This November, six of our ten Loretto Volunteers road-tripped from DC and St. Louis to attend the annual School of the Americas Watch Vigil in Ft. Benning, GA. At this annual gathering, people vigil to protest the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC (formerly the School of the Americas) - a military training academy that uses U.S. dollars to train Latin American military leaders. Graduates have gone on to perpetrate some of the worst human rights abuses in the world, including counterinsurgency against people's movements, torture and disappearing of labor activists. Below are reflections from our volunteers who attended.
This time last year I was in Bogotá, Colombia on a service immersion trip with DePaul University ministry. This experience not only opened my eyes to the role of the SOA and the United States in the region’s violent conflict, but also to its various contexts and harmful effects on innocent communities caught in the crossfire. I had the opportunity to engage with families living under the shadow of this violence, many of whom had been displaced and forcefully separated from loved ones. Although the two weeks I spent in Colombia could hardly expose the complexity or entirety of these issues, it challenged me to re-conceptualize my own relationship to Colombia and consider how I can stand in solidarity with the victims and survivors of these atrocities. I cannot attempt to speak for the people of Latin America, but I will continue to speak with them; advocating for peace and for shutting down violent institutions such as the SOA. It was an incredibly powerful experience to be there as a Loretto presence, to stand at the gates of Fort Benning with my fellow volunteers and connect with thousands of other communities advocating for a similar cause. As I solemnly walked away from the cold chain fence packed with crosses attached to thousands of memories, I heard the words of Emma’s Revolution echoing from the stage behind me. “Gonna stop these wars together….gonna keep on moving forward…” My heart is heavy, filled with the memory of all those innocent lives that have been affected by senseless violence. I move forward, however, with a sense of hope that together in solidarity we can recognize the humanity of all and put an end to U.S. militarization of the Americas.
The people on stage began reading names—name after name after name. As “presente” rolled mournfully off the tongues of those ambling through the procession, I found myself lost in my own head. Those names weren’t just words. They were people; people who had been living and breathing; people who had been mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, lovers and fighters. Their lives had been violently taken. And now the only memory of them that remained was their names, those almost arbitrarily assigned pieces of language that distinguish us from one another. This was injustice. This was what was wrong with the world. As my body marched on, saying presente in autopilot, all I could think about was what was my role in all this messiness that we call life. How was I going to work for justice and act for peace? Of course, I reached the procession before I could even begin to fathom an answer. I placed the cross I had been carrying on the fence of the SOA. I felt helpless. This wasn’t justice. This wasn’t solidarity. This wasn’t peace. These were pieces of cheap wood carelessly jammed into the links of a fence. Life could never be reduced to a material. No made thing could ever symbolize, capture, or stabilize the unquantifiable value of a human being.
From the Denny’s parking lot, Columbus, Georgia seemed like an average town. Is it really possible that the notorious School of the Americas is hidden behind suburbs and a college campus?
Unfortunately the SOA is very real and very well hidden. So well hidden that I never even saw the school, but instead a large barbed wire fence with armed men walking nearby. Rundown apartments lined the street filled with protesters. Children from these homes walked the streets trying to sell water to protestors. Their homes looked hardly inhabitable, yet right down the street was a multi-million dollar military complex training future assassins.
All I could think of were the middle school students I work with at Marian. How is it that the government can spend so much money funding future assassins, but not our future leaders? I am ashamed that the government has chosen the interest of corporations over the interest of people in Latin America and the US.
Although I am disappointed I am not discouraged. For as long as we say no, more voices will join, and we will be heard.
Her name was Maria Dolores Amaya Claros and she was 5 years old when she disappeared. As I held an index card with her name on it that a stranger had given to me to leave in the fence, the seriousness of the SOA weekend hit me. It was Sunday, and I held the name of a real child who had disappeared and been killed. A little girl whose family still misses her and the woman she would have become. The day before the protest had been almost like a festival, with tables of information, food stands, and a stage full of singing. However, the atmosphere on Sunday was very somber. During the procession, hundreds of names were spoken over the microphone, while we walked up to the fence of Fort Benning. As I slipped the index card of Maria Dolores in the fence, I was blown away by the cluttered fence that was full of wooden crosses and slips of paper. I stepped away, thankful for the experience that the weekend brought me, and said a prayer for Maria Dolores and all of the disappeared and their families.
At the SOA, many people presented stories of their home county, of violence and bloodshed, and of love. Musicians performed songs of critique, protest, and of hope. The main message of all the presenters was that the SOA had to be closed because of its connections to human rights abuses, its relationship to brutality and continuing impunity, to its dark history and potentially harrowing effects on the future. But underlying this main message laid another: love and incessant hope for change is necessary to fight against the SOA.
The funeral procession on Sunday, November 18th, illuminated this for me as I spoke to a man from Guatemala. We began speaking to each other after I joined him in his solitary response to “we are all America,” “todos somos America.” He asked if I was Latina, if my parents were Latino, where I was born, etc. and he was shocked when I said that I was not of Latin descent. “…Pero todos somos America, todos somos humanos, no?” I asked. To that he chuckled and responded, “si, si. Todos somos hermanos y hermanas bajo la Madre Tierra.”
He told me he was from Guatemala and has been living in the United States for six years. His entire family was disappeared in the 1980s. We discussed the need to recognize a shared human condition and form relationships of equality and solidarity with one another in order to enact lasting change in our society. Through this conversation the love of the other and an unnerving hope for a better future was born in me.
For college freshmen, the initial quest to find one’s niche leads many places. The politically savvy do best in DC, but others fare well, too –cushioned by sizeable activities budgets almost every student finds a lucrative niche to fund their fun.
Hence, when I found myself bundled amid freezing rain at a campsite in Georgia, sleep-deprived and fed largely by rest stop delicacies, it demanded reflection. I mused why this trip to the SOA Vigil was so important. The reasons convinced me to fervently return four more years in pilgrimage to the gates.
This year, I again caught myself forced to decide why attending is important. This time it was not personal discomfort that paused me, it was the Vigil itself. In my first year, crowds neared 20,000 of all stripes, but the event overflowed with Catholics – the Jesuit students, religious communities of sisters, assorted priests, and the rest of us laity.
This year, 2,000 attended -- and Catholic identity deeply waned, giving way to an unclear alliance. From my limited perspective, the Vigil’s moment as a powerful light for justice and witness for peace seemed passing. My thoughts ping-ponged. Anxieties about returning and the movement’s future shared space with uneasiness about the lack of Catholic identity, clarifying a few ideas:
Within me, there is an unwillingness to overlook the people of Latin America whether I return to Fort Benning’s gates or not.
Within me, there is a blossoming willingness to walk aside Dorothy, Ita, Maura, and Jean for the Gospel always.
Within me, there is an unwillingness to cede finality to clerical actions, like the Jesuit’s withdrawal from the Vigil, reacting to “scandalous” woman who assume their rightful place at the altar.
Within me, there is a willingness to co-create a Catholicism broad enough to welcome the full prophetic visions of Monseñor Romero, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, and the Latin American Church that gifts us liberation theology.
So how do I answer the question of why the Vigil is so important now?
Exact answers elude me, but my confirmation into the Church as ‘Romero’ daily compels me joyfully further into this justice niche now. And maybe for now all I am enabled to see is that the Spirit alive in that pilgrimage renews me to go forth and set the world on fire for another year.
And maybe that is enough.
In Their Own Words
We invite you to get to know Loretto Volunteers and the program here. Volunteers introduce themselves and reflect on their experiences.