30th Annual School of the Americas Watch Vigil at Fort Benning, Georgia
By Rev. Deb Hansen
There are many ways spirituality and religion can be put into practice: devotion, prayer, good works, and what I would call sacred activism or non-violent direct action offered from a place of love. The School of the Americas vigil exemplifies the latter.
One quiet Georgia night, 30 years ago, (Vietnam veteran) Father Roy Bourgeois scaled a pinetree. Then, out of the treetops in the darkness came the clear voice of El Salvador’s beloved Archbishop Oscar Romero. Those below the trees immediately recognized that distinctive voice. They were Salvadoran troops training in barracks in that pine forest at Fort Benning, Ga., as a part of the School of the Americas program. Father Roy had pressed play on a boom box tied up in the trees. What emerged was a recording of Romero’s last homily — delivered the day before he was murdered — calling on Salvadoran soldiers to disobey their military commanders, lay down their arms, and stop killing their sisters and brothers. Father Roy and the two other activists with him were sentenced to 15-18 months in jail, but that concrete action of civil disobedience, launched a massive grassroots movement to resist U.S. militarization in Latin America. Thousands of activists have continued to carry forth this struggle, together with activists throughout Latin America.”
The SOA is now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. This year, at long last, I caught a ride on a bus chartered by the UAW to attend the vigil for the first time. The UAW’s Rich Feldman noted, “More than 30 UAW members from the assembly line and machine shops joined in to express outrage towardsthe ‘School of the Assassins’ and the desire for a U.S. foreign policy which respects the dignity, safety and will of community organizers, labor organizers and educators.”
The vigil took place on a Sunday morning. Small white wooden crosses made from paint stirrers were scattered along the median for participants to take and decorate. Many brought painted crosses from home with photos of colleagues and friends who died in violence tied to the Army’s School of the Americas. We all sang the beautiful songs of courage and heart: “No Mas, No More. We must stop this dirty war. Compagneros, compagneras, we cry out. No Mas, No More.” Then after a moment of silence, a female voice began to chant the names of the martyrs, one by one, like pearls on a necklace. After each name, we raised our crosses, bearing witness to the spirit of each individual and affirming “presente.” We began to walk, a solemn funeral procession, as the names continued to be chanted. The list of names seemed endless. A child. A father of seven. A pregnant woman. It went on and on. Crosses, flowers, photos, and other objects were placed on the fence and atop the barbed wire of the military compound. A young man sat in meditation and was soon joined by many others. Their faces showed how deeply moved the participants were.
After the objects were placed on the fence, small containers of bubbles were distributed. A light breeze carried the iridescent globes of hope for a change of heart over and through the fence. The vigil then moved back to the area in front of the stage for a sort of morality play where life was simple and beautiful until dark forces of the love of money, power, and security threatened to destroy culture and life itself. After a “fierce” struggle, life prevailed. We hope the Western Hemisphere Institute will soon be closed forever as we work toward a revolution of values.
As we said good-bye, a helicopter that had been circling the peaceful gathering most of the time, moved directly overhead, buzzing the dispersing crowd for the second time that day. Merchandise and papers were scattered from the display tables. The vendor’s crockery shattered on the pavement. Sand stung our eyes. Someone’s idea of fun? A display of force?
My faith compels me to take the country I love to task, holding her accountable to the high standards of integrity and values she was founded on. I appreciated this opportunity to stand as one with many others in the spirit of peace and justice for all.
Rev. Deb Hansen is an interfaith minister.