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

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Remembering the victims at gates of Fort Benning. Photo/Luis de Leon Fernandez

This articulation of values and tradition has given the SOAW its unique power. On Saturday evening, before the main march at the gates the next day, there has traditionally been a huge Mass attended by 2,000 to 3,000, mainly Jesuit high school and college students and their families and teachers. It has been part of an annual Ignatian Family Teach-In organized by an association of ex-Jesuits. For those who find it meaningful, the Mass plugs a person into a 220-volt source of energy. It gives an inner spiritual strengthening that is hard to describe.

I can only compare it to another protest years ago. If memory serves me right, sometime in 1990 or 1991, I attended a march protesting the first Gulf War at UC Santa Cruz. Before the students began a march into the city, UC professor Bettina Aptheker gave an introductory speech to the students gathered at an amphitheater surrounded by towering redwoods. At the end of her remarks, she told the students that they might be feeling frightened and timid. And she reassured them that this was normal.

"Look around us," she said. "Look at the power of these redwoods."

We looked up into these massive trees, soaring straight from the ground where we were standing up to form a canopy of dark green, branches and patches of sunlight far above our heads.

"Draw strength from their spirit," she said.

In their majesty, the trees seemed to radiate stillness and power.

Then, she asked us to join hands with our neighbors and feel the same strength from our unity as a group. She urged us to remember that the strength of the trees, the strength of community would be with us as we marched, displacing our insecurities and idiosyncrasies.

At the time, I remember thinking: "She doesn't know it, but she's following the pattern of the Mass!"

In the same way, SOAW's Mass becomes that transformative moment that imbues the protest with a spirit that I do not find in purely political protests. The spiritually based protest is quieter, stronger, more uncompromising. It uses apparently theatrical symbols but makes no loud demands. In the case of the SOAW, coffins of the victims are carried by mourners dressed in black. Crosses, photos and mementos are placed in the Fort Benning gate. Then from the main stage before the gates, each name of the victims is sung out, one after another, for two hours.

They are sung out loud and clear, with the tender beauty of elegy.

David Claros, age 10.

Mariana Sanchez, age 4.

Clicerio Diaz, age 3.

What greater miracle could there be!

When the Salvadoran soldiers were butchering these children and their families, the most anonymous of people in the smallest, most hidden villages of the countryside, could they ever imagine that the names of each person would be recovered as best as possible, remembered and then brought back to be spoken aloud at the very place where the soldiers were trained?

U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion of El Salvador

The Atlacatl Battalion -- El Salvador

This naming of names makes no overt demand for change. It simply confronts the human conscience with reality. Behind the Fort Benning gates, the soldiers and MPs mill about waiting to make arrests; along the roadway at the gates, a long line of Columbus and state police stand behind wooden sawhorses.

What's the impact of this heavy police presence? It only ensures that more of them must listen to the names. The MPs, the police, the soldiers are human beings; like the rest of us, they have to face their own conscience in those moments when they wake abruptly at 3 a.m., or look at themselves in the bathroom mirror each morning.

For me, this naming of names is the only miracle I need to prove the existence of God. The blood of the innocents is crying out from the earth, and it will find a way to overturn the most arrogant and immovable structures of oppression. The SOAW protest is only one tiny pinprick of light in this process. No wonder both Jewish and Catholic spiritual tradition teach that despair is a sin.

The coffins of the dead delivered to the U.S. Army. Photo/Luis de Leon Fernandez