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Why the Defrocking of Fr. Roy Bourgeois Will Test the Spirituality and Sincerity of SOAW Protest

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Fr. Roy Bourgeois leads SOAW protest, 2011. Photo/Luis de Leon Fernandez

Starting this November, Fr. Roy's disconnection from the official Catholic Church is going to test the spiritual strength of the SOAW movement and the sincerity of those thousands who have shown up year after year. We'll find out how many were demonstrating a genuine revulsion against the U.S. Army's strategy of murder and terror in Central and Latin America or whether the protest had devolved into fashionable spiritual tourism. We'll also see whether the protest can maintain its spiritual strength without the support of the mainstream Catholic community.

For the moment, the SOAW is maintaining that one issue has nothing to do with the other. In fact, last week, while he was preparing his response to the Maryknoll superior general, Fr. Roy was also fasting outside the White House and participating with other faith-based anti-militarism groups in panel discussions during the SOAW's April Days of Action. On Sunday, he was among 27 others who were arrested in front of the White House while calling for President Obama to sign an executive order to close the SOA.

However, it has been obvious that the loss of official Catholic support has hurt the SOAW protest, at least for now. Last year, his Maryknoll order cut off $17,000 in funds for the SOAW protest, although private contributions made up the difference. The annual Ignatian Family Teach-In, which drew thousands of Jesuit high school and college students to Fort Benning, was moved to Washington, D.C., last year. I estimated no more than 2,000 to 3,000 people showed up, a fraction of the numbers of just a couple of years before. Still, even though it was smaller in size, the protest lacked none of its emotional and spiritual power.

As some of the readers of this blog may already know, the SOAW had its beginnings in 1983, when Fr. Roy organized a spectacular feat with two friends to get the attention of the notorious SOA. They sneaked onto the base at night, climbed a 100-foot pine tree and blasted the tape of the last homily by Salvadoran Archbishop Monsignor Romero from a boom box aimed at the barracks where 500 Salvadoran troops were sleeping. They heard Romero crying out once more:

No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. There is still time for you to obey your own conscience, even in the face of a sinful command to kill. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God and of the dignity of each human being, cannot remain silent in the presence of such abominations. In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people whose cries rise up to heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you: Stop the repression!"

At the time, the SOA had just been forced out of Panama and had moved to Fort Benning where it could continue to teach its "counter-insurgency" tactics to the military forces from the southern Hemisphere. Fr. Roy had known personally two of the four U.S. churchwomen who were raped and murdered in El Salvador in 1980 by such U.S.-trained soldiers. During the 1970s, he had seen first-hand the results of U.S. support for brutal military dictatorships while working with the poor in Bolivia.

In 1989, Fr. Roy and two other activists launched the first of what became the SOA-Watch protests by entering Fort Benning and spilling blood at the SOA's front steps. It was on the first anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter by an elite U.S.-trained Salvadoran battalion at the leading Jesuit university in San Salvador.

Fr. Roy then rented an apartment outside the gates of Fort Benning to keep the annual protests going. At its height, it drew 15,000 to this rural Georgia town, swamping the local hotels and restaurants. As anyone who has been there knows, the Columbus Convention Center usually looks like an old-fashioned student Teach-In. Its meeting rooms are jammed with all types of workshops on social justice issues ranging from the atrocities in Columbia to corporate depredations.

This history is worth recalling because it shows how much the SOAW drew its energy on Fr. Roy's personal dynamism and commitment. The story that is less well known is how his dynamism grew out of a long and painful conversion from a pro-war hawk who volunteered to serve in Vietnam to a priest who organized aid for war-maimed orphans and clinics for the poor in the altiplano of Bolivia.

His conversion is worth reviewing, because it shows the complex, but vital, relationship between Fr. Roy's interior journey as he moved between two dominant social worlds, that of his southern upbringing and family and that of the Catholic Church and the Maryknolls. It is difficult to imagine how he could have endured a long and painful transformation without the catalyst of the Maryknolls and its Catholic values, because he began his adult life as a gung-ho Navy recruit who had volunteered for Vietnam.

In their biography of Fr. Roy, Disturbing the Peace, authors James Hodge and Linda Cooper describe how he endured the dreaded POW training in San Diego :