If, God forbid, your sister was violently murdered, to what ends would you go to make sure no one else ever suffered the same fate? That question is a question that has occupied the prayers and thoughts of one of the local Ursuline Sisters, as she discerned what her actions should be to protest the role of the U.S. in training the people many believe were responsible for the brutal deaths of her local fellow Ursuline Sister, Dorthy Kazel and three other American Churchwomen in El Salvador in 1980. After much thought, she decided on actions that led to her spending the last few weeks in prison. She is released today.
Her “offense” took place at an annual protest at the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation”, formerly known as the “School of the Americas,” at Fort Benning, Georgia. This center works to train people from Latin America in techniques that they believe will assist in spreading democratic forms of government across the hemisphere. It is also the site of an annual gathering of people who believe that this organization trains people to oppress the citizens of Latin America, and it is therefore the site of large demonstrations. This Sister has attended more than a few of these demonstrations.
I have never been to one of these demonstrations, but understand that they are very emotionally powerful. A large gathering of people, many carrying crosses, forms a slow-moving funeral procession as the names of those slain in Latin America are read off. In response to each name, the crowd responds “ ¡presente!” (“present” in Spanish.), meaning that they are there, in spirit. It is very orderly, with no one expecting any trouble and everyone honoring the line drawn on the ground beyond which the procession may not proceed. However, this time, our local Sister had other plans. She is an art professor who is used to dealing with the symbolic nature of things, and this time she made herself a symbol. And so, knowing full well what the cost of the gesture would be, she stepped across the line and was immediately arrested.
Good people disagree about what she did. Almost no one disagrees that she broke the law. The line was on the ground, and she crossed it on purpose. Some, including some at our college and several lawyers I know (such as my husband), disagree about whether breaking the law is ever an effective statement. Others disagree on a more basic level, saying that the Institute is truly helping to spread democracy in our hemisphere. Whatever these disagreements might be, the long process of discernment led this one woman to take the radical step, literally, of letting herself be sent to prison in order to further the cause she believes in. I know that I do not have that courage.
Nor would my parental responsibilities allow me to do so. When I told my daughter about what she had done, my daughter’s response was to ask me if she had any children. “No, she did not”, I was able to answer, as her religious vows prevent her from having any. And yet, I am sure that at a very basic level, she believes her actions will help make the world a better place for all of our children.
Will this radical statement make a difference in the world? I recall a mistake I made in a conversation with my daughter last November 4th, and I am given hope.
My daughter is too young to know much about the institutionalized segregation that was once common and even the law in much of our country, and I found myself explaining it to her last fall. However, as I began to tell her about the horrible things we did to our fellow citizens, I mistakenly said “back when grandma and grandpa were little kids” and then caught myself. “No, it was not when grandma and grandpa were kids- it was when I was a kid!” In only one generation, enough change can take place that a child can now grow up isolated from the racial hatred that was the heritage so many knew for so long. Is this change in attitude due to the punishments that some so willingly subjected themselves to for the sake of their beliefs? I suspect that is was, at least in part, due to such courageous acts of civil disobedience.
What I do know, however, is that in a Federal Women’s Prison in West Virginia, for the last few weeks, a woman normally known for teaching pottery or organizing recycling efforts on campus greeted her jailers each morning at roll call with words and actions that may be best translated as “ ¡presente!.”