Basic Training: Catholic College Students Get Schooled in Peace and Protest at the Annual School of the Americas Vigil

By Sweas, Megan | U.S. Catholic, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Basic Training: Catholic College Students Get Schooled in Peace and Protest at the Annual School of the Americas Vigil


Sweas, Megan, U.S. Catholic


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"Close it down!" Patrick Eccles, a Loyola University Chicago chaplain, shouted to a group of 50 Loyola students about to embark on a trip to Columbus, Georgia to protest the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA). "Close it down," they replied weakly, seeming unsure of their voices, mission, and comrades.

Three days and 830 miles later, the students stood in a tight circle, arms around each other, waiting to return home. After praying together--for the victims of the SOA, for the efforts to close it, and for the community formed over the weekend--they repeated the call and response. "Close it down!" they yelled unabashedly this time, turning other protesters' heads.

The moment was spontaneous--"a positive way to keep people together" when the bus was late--says Rachel Hart, a chaplain and trip organizer. Yet after a transformative weekend that was part spiritual retreat, part social action, and part community building, it was an appropriate "sending forth."

"There was a community and a spirit of the group that didn't just end in Georgia," Hart says.

History class

Loyola's students were among more than 22,000 protesters gathered at the gates of Fort Benning, where the army school is located, last November, including about 2,000 students from Jesuit and other Catholic schools, parishes, and organizations attending the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, held in conjunction with the vigil.

For young people, the events are not just a weekend away from campus; they are part of their education. They learn about justice issues, are inspired by their faith, and join a movement that is almost as old as they are.

Father Roy Bourgeois, the founder of SOA Watch (SOAW), and nine others first fasted at Fort Benning's gates in 1990 in response to the massacre of six Jesuit priests and two companions at the University of Central America in El Salvador on Nov. 16, 1989. A U.S. congressional task force revealed that most of the killers were trained at the SOA.

Activists say that the school has helped Latin American governments suppress, torture, and massacre the poor and their advocates, including Catholic leaders who promoted liberation theology. SOA training manuals released by the Pentagon in 1996 advocated torture and targeting civilians.

As news of the SOA spread, the movement grew from the Maryknoll priest and his fellow fasters to thousands undertaking acts of civil disobedience and lobbying the government. In December 2000 the SOA closed, but a month later the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) opened in its stead.

According to the school's website, WHINSEC teaches military, law enforcement, and civilian leaders to strengthen democracy and protect human rights. The SOA "fulfilled its cold war-era mission," and WHINSEC addresses 21st-century security challenges, including border conflicts, drug trade and crime, natural disasters, and peacekeeping. While the school cannot guarantee its graduates won't commit crimes, its Board of Visitors, chaired in 2007 by Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, evaluates and approves its operations.

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Still, SOAW says the change was merely "cosmetic" and it continues to protest the SOA, which has also come to stand for "School of Assassins."

"Blessed are the peacemakers," Bourgeois said at the teach-in. "For they shall never be unemployed."

Anti-what?

The site of the protest and vigil, a fenced-off stretch of road leading up to Fort Benning's gates, resembles a fair, with food stands, vendors, and entertainment, with a social justice twist.

As the SOA protest has grown, diverse justice-related movements, Catholic and secular, have attached themselves to it. While proponents of every issue from fair trade to women's ordination have booths, anti-military protesters are the most common. …

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