COLUMBUS, Ga. - Taking a stroll down Benning Road last weekend was something akin to entering a cross between a progressive flea market and a circus.
At the 18th annual School of the Americas Watch protest, more than 100 tables were set up side-by-side on the road that leads to Ft. Benning's south gate.
Scores of groups showed up to staff information tables and hawk merchandise to the thousands of people who travel from throughout the nation for what has become the largest ongoing anti-war protest in the United States.
At this year's gathering, Catholic nuns in habits processed down Benning Road alongside young anarchist women shirtless and wearing only their bras. From animal rights to human rights, from drug law reform to women's ordination, the SOA Watch gathering allowed the curious to head home with backpacks full of literature, buttons and T-shirts. For the past six years, peace activist Frank Dorrel has made the cross-country trip to the SOA Watch gathering from Culver City, Calif.
"This is the greatest peace gathering I've ever been to," said Dorrel, who sells cut-rate copies of the book he published titled, Addicted to War. "What happens here, it's more than an event. It is so loving and peaceful. It's a gathering of people who are for peace, led by Fr. Roy, who are against war, not just what's happening in Central America. The spirit here is incredible. I love being here."
A Unitarian Universalist, Dorrel is among those who have expanded the SOA gathering beyond its early Catholic identity. "We're human beings, we're not supposed to kill people," Dorrel said. "That's what I believe."
As the SOA movement grew by thousands each year, Bourgeois said it was important to listen to the voices of others. "You have to broaden and become more diversified," he said. "In the early days it was a very big Catholic presence."
This year, Loren Hart made the trip from North Carolina to hand out literature from Vegan Outreach and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "It's been an overwhelmingly positive response," Hart said. "The idea in us coming here today was that people who are devoted and who are active for issues of justice and peace and compassion and nonviolence would also be open to the message of expanding our level of compassion to include animals."
William Peery had a sign by his table stating: "Fasting for 9-11 truth."
"I am part of the 9-11 truth movement," said Peery, who gave out free compact discs and said he plans on "traveling and camping out in a national forest for the next couple of months."
Catholic lawyer Jessica Hoskins traveled from Missouri with her mother and sister to set up a table calling for drug law reform. Hoskins said her interest in the the "November Coalition" campaign was spurred on by her brother, Fr. Tom Hereford, a priest in the Jefferson City diocese who spent 10 years as a federal prison chaplain where he saw people receiving long prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
Hoskins said there are connections between the SOA Watch goals and her campaign. "The U.S. government sends all this money down into Latin America supposedly to fight the so-called war on drugs," she said.
Jon Hunt came to Columbus wearing several different hats. A former SOA "Prisoner of Conscience" who spent six months in prison after being arrested at the 2000 protest, Hunt set up a table to distribute literature from two groups. He is the national coordinator of the Campaign for Labor Rights, a group that supports factory workers all over the world, opposes free trade and provides "a critique of capitalism at the consumer level."
Hunt and his wife, Julie Gurnee also founded "without violence," which takes a look at the role violence plays in society in general. Using workshops, Hunt said the without violence goal is "getting people to reflect on parts of their lives where violence is evident and getting them to recognize it, deal with it, react to it and change it."
Hunt is also part of the SOA Watch Direct Action Working Group. This year, he was one of a small group of support people who aided 10 people who trespassed onto Ft. Benning and were arrested after crawling through a hole in a fence.
Bill Galvin of the Washington-based Center for Conscience & War has staffed an information table of counter-military recruitment materials for five or six years at the SOA. A Presbyterian, Galvin says the SOA witness is "a celebration of life" that "brings together many different themes."
"I've been involved in peace stuff since the 1960s, and these weekends are probably the best thing I've ever been a part of in terms of a peace witness," Galvin said.
The annual gathering has always been more than opposing the Army school, Galvin said. "The school is a symbol of the worst of U.S. military policy, but this (gathering) is about, at the heart, changing U.S. military policy."
The Rev. Ralph Hutchison, a Presbyterian minister, staffed a table for the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, a group that opposes a nuclear weapons facility in eastern Tennessee. Hutchison says he has been coming to the SOA protest for eight or nine years.
"I think this place is a gathering place for the community of peace and social justice, not only in the Southeast" he said. "I do think these people engage the issue that we're here for, to look for peace and justice in Central America, but I think it's the spiritual connection people make with each other here."
The SOA witness remains strongly Catholic at its core with dozens of Jesuits schools and religious orders of nuns and priests joining in a mock funeral procession. A vigil mass sponsored by the Ignatian Family Teach-In drew a standing room-only crowd of more than 3,000 people to the Columbus Convention Center.
Ann Mcgovern is executive director of The Ignatian Solidarity Network, the group that oversees the teach-in. A Boston College graduate, Mcgovern, 39, says the gathering is an important cross-generational experience for young Catholics. Conspicuously absent from the SOA gathering were members of the Church hierarchy. Only former Diocese of Detroit auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton was part of the teach-in.
Katy Scott, the 62-year-old mother of Jason Scott, a soldier who was severely injured by a 2005 IED blast in Iraq, spent almost a year by her son's side as he recovered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"Where are our bishops?" Scott asked. "Why aren't they here, because this is where Jesus would be."
Several times each week, planes full of injured soldiers would arrive at Andrews Air Force Base, and Katy Scott, who works as a chaplain at Heartland Hospice in Chicago, would greet the new arrivals, who always came in "after dark" at Walter Reed.
"I always tried to be present so that at least I could honor them when they arrived at Walter Reed," Scott said.
Because of her outspoken opposition to war, Scott is now estranged from her son, whose pictures she displayed at the SOA gathering. "At the deepest center I've always tried to follow Jesus who said to us, 'Love your enemy,' and love does not mean killing and destroying," Scott said. "As he hung on the cross, as he was tortured and trying to take a breath before he died, He said, 'Father forgive them,' so that's where I stand; loving those, even my son, who killed and destroyed in this country's name."
Patrick O'Neill is a freelance religion journalist living in Garner, N.C.
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