Dominicans join peace activists at Fort Benning

SOA Watch 2012

By Ceil Roeger, OP (Houston)

The weekend of Nov. 16–19, Dominicans, along with family members, students and friends from across the United States, joined other peace activists at the annual SOA Watch vigil held in front of the gates at Ft. Benning, Georgia. This vigil, which began in 1990, calls for the closing of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas.

Some participants arrived Thursday in order to join the Friday morning rally held at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. Approximately 450 people gathered to protest the detention of undocumented and their treatment. For many, the weekend began with the SOA Watch plenary session, where attendees were informed of the activities that have taken place during the past year. It was a time to celebrate the successes as Ecuador and Nicaragua were added to the list of countries that have agreed to stop sending troops and/or police to be trained at Ft. Benning. There was also a brief report on the meeting that was held earlier in the week at the White House. Denis McDonough, Deputy National Security Adviser to President Obama, met with a delegation from the SOA Watch movement in Washington DC on Nov. 13. You can read the report on this visit by visiting the SOA Watch web site.

The Rally at the Gate began at 11:30 a.m. Prisoners of conscience as well as survivors of torture and violence in their home countries gave witness to expose the horrors of the SOA and to express solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Latin America. Interspersed among the stories was music from a variety of musicians. The rally closed with words of encouragement from Fr. Roy Bourgeois.

For a number of years, the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, prepare and host a prayer service on Sunday morning of the vigil. “Ancestral Prayer Opening to the Future” was prepared and led Liz Sully, OP. With her drum she called forth our ancestors to be and walk with us. The words of the prayer asked us to move beyond our complicity in the violence around us and to claim a vision of changing the School for the Americas from one of violence to one whose “mission is wholeness of life and the creation of a healthy planet.” Following a scripture reading we sat in contemplative silence, before receiving crosses we would carry in the solemn procession and place on the fence at Ft. Benning later that morning. As the names on the crosses were read, we responded with “Presente.”

On Saturday, sisters were encouraged to stop by the NETWORK table and pick up “Nuns on the Bus” stickers to wear on Sunday morning. We were instructed to gather near the stage around 9:45 Sunday. Sister Marge Clarke from NETWORK was scheduled to address the gathering prior to the “No Mas, No More” litany. The nuns joined her either on stage or in front of the stage as she spoke. She said that the eight-state “Nuns on the Bus” tour has spread and now we stood as “Nuns at the Gate.” The purpose of “Nuns on the Bus” was to call attention to the terrible effect proposed budget cuts would have on the poor and the marginalized. To shouts of support, she proposed that the government cut funding for the School of the Americas and use that money on education and health care.

It was nearing time for the solemn procession, and we gathered behind our Dominicans for Peace and Justice banner with our crosses. As the names were called we walked slowly and solemnly, raising our crosses and responding “Presente.” As each person approached the gates of Ft. Benning, she/he encountered a fence that is erected for the purpose of keeping us out. It is on this fence that we place our crosses. It is here that we continue to give witness and call for an end to the School of the Americas.

The numbers coming to the rally have been smaller the last couple of years. The Jesuits no longer hold their “teach-in” in Georgia. It is still heartening to see the diversity in the people who do come. We are of different ages, different skin tones and cultural backgrounds. In that respect, the movement is not dying out; it is growing. As several of us discussed this, it was said we do not come together for numbers. It is to reconnect; it is to stand in solidarity; it is to celebrate the successes the movement has made over the years. After all, this is one of the longest ongoing shows of solidarity with the people of Latin America.

Sister Ceil Roeger, OP, is promoter of Justice, Peace and Care of Creation for the Dominican Sisters of Houston.