FORT BENNING, GA. — Five CPPS sisters and a lay woman took to the road to Columbus, Ga., on the Thursday before Thanksgiving for the annual School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) at the gates of Fort Benning, Ga.
This is the 15th year that Precious Blood Sisters have taken part in this peaceful protest. Its goal is to raise public awareness about the need to close the SOA, located on Fort Benning, and thereby prevent further bloodshed, violence and illegal ties to Central and South American military establishments.
In 2001 the SOA was renamed WHINSEC: The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. However the “curriculum” has not changed: Investigations reveal that the new WHINSEC is using the same texts on torture and is still training military from Central and South America. Basically, all that changed was the name, and many Americans do not realize our military and tax dollars are providing the funding and training to enable other nations’ military and paramilitary to torture and kill their own citizens. Thus, the annual march.
For many years, the outside world was unaware of SOA and its connection to torture – mainly because the targets were the poor and voiceless people of Central and South America and others who were too intimidated to speak out. However, the world (and Congress) took notice when it was learned that Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, seven Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter, and four U.S. church women were killed by military trained at the SOA/WHINSEC. Their deaths prompted enough backing by worldwide religious groups to spread the word and educate the public, thus leading to growing support of the movement to influence Congress to close the SOA/WHINSEC.
Sister Mary Wendeln, active for many years in peace and justice efforts, was the first CPPS to join the effort, in 1996. She worked in Washington, D.C., with immigrants from El Salvador for a number of years and noted that both staff members and clients knew about the SOA graduates and their atrocities. One staff member was a victim of torture, taught at the SOA. One woman urged the staff to please try to get the school closed because when the Salvadoran men trained there returned home they were very abusive to their families — more “collateral damage” from SOA training.
Over the years numerous CPPS sisters have attended the SOA protest. In addition to Sister Mary, this year’s CPPS team included Sisters Mary Ellen Andrisin, Joyce Kahle, Marie Kopin, Tish Rawles, and a lay woman who is a friend of the community, Cheryl Davis.
The annual SOA weekend typically includes a variety of programs and venues:
— presentations offering facts and first-person accounts;
— a peaceful march to the gates of Fort Benning, with participants joining in song and prayer.
A powerful part of the march includes participants holding white crosses aloft, inscribed with the names of victims and “disappeared” persons. A list of victims’ names is read over a loudspeaker, and to each the marchers respond “presente,” Spanish for “here!” At the end of the march down the boulevard, flowers and the crosses are tucked into the fence surrounding the gate to the military base.
— a march and pageant by “Puppetistas”, larger-than-life-sized puppets which enact themes of death and resurrection, and similar performances by mimes.
— Organization and vocation displays. CPPS women had an outdoor table with materials about Sisters of the Precious Blood as well as one in the Vocations area after Mass. Numerous peace and justice organizations as well as religious communities display their materials and wares, which are viewed and received gratefully by the thousands of participants, many of them college students.
— Prayer services and liturgies. Retired Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton celebrated the closing liturgy for the group in the city’s convention center. This year, CPPS sisters helped with the music for the Mass, served as lectors, and distributed both forms of Holy Communion (the cup and Eucharistic bread).
Past participants have included sisters active in ministry and sisters who are “retired but not-too-tired” to stand on behalf of non-violence. A partial list includes Sisters Regina Albers, Barbara Jean Backs, Melitta Barga, Maryann Bremke, Jeanette Buehler, Carolyn Hoying, Virginia Huber, Gladys Marie Lowe, Mary Anne Schiller, Margie Zurieck, as well as young women interested in CPPS and friends of the sisters. Several Missionaries of the Precious Blood have attended, including Juan Acuna from Chile. Other communities of Precious Blood women have sometimes attended also.
Although the annual protest is a peaceful one, the idea of having thousands of people in Fort Benning to protest actions of the U.S. military (and, by extension, those they train in other countries) is not, as might be expected, enthusiastically received by base officials.
Over the years the space where protesters can gather and march has been increasingly limited, with fencing and barriers added. Protesters who cross the defined lines, even inadvertently, risk detention, questioning and arrest. The prayers and songs of the protesters are often drowned out as military and law enforcement officials blare patriotic songs, together with announcements of what constitutes illegal behaviors. Helicopters fly over at regular interviews, and all activities are monitored and videoed. Some of these actions are understandable security measures when thousands of people descend on a secure military area even for peaceful purposes. Participants have come to expect the presence of police, plainclothes officers, questioning and low-level “hassling” during the weekend. But it is part of what they are willing to do to spread the message that violence and its training have no place in the U.S. military and do not deserve funding by tax dollars.
The SOAW website published a summary of the 2010 weekend:
“Federal, city and state authorities were busy in Columbus, Ga., on the weekend prior to Thanksgiving. Arrests of people from 17 to 90 years of age included stilt walkers and puppetistas; four credentialed members of the press; local barber Curtis Thornton; a dozen participants in a planned road blockage; priests, nuns, veterans and students, along with many others attempting simply to make it back to their cars outside the ‘permitted protest area.’
Together with thousands of other concerned citizens, Sisters of the Precious Blood take this annual action to peacefully speak out for peace and nonviolence — a visible witness of CPPS’ mission of being “a reconciling, healing presence in our fractured world.”
Pat Morrison, Director of Communications for the Sisters of the Precious Blood, contributed to this story.