Presente: The School of the Americas Vigil

Sunday, November 18

MARTA LILIAN CLAROS, El Salvador, 3 years old…
PRESENTE

DOMINGA MARQUEZ, 70 years old…
PRESENTE

We are in the third hour of this chant and the list goes on, name after name… I try to concentrate on the meditation, to pray for each person as their name is sung.  I try to imagine who Marta or Dominga might have been. What were their lives like before the Salvadoran army massacred their village?  I thank God for whatever life they had, and I ask forgiveness for their deaths, and for all the cumulative sins of our society that cause so much pain in our world. I guess that’s why I’m here today.

Here, at the 18th annual School of the Americas (SOA) protest at Ft. Benning, GA. I had never even heard of the SOA until a year ago when I moved into a Catholic Worker house in Kansas City, KS.  Now this radical, social justice side of our Church gives life to my soul, and challenges me to comprehend the more than 300 Bible passages that talk of social justice and God’s concern for the poor.

LUCAS GUEVARA, day laborer, 35 years old …
PRESENTE

FRANCISCO WILLIAM GÓMEZ MONSALVE, Colombia, 10 years old …
PRESENTE

These are our brothers and sisters, victims of Latin American soldiers trained at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas. They are present with us today in spirit.  This protest is for them, but it’s about more than that.  The issues are much deeper than what I can talk about here.

MIGUEL ARGUETA, farmer, 58 years old …
PRESENTE

LEONISIA RODRIGUEZ, El Salvador, 27 years old…
PRESENTE

In 1990, this protest began to commemorate the massacre of 6 Jesuit priests in El Salvador, and many others, killed by soldiers trained at the SOA. What began as a small fasting vigil to “Close the SOA” has now become 25,000 voices chanting in unity and standing up against all forms of U.S. government oppression.  The Veterans for Peace led a parade, and we heard speakers rally on the Iraq war, immigration, and torture (in Central America by SOA graduates, around the world, and today at Guantanamo).  Surely Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day would be smiling down on us from Heaven.

How to describe the crowd here?  Torture survivors, social movement leaders, religious workers, peace and justice activists, and many students.  From Kansas City we brought a bus of 47 including Catholic Workers, local peace workers and 30 from Rockhurst University.  The Rockhurst students have a special niche here – the annual ‘Ignatian Family Teach-In’.  Thousands of Jesuit high school and college students joined together for workshops on all kinds of social justice issues, followed by a Mass for peace.

MARFA ANSELMA MARQUEZ, 25 years old, pregnant at time of death…
PRESENTE

BRUNO CLAROS, 50 years old…
PRESENTE

As I peer through the front gate of Ft. Benning, I am grateful for yesterday, when we were given the opportunity to tour the army base and meet with a panel of representatives from the School.  How gracious of them to spend the whole day giving the same talk to different groups of protest visitors.  We heard the ‘other side’ of the story, all of the justifications for keeping of the SOA going: their important mission of training soldiers, police and other selected civilians in human rights, international law, ethics and peacekeeping; the success of the U.S. in spreading democracy throughout the Western Hemisphere; the training of police to fight drug trafficking.  They didn’t comment much on the accusation of teaching aggressive interrogation techniques (torture), but when they did mention it, they firmly denied it. They simply explained that they just teach what the U.S. Congress passes down to them. I left with the impression that the SOA staff members do have good intentions.  They just don’t acknowledge the precarious impact their students can have in the instable countries they return to after their training.

FRANCISCA CLAROS, El Salvador, 16 years old…
PRESENTE

MARGARITA MARTINEZ, 40 years old…
PRESENTE

And I wonder, if the SOA ever does close, will we lose all of this, or will we find something else to unite all the peace fighters?  I have hope.  Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of the SOA protest said to us, “Even if the SOA closes this year, we’ll be back next year to praise God.”  That’s hopeful.
The chant continues, and we march on.

OSCAR ROMERO, Archbishop, El Salvador…
PRESENTE

To learn more about the SOA Watch, visit www.soaw.org
To learn about the school itself, visit https://www.benning.army.mil/whinsec/

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