Religion Class Studies Problems, Joins Protests

By Abercrombie, Sharon | National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Religion Class Studies Problems, Joins Protests


Abercrombie, Sharon, National Catholic Reporter


SAN FRANCISCO - Sixty seasoned activists had already gathered for a protest Nov. 12 in front of the Indonsian Consulate here when a half dozen high school students and their religion teacher showed up to join the action.

The arrival of the students from St. Ignatius College Preparatory School was one of two developments that gave the gathering a new significance. The other, of course, was the news that East Timor's Bishop Carlos Belos, an outspoken advocate for human rights for his people, had been awarded the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.

Three times a year for four years, East Timor Outreach, a tiny group of seasoned social activists, has gathered in relative obscurity in front of the Indonesian Consulate here to protest Indonesia's brutal repression of East Timor, an area the size of Connecticut on the island of Timor, between Indonesia and Australia.

The group includes nuns, priests, ministers, rabbis and lay activists who have supported a variety of social justice causes since the 1960s and who, collectively, have undergone probably hundreds of arrests for acts of civil disobedience.

The infusion of new, young support was an extension of teacher Jim McGarry's classroom. For the past 16 years, McGarry, director of St. Ignatius' religious studies department, has been awakening the social consciences of young people through his classes in morality and social justice and the New Testament.

Like students at other Catholic high schools, they study and discuss religious issues. But it is what they read and write about - and particularly what they do - that distinguishes this class.

McGarry's students study the Holocaust. They learn about the injustices and human rights abuses that have taken place in first century Palestine, Nazi Germany, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bosnia, Mexico and East Timor. They write letters to politicians and gather signatures for petitions. And sometimes they take to the streets to protest.

Each Nov. 1, McGarry's class designs an all-school liturgy dedicated to the martyrs of El Salvador, Nicaragua and East Timor. Gospel readings are often dramatized.

This year's Mass included a dance reenactment of a cemetery massacre in Dili, East Timor.

A few of McGarry's students attend protest actions. Some decide to step across the barriers and get arrested, as Sharon Luk and Liz Lee did last summer.

"We had just gotten home from Guatemala the day before," explained Luk. Deeply affected by the injustices they had seen and heard about there - issues similar to those now calling attention to East Timor - the two young women joined a group of adults in a civil disobedience action by trespassing at the Indonesian embassy. They were arrested and quickly released.

Luk and Lee attended the latest East Timor action, but did not get arrested. After participating in a ritual that included an ecumenical Eucharist, the students took colored chalk and began writing names on the sidewalk outside the consulate.

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