A conscientious choice: Grandmother's arrest is about taking a stand for the poor, oppressed Print
On the day before she was arrested by military police, Val Fillenwarth put on a white T-shirt decorated by the brightly colored handprints of her 17 grandchildren, including the one who had died too soon.

At 64, Fillenwarth thought the shirt was the right one to wear as she joined other women in the group called "1,000 Grandmothers," one part of the 22,000 protesters who had come to Fort Benning, Ga., to demonstrate peacefully against a United States Army school that they believe trains soldiers from Latin America to torture and kill.

The school has been a concern for Fillenwarth's conscience since 1980 when she heard the news that four Catholic women - three religious sisters and a lay missionary - had been murdered in El Salvador, murders that implicated men who had been trained at the school.

In the years since then, Fillenwarth has protested and given talks about the former School of the Americas that is now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Yet, on Nov. 19, 2006, the commitment of Fillenwarth, a member of St. Lawrence Parish in Indianapolis, took an even more personal turn.

As the 22,000 protesters marched in a solemn, funeral-like procession near the gates of Fort Benning, Fillenwarth and 15 others broke ranks from the march. While members of the crowd said aloud the names of Latin American people - many of them poor - who have been killed by soldiers, the 16 protesters walked toward a hole in the fence at Fort Benning.

As they took turns climbing through the hole, they knew they were breaking a law against trespassing on government property. They also knew that people who had been arrested for trespassing at Fort Benning in previous years had received prison sentences ranging from three months to six months. Still, Fillenwarth didn't flinch from her act of civil disobedience as military police officers ran to arrest her and the others.

There was no turning back for Fillenwarth. Her turning point had been reached in August of 2005 when her 17-year-old grandson, Ben Fillenwarth, died in a traffic accident in Indianapolis.

"His death was the final conviction to do it," the grandmother recalled, "because I can see how a death like that affects the family. You think of all the thousands and thousands of families who have lost a child in Latin America because of this school. When a family loses a child, it's never the same again."

While she talked, Fillenwarth sat at the kitchen table of her Indianapolis home, where she and her husband, Ed, reared their seven children and opened their hearts to their 17 grandchildren. As the sun streamed into the house on that winter afternoon, Fillenwarth was just days from returning to Georgia for her Jan. 29 trial on the trespassing charges.

"I'm not scared," she said. "We did a lot of talking to the children and the grandchildren to make sure they've understood it. They've been great.

"The one thing I want to stress is that this protest is not against our troops. It's against the training of military personnel from Latin America. I want our grandchildren to see that we can love our country enough to speak out when we know something is wrong; that dissent is patriotic.

"Also, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we need to do whatever it takes to stick up for the poor. There's this consistent ethic to life - that we need to care for the poor, the oppressed, people who are taken advantage of. To me, that's a very important part of being a Christian. The Catholic Church's teachings call us to work for justice for everyone, that we're all equally precious to God."

The annual November protest and vigil at Fort Benning has Catholic roots. Maryknoll Missionary Father Roy Bourgeois started it in 1990, a year after six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were killed in El Salvador by soldiers, many of whom had been trained at the then-School of the Americas. The school's graduates also included Manuel Noriega of Panama and Roberto D' Aubuisson of El Salvador, two leaders whose regimes were marked by violence, terror and death.

The name of the school was changed in 2001 to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Defenders of the school say its curriculum requires coursework in human rights and democratic values. Supporters also say the school shouldn't be accountable when some of its graduates distort the purpose of the training.

"The government says it's a different school, but it isn't," Fillenwarth said. "New name, same shame."

She hopes the makeup of the newly-elected U.S. Congress will eventually lead to the school being closed. In June 2006, an effort in the U.S. House of Representatives to suspend funding for the school failed by a vote of 218 to 188.

The pastor of Fillenwarth's parish says he takes no sides in the controversy. Still, the support of Father John Beitans is deep for Fillenwarth as a person.

"Spiritually, I've been an admirer of her for many years," Father Beitans said. "Val has always been concerned about the safety of people who do good work, because of Christ, in dangerous places. I admire her because she's a wise person and a tough cookie. She didn't do what she did without considering all the consequences."

As her court date approaches, Fillenwarth draws strength from the memory of her Nov. 19 commitment and her family's support of her decision.

Before she climbed through the fence, she marched in the procession with her husband of 42 years, Ed, a retired labor lawyer and a board member of Witness for Peace, an organization that supports the cause of peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas. She also walked with two of her children, Diane Schultz and Sheila Mays.

"It was hard saying goodbye, knowing she was going through the fence," Mays recalled. "But she prayed about it, and we knew she wanted to do it so we supported her. You sometimes have to make a stand when something is wrong, and she is willing to make this stand."

Still, the two sisters needed a touch of comic relief to get them through the moment when they knew their mother was headed toward being arrested. As they watched their father and mother walk toward the fence, Schultz turned to Mays and said, "Do you think Mom and Dad will ever take up golf?"

"My daughter said it the best," said Schultz, also a member of St. Lawrence Parish in Indianapolis. "She said, "I'm just so proud of her." My daughter is 9. Her name is Valerie. She's named after Mom."

The fate of one grandchild led her to cross a line. The words of another grandchild show the depth of a family's love and support. The handprints of all 17 grandchildren touch the heart of a woman and her commitment to what she considers her larger family.

"For me, it's the closest I can get to being in solidarity with these people who have been mistreated," she said. "I'm honored and privileged to be able to follow my conscience. I know this sounds presumptuous, but I'm just trying to be as much like the non-violent Jesus as I can be. I'm just doing the best I can."

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