Rev. Roy Bourgeois, founder of a group that has sponsored more than a decade of annual protests at the U.S. Army’s combat training school at Ft. Benning, Ga., is headed to the Triangle for two events this week. Bourgeois has received international attention for his human rights work associated with the effort to close the U.S. Army’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formally the School of the Americas), a Columbus, Ga.-based combat training school for Latin American soldiers, many of whom have been implicated in human rights violations and killings back in their native countries after their SOA training. He’ll be speaking Thursday, Feb. 3 at 7 p.m. at Watts Street Baptist Church, 800 Watts St., Durham, and at UNC-Chapel Hill on Saturday, Feb. 5 at the SURGE Conference (www.surgenetwork.org).
In 1990, Bourgeois founded SOA Watch, a group that organizes an annual gathering at the gates of Ft. Benning. More than 15,000 were at the demonstration in November, the largest gathering of its kind in the South since the Civil Rights movement.
Bourgeois spends about half the year on the road speaking at universities, churches and to peace and justice groups throughout the nation.
A priest in the Maryknoll order, Bourgeois is a former Latin American missionary. Since Bush’s reelection, Bourgeois says he’s been spending a lot of his time telling activists to overcome their despair and stay involved in the struggle for justice.
After the election, Bourgeois says a lot of progressives have become discouraged.
“I have to be honest, it was a real blow,” he said. “A lot of people are extremely discouraged and asking, ‘How do we hold on to our hope?’ At this critical time, with things getting worse in Iraq, people have to find a way to get through our paralysis of being overwhelmed.
“I start my talks by acknowledging these are very challenging times. What are we to do? Because a lot of people are asking that question and I turn to people like Micah who said, ‘Act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God.’ I mention Dorothy Day, who said, ‘The only solution is love,’ and love comes with community. And then I mention, of course, Bishop Oscar Romero.” Romero, the former archbishop of San Salvador who was an arch-defender of human rights, was assassinated in 1980 by members of Salvadoran death squads. Some of Romero’s killers were SOA graduates.
“We’ve got to use our voices for the voiceless,” Bourgeois says. “People of faith with real spiritual wisdom. A lot of people are struggling for hope today when they see what our government is doing to others.”
On Jan. 24, Bourgeois was organizing in Columbus around the trials of 15 SOA protesters who were charged with trespassing at Ft. Benning during last November’s protest. One of the defendants, Chatham County resident Dan Schwankl, received a 90-day federal prison sentence and $500 fine at his trial.
“People are finding hope in our prisoners of conscience who are dissenting, going to prison for their beliefs,” Bourgeois said. “Many people realize that this is the way that we will sustain our hope.”
A frequent visitor to Latin America, Bourgeois says he feels a responsibility to speak for “the victims of U.S. foreign policy and certainly for the victims and graduates of the school we are trying to shut down.”
Bourgeois says he uses his talks to describe in a personal way what he experienced as a missionary in Latin America, and welcome “people to become part of the resistance.”
The sense of despair today is less evident among college students, Bourgeois said. “Those who have been in the struggle for a long time are more discouraged,” he said. “They took [Bush’s reelection] really hard.
“Now they’re asking, ‘What do we do? Where do we go from here?’ and basically my message is, the people of Latin America and other countries have been struggling under more difficult conditions than we are, and they have been doing this for much longer than we have. We don’t have the option to give up.
“The only way we are going to sustain hope and not move into despair is if we continue to resist. Resisting brings the hope, the meaning and the joy.”
Bourgeois said most peace activists “were once uncritical, traditional conservatives, uncritical of our government’s leaders. But something has happened to us along the way. We are peacemakers today, and we take that seriously and we cannot go back to being the people we used to be. We have to keep resisting even though it’s four more years of Bush.”
Duke Divinity School professor of Christian ethics Stanley Hauerwas will be with Bourgeois on the Watts Street Church program.
“He’s one of the heroic figures out there that I deeply admire for their commitments,” Hauerwas said. “The fact that he’s staying with this–some people get in a cause and then afterward it kind of peters out. But he’s staying with it because real people are suffering, and so I just admire that.”