because the School of America is still here and they haven't changed the manual. They haven't changed their policy."

Critics who call Roy Bourgeois a ‘radical’, in the pejorative sense, could never have had hands on relationships with the poor and oppressed, for it is the Vietnamese orphans, the poor of Bolivia, the murdered Romero and churchwomen, the victims of  the American SOA graduates, who go hand in hand with Roy across the line.

Vacy Vlazna, received her PhD from Macquarie University for her thesis God and the Imagination are One: A study of the Mystic Experience in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. She was convenor of Australia East Timor Association and East Timor Justice Lobby and served in East Timor with UNAMET & UNTAET.  She currently is convenor of Justice For Palestine Matters & Acheh Papua Moluccas Human Rights on Line.

For further information see:

School of Americas Watch http://www.soaw.org/new/

Disturbing the Peace: the Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas by James Hodge and Linda Cooper. Orbis Books. 2004



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