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Prisoners for Change PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 30 November 1999 00:00
As a United Methodist pastor, I visited people in prison and transported mothers to visit prisoner sons, but never did I expect to be in prison myself. Here I am, however, inmate #88116-020 in Alderson Federal Prison in West Virginia. When the court proceedings are done, 25 of us - 13 women and 12 men - will be scattered in jails around the country. We are serving six months each for a non-violent civil disobedience action to close the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Ft. Benning, Georgia.

The SOA, dubbed the "School of Assassins," has trained nearly 60,000 Latin American soldiers in combat skills, psychological operations, and torture techniques. SOA graduates have returned home to murder, rape, and massacre their own people - especially the poor and those like religious leaders who work with the poor.

On November 16, 1997, over 600 people "crossed the line" into Ft. Benning to deliver close to one million signatures calling for this School of Death to be closed. Military police moved quickly to arrest all 601, and we 25 "repeat offenders" were sentenced to the six-month maximum for the criminal trespass charge.

We crossed the line at Ft. Benning in an attempt to be faithful, not in an attempt to get arrested - though we knew arrest and imprisonment were likely consequences. After four months of incarceration, I will say honestly that prison is hard, yet I remain convinced by the advice that I received from a veteran of the Civil Rights movement: "Sometimes going to jail is what you have to do to make change."

Change is what we are about, and the prison witness is a powerful catalyst. Why, people want to know, would Dan and Doris Sage, 70 and 68 year old educators from Syracuse, leave their home, their grandchildren, and each other to go to jail? What made nurse Ann Tiffany risk her license and profession to go to prison? Or Catholic sister Marge Eilerman leave her important pastoral work in rural Kentucky? Or Randy Serraglio from Tucson interrupt graduate studies to do six months in Safford Federal Prison? Why would ordinary people disrupt their lives to make this extra-ordinary witness? And does it matter in the end that they did?

I cannot speak for my 24 friends; they speak eloquently for themselves. But I "crossed the line," risked arrest and imprisonment because I could not not do it. I have organized, lobbied, educated, marched, and fasted to close the School of Assassins - and I will continue to do these things. But I reached a place where I had to do more. I had to put my whole body, my whole self as a witness to expose the horrors of this assassin's School. My conscience demanded it, my faith compelled it, and the people who have suffered deserved at least that.

I have talked with SOA survivors like Rufina Amaya of El Salvador who saw her entire community of 900, including her own children, massacred by Salvadoran soldiers trained at the SOA. I have stayed in Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico and heard stories of how the Guatemalan Army came to burn villages and murder even babies. SOA honoree Gen. Hector Gramajo was the architect of that genocide campaign. I have been to the University of Central America in San Salvador to see the rose garden planted on the spot where six Jesuit priests and their two women coworkers were brutally assassinated by SOA's "finest." The recent sorrowful news of the assassination of human rights champion Bishop Gerardi in Guatemala is yet one more chilling reminder that people in Latin America daily risk their lives - even give their lives - to make a new way. The least I can do is give up a little of my freedom in a small effort to do the same. As Sister Joan Chittister asserts: It is time we quit "the kind of evil that makes us mindless and subservient enough to make conquerors ecstatic and the conquered weep."

I was joy-struck to hear that 1,400 people gathered at the White House in April for the largest-ever Washington, DC vigil against the SOA. A few of us go to jail and hundreds step forward to hold the line. While in prison, I have received well over one thousand letters from people around the country and beyond. The mail comes from high school students, clergy, veterans, nuns, teachers, and others. They have been moved - shaken in some cases - into action by the prison witness of the SOA-25. It is a grace-filled privilege to receive their words of concern and commitment.

For the November 22, 1998 vigil at Ft. Benning, we are calling upon one thousand people to make the "commitment to cross" the line and risk arrest. Many people of faith call this kind of action "Holy Obedience." Whether Holy Obedience or civil disobedience, it is an act of faith grounded in the firm belief that how we live our lives can and does make a difference.


 

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