By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
ESTILL — Suffering, starvation and oppression are concepts Father Roy Bourgeois knows well; it is part of his ministry.
The Maryknoll priest sacrifices his freedom for the poor and to see justice for those of his religious brothers and sisters whose peaceful lives ended with violent acts of terrorism.
Father Bourgeois will complete a six-month prison sentence at the Federal Corrections Institute here on Friday, Sept. 18; an incarceration imposed for criminal trespassing that has become part of his ministry of civil disobedience aimed to shut down the U.S. Army School of the Americas based at Fort Benning, Ga.
For a priest who once considered the contemplative life, he describes the nonstop noise and brutal street atmosphere of prison as a sort of psychological torture, but this focused and intense man, is not thinking about his personal experience, he is driven by people in need and the injustices he has seen as a missionary.
In prison green he sits in a visitors room in the “camp” section of FCI Estill. He estimates he has had about 15 interviews from the media since he has been incarcerated and received anywhere from 40 to 100 letters a day about his cause, the School of the Americas Watch.
“This is not about us,” he said. “It is about a school very connected to suffering and death in Latin America. And it is in our own backyard. Our fight is not with Fort Benning, it is with the School of Americas. It trains hundreds of soldiers from Latin America each year in combat skills. It is not a Boy Scout camp. It is all financed from United States taxpayers. We feel, at a time when we are cutting budgets for schools, we should not be training soldiers from Latin America with atrocious human rights records.”
The School of the Americas was moved to Fort Benning in 1984 from Panama where it was created in 1946. The mission statement as stated on the official U.S. Army School of the Americas webpage (http://www.benning.army.mil) states the following: “Our mission is vital to the success of U.S. National Security Objectives in the Hemisphere and the School is a key instrument in preparing Latin American countries to cooperate with United States drug interdiction efforts.” It also includes the statement: “Every student who attends a USARSA course must satisfactorily complete the `core’ block of human rights instruction.”
The approximately 60,000 officers and enlisted men who have attended the school so far have been trained by U.S. personnel on American weaponry. Some notable graduates include Panama’s former president Gen. Manuel Noriega, Bolivia’s retired defense minister Gen. Hugo Suarez, El Salvador’s Roberto D’Aubisson, Guatamalan Gen. Lucas Garcia and Maj. Joseph-Michel Francois, the Haitian chief of police involved in the coup ousting president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Since the release of the United Nations Truth Commission report, in 1993 on atrocities in El Salvador, it has been reported that School of the Americas graduates have been responsible for brutalities including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, shot down while he said mass in 1979, the rape and murder of four American nuns and the murder of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her teen-age daughter, those responsible were trained at the School of Americas.”
“And we want that school shut down,” Father Bourgeois said. This is his fourth imprisonment in that effort. Father Bourgeois has been actively leading the protest against the School of the Americas since 1990. He moved to Columbus, Ga. from Minnesota with the blessings of his community. “The vast majority of our sisters and brothers in Latin America are struggling for survival,” he explained. “It’s a reality where people live in poverty. They don’t have enough food . You see children suffer from malnutrition and die. … in the midst of their suffering we have their soldiers being paid to go to a prestigious school, for them, to learn how to be a commando, learn counter insurgency techniques and psychological warfare. … These soldiers are going back and defending a socio-economic system that keeps the rich rich and the poor poor.”
Father Bourgeois urges that the suffering in Latin America where he said that people are bullied by the military, made political prisoners, or just disappear, must be dealt with as a moral issue.
“Speaking as a Christian, a Catholic priest, and a person of faith, it’s a moral issue,” he said, “not political. It has to be dealt with by people of faith. It involves the suffering and death of our sisters and brothers. I believe we, as Christians, followers of Christ, followers of Jesus, are the ones who should try to implement his footsteps. Jesus was a healer filled with compassion. He wanted to end suffering. He invited us to be peacemakers.”
Father Bourgeois, a Vietnam veteran who went on to become a Maryknoll missionary in Bolivia, returned to the U.S. in 1977 to speak out about Central America. He started this version of his bold peace-making ministry in 1990 after reading about the Jesuit priests who were killed in 1989. He went to Columbus, Ga. with the blessing of his Maryknoll Community in Minnesota. “The congressional task force that investigated the massacre reported that, of the 26 officers responsible for that massacre, 19 were trained at the School of the Americas,” Father Bourgeois said. “When I read that, I felt it was important to go to Fort Benning and investigate what it was all about.”
What he said he found was hundreds of soldiers from Latin American on the firing range from countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Bolivia. “I went back to Minnesota with a gnawing in my gut and a feeling that God wanted me here,” he said.
So began the School of the America’s Watch. In a little apartment outside the gate of Fort Benning, Father Bourgeois, two Dominican priests, a Jesuit priest, a Catholic school teacher, two Salvadorans and three veterans began the litany of protests. They started with a fast, monitored by a doctor, consuming water only, that lasted 37 days outside the gates of the base.
“That is the toughest thing I have ever been through,” Father Bourgeois said. “From the very beginning we said we were not going to damage our bodies because they are sacred. Fasting is a part of our faith tradition. Fasting involves suffering and sacrifice.
Our fast was voluntary and temporary, we were not their to call attention to ourselves. We were there to show support to our sisters and brothers in Latin America, who fast every day, who are on a perpetual fast. It was not about heroics or courage. It was a simple humble act of solidarity with the poor and hungry of Latin America.”
When the United Nations’ Truth Commission reported on School of the Americas graduates’ involvement in El Salvadoran massacres, it listed the officers responsible for some of the atrocities committed. The SOA Watch had a complete list of graduates by that time, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, and compared the names.
Seventy three percent of those officers cited in the report were graduates of the School of the Americas, Father Bourgeois claims. Another sign of hope for the group was the support of Representative Joseph Kennedy D-MA who, after reading a “Newsweek” article about the school proposed an amendment to cut funding. The proposal failed but the margin narrows every year.
Last year, the vote was 210-217 and new bills are pending this year. Opposition to the school has been buoyed with publicly committed support from the Presbyterian Church USA, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Veterans for Peace, United Church of Christ, Methodist Bishops and Grandmothers for Peace.
Protests have been held every year since the SOA Watch was created. In 1990, Father Bourgeois said 25 people showed up, and in 1997, nearly 2,000 people demonstrated at the gates of Ft. Benning bearing crosses and coffins containing petitions with nearly 1 million signatures demanding the school close. Six hundred and one people were arrested last year and the 31 who were involved in previous protests were charged with criminal trespassing. Twenty-five went to prison for six months. That number includes women religious, veterans and parents.
“Civil disobedience is not for everybody but we were called to it,” the priest said. “Paul says it quite well, that faith without action, is dead, lifeless. Having come from Latin America and living with the poor, to go on and speak in churches and colleges, I had to do something more than talk.”
Father Bourgeois was sent to Estill and continues to do more than talk. Upon his arrival he refused a work assignment, as a protest, and was put in solitary confinement.. He spent 38 days in a small, windowless room called “the hole.” He said five rosaries a day, did pushups, read the bible, and books sent to him by the Trappist monks in Conyers, Ga. such as Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.
“I’ve tried to make this sentence a retreat,” he said. “You’ve got to be disciplined or you go into deep depression. It’s hard, let me say, it’s hard. I like solitude but you can overdose on it and go through dark nights of the soul.”
But he gained spiritual insights.
“Dorothy Day said that what is important for us Christians is not to be effective but to be faithful to God who asks us to trust in him,” he said. That thought carried him through.
“Prison is hard,” he said without self-pity. “It is a lonely way of walking in solidarity with the poor but we are calling attention not to us, but to the issue. Suffering in prison is just a place to speak from, the truth cannot be silent.”
When he is released he will go home to visit his family in Lutcher, Louisiana where, in true Southern style, they will celebrate his homecoming with a barbecue. He frets that his incarceration causes his family pain. He looks forward to quiet time because he said the prison is constant with noise.
“I’m living with street guys,” he said. “Gentleness and quiet is not seen as strength.”
He focuses on writing letters every day and keeping in touch with the SOA Watch in Columbus, Ga. and the other office in Washington, D.C.
“Once people know the issue of suffering they come on board,” he said.
When he discusses the protests, the prisoner priest becomes enthusiastic. “We are getting out just in time to organize the protest November 21-22 this year,” he said. “We are expecting 4,000 people. We are asking and will get, at least 1,000 people to cross the line (onto the Army base). We have a number of second-timers who will probably go to prison for six months. … we are not born peacemakers, we have to have someone teach us.”
But, this teacher, once a “Sunday Catholic” who found his way to the priesthood through the faith of the poor, hopes that he and his peers won’t have to go on protesting the School of the Americas. He hopes that the vote to cut funding to the School of Americas will pass this month and he can go back to speaking at churches and schools.
“Congress is getting ready to vote at the end of September,” he said. “Last year the vote was 210-217. If you cut funding to the school, it’s all over. I appeal to people to write their representatives and senators to vote in favor of cutting the funding. I hope we don’t have to protest. We will go away when the school shuts down.”