Michelle and Rosa from our Washington, D.C.-based Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach met me at the baggage claim area at Atlanta’s air terminal, and together we headed out to “the Vigil”, a gathering of social justice groups demanding the closing of the School of the Americas. The entire weekend was scheduled to be filled with many opportunities to learn and to pray with others, also arriving from around the nation and the world.
We arrived on the outskirts of the town of Columbus, Georgia, Friday afternoon, November 19th, and after splashing some water on our faces at the hotel rooms, we drove over to the convention center on the river than runs alongside the oldest part of this prosperous-looking university settlement. Columban is only about six miles from the gates of Fort Benning, where the School of the Americas—now relabeled the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation.
Fall colors still intensely hemmed us in on our forested highway journey from Atlanta. Tables for registration and imparting information on various causes were only recently set up in the spaciously renovated brick building. A group that works with victims of torture who arrive in the U.S. from all over the world sold tee-shirts at one table, but couldn’t decide on a price for them, and talked easily with myself and another potential customer about what a fair price would be.
After wandering around the large, two-story complex and looking at the scheduled offerings over the next few days (some talks and films were already underway—“SOA Watch Nonviolence Training: Nonviolent Action Preparation,” “Return to El Salvador, narrated by Martin Sheen,”), we decided to grab a supper at a trendy, renovated and cavernous restaurant-cum-food mart where the diner checks off his preferences on a small form, hands it over to the cashier to pay for it, and then walks over with receipt in hand to the kitchen area, picking up his plate of food and sitting at any of the tables on either the ground floor, amid the shelved candy bars and shampoo and such, or on the second-floor landing that wrapped itself around three sides of the large, barnlike structure, ancient fans circulating on the ceiling. Looking up the spacious avenue, the town seemed full of these kinds of extensively renewed structures from the 19th century, and college kids loved them, sitting inside and out and talking away all around us.
We strolled back and briefly met a young Asian woman from Sydney, whom we directed to the registration table on the first floor. The three of us continued on to listen to the two main speakers for the Pax Christi gathering. The assembly room designated for this event was divided from a similarly large seating area by a folding wall—and we took brief, furtive looks inside that session on our way to our intended venue. That other session was an “Inclusive” Catholic Eucharist—concelebrated by “womenpriests”, which I would have attended as an observer if the Pax Christi gathering wasn’t competing with it. I also carried my alb and stole with me in a small bag, not knowing what might come up—but I would have been courting trouble if I had vested for the Mass the women were celebrating. And not from them, probably, but from the Vatican, if word got back to them. Fr. Roy Bourgeois was recently excommunicated for his presence at a women’s ordination ceremony.
Bishop Thomas Gumbleton spoke at the Pax Christi Annual Gathering at the SOA, a reknown figure in matters of justice and peace. Just a year ago he flew to Haiti as soon after the earthquake as he could, pup tent and small bag in hand, and lived among the victims while helping them for a time. He spoke clearly on the basic teachings of the Catholic Church, and went beyond them to basic Gospel values themselves, questioning whether one could really consider any war justified given the deadliness of weapons today, and the terrible cost in human lives.
Jim Albertini received the “Teacher of Peace” award at the gathering, and recalled some of his early experiences of symbolic gestures challenging the military mindset on nuclear war planning. He told of how he lived on the island of Hawai’I, near a military installation—the headquarters for a huge theater of naval operations. He discovered the existence of a special office for the planning of nuclear war while he paged through the local base phone directory one day, and decided to organize a ritual gesture to denounce such an aberration along with two other priests, a couple of religious sisters and a laywoman, who brought her infant child along with her.
When they arrived in two groups at the designated door of the special office, deep within the main building of the base and just down the hall from the high-ranking officer in charge of the installation, they found, to their disconcertment, that the door was locked, and had a combination keypad above the knob, and a buzzer. He tried the buzzer—and it opened! So they immediately went into their planned action.
It was Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of repentance called Lent, and so they took ashes made from burning palm leaves and IRS tax forms together, and the three priests marked the walls of the inside of the large office—filled with people at their desks—with large markings in the form of the cross. Then they held hands and prayed the Our Father. Military police with machine guns came in quickly, and marched them to their detention area.
They took the names of the nine people—including the baby—and stood each one of the adults, one by one, up against the wall with the markings for height for their arrest photographs. True to regulations, they also took a tape measure to the baby!
But one of the priests was the monsignor in charge of Catholic education in the diocese, director of all the schools in the area. The base commandant and other leading military chiefs all had children in Catholic elementary schools, so they decided that it wouldn’t be convenient to hold and process the perpetrators of this symbolic rejection of the violence of nuclear way.
We all laughed at the account. The session closed with a prayer, and during a few minutes of silence people were invited to name aloud “all the many martyrs, wisdom figures, prophets and leaders who have blazed the trail before us.” I spoke the name of Enrique Alvear, the “bishop of the poor” in Chile during the dictatorship who ordained me deacon. Afterwards, a religious sister came up to me—she had been stationed in Arica, the northernmost city of Chile, and recognized Bishop Alvear’s name, so she knew I had been in Chile. We had several friends in common, including Columban priests. It was nice to run into people with similar histories to my own, and similar outlooks regarding war, the military-corporation complicity, dictatorships, torture and Christian responsibilities.
Descriptions of a peace community in Colombia, the victim of so much militarization by U.S. aid to the army and even by the seven U.S. bases established there, followed at another session. Rosa Lee went off to see a documentary on the images sneaked out from Burma during the uprising there in 2007, and Michelle checked out the SOA benefit concert. We called it a day and got back to the hotel by 10 p.m., loaded down with information pamphlets, tee-shirts, Michelle’s Peruvian woolen cap and books.