A call to Community
I got a call from the House of Grace Catholic Worker in Philadelphia saying that they would need me in December. I went.
The community consists of Johanna Berrigan and Mary Beth Appel, two dogs, and a cat. At present they have two guests, both formerly homeless men. Johanna and Mary Beth help to run a medical clinic in their neighborhood. It provides medical help and referrals, dentistry, vitamins, showers and a telephone to the homeless or those merely living in poverty. They are also connected to the nearby St. Francis Inn; during my visit I helped serve breakfast there to several hundred. Johanna and Mary Beth also tend flower and vegetable gardens in adjoining vacant lots, produce a newsletter, and organize events on faith, non-violence, and related issues.
The Catholic Worker movement was started by an American, Dorothy Day, in the 1930s. There are today Catholic Worker communities in cities throughout the world, including Toronto. Most are ecumenical, and see themselves as living according to the radical teachings of Christ, providing hospitality to the homeless and refugees, living in community, doing meaningful work, resisting war and oppression. The resistance done at Jonah House in Baltimore, where I spent the fall, can be protests, vigils, or plowshares actions. Resisters see it as a way of practicing non-cooperation with an American system that cuts back social spending while speding $8,000 per second on a military that creates havoc throughout the world.In Philadelphia
I liked Philadelphia - including the hot soft pretzels with mustard. I felt more at home there than in Baltimore. Since there is a subway line, I can be more mobile. Life at Jonah House was full. The biggest occurrence was the trial of its members Kristin and Greg, along with Sam from a Bruderhof community. I attended the trial October 23rd on the military base where, during an air show, the three protested, carrying a banner reading "Swords into Plowshares" and handing out leaflets saying "Weapons of War - Nothing to Celebrate."
The three defended themselves rather than hiring a lawyer and the Magistrate helped them present their case properly and cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses. However, after a recess when he read over the rulings on past Supreme Court cases, he sentenced Sam to 30 days, Kristin to 60 days, and Greg to six months in jail.
No one expected such harsh sentences for such a simple action. All three displayed inner strength and behaved admirably. Carol and Ardeth from Jonah House had recently done a similar action, actually smashing a plane, and they have yet to receive any charges. It was the first time since my arrival at Jonah House that I saw what their life of resistance can mean.
After their imprisonment, I visited Sam in jail once and Greg twice. It was a new experience for me to travel an hour to sit on one side of a glass partition talking on a phone to a person in a prison uniform sitting on the other side. I have not been able to visit Kristin.
The week after Sam, Kristin, and Greg went to jail the two nuns, Ardeth and Carol, arrived back at Jonah House. They had been involved in a plowshares action and then, not receiving any charges, traveled through states speaking at parishes and schools about the military space program.And Baltimore
I enjoyed serving at Viva House, the Baltimore Catholic Worker, which provides meals to the homeless on Wednesdays and Thursdays and runs an after-school program. My job consisted of wiping tables, pouring tea and putting plates of food (beans, wieners, salad, and two slices of white bread) at each vacant place. I was saddened to see families with children in a soup kitchen, but the dignified atmosphere there must partly erase the stigma of receiving charity.
In one foray on a bike, I missed a turnoff and ended up cycling right through the intersection of Monroe and Fayette Streets, the notorious drug corner featured in the 1997 book The Corner. I had been warned that sometimes bikes are stolen while the owner is riding them. Cycling in Baltimore is not for the faint of heart. Broken glass is everywhere, and in the poorer neighborhoods, in place of the flattened squirrels one sees in Toronto that have been run over by cars, are squished dead rats.Against the SOA
I traveled down to Columbus, Georgia, to the annual protest at the School of Americas (SOA), what used to be called the S of A, in Fort Benning military base. I drove down with a Sister of Mercy nun, Sister Kitty, as well as two young people and a 75-year-o1d black man named Paul. The protest date commemorates the assassination of six Jesuit priests, their female co-worker, and her 13-year-old daughter in El Salvador in 1989. A United Nations Commission revealed that 19 of the 26 army officers responsible were trained at the SOA, which trains Latin American soldiers in guerrilla and paramilitary tactics, counterinsurgency, torture, and killing. SOA-trained troops have left a trail of violence throughout Latin America (including the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero) and consistently head lists of human rights abusers.
We attended an information session in a theater in Columbus that included a reading of the non-violent code to which all the participants agreed to adhere. Then we attended a rally with speakers, singing and dancing. A man from Colombia spoke of persecution by SOA graduates. Despite wet weather, 7,000 gathered to watch and listen. Bruce Cockburn performed along with his grandson, Tao Rodriguez. That evening a mass was held in a huge tent for about 3,000. Actor Martin Sheen also spoke; he has participated in the march for the past three years.
Sunday dawned cold and rainy. When packing, I had not even thought of rain. Faced with a steady downpour, I bundled up with every piece of clothing I had, including some long underwear I had luckily brought to sleep in. Feeling a little like the Michelin Man (I had also stuffed my pockets with food and water), I proceeded with the others to the gates of the base to await the beginning of the march. Many of the young people wore a large garbage bag with holes cut for head and arms. We made a solemn, if colorful, procession as we slowly moved forward carrying our white wooden crosses with the names of those killed by the paramilitary and military during the past two decades, particularly in Guatemala and El Salvador.
Names of those killed were sung out, and after each name each person raised his or her cross and chanted "Presente." The name on my cross was Silivia Maribel Arriola with the date she was killed, 1981 (during the massacre of 900 in El Mozote, El Salvador). I wondered who she was. Was she a child, a young woman, a middle-aged woman, or an elder? What family did she have? Names were continually being called out, including "Child, five years old," or "Child, seven years old." I found myself crying.Crossing the Line
About one kilometer into the base we stopped. There were grass and trees, and far away I could see the buses that supposedly would carry those "crossing the line" (i.e. entering the base) as had happened in past years. We stood there, singing, and many people planted their crosses in the grass, making a mock cemetery all around us. I planted Silivia's cross in the grass with the others. We knew that ahead of us a group dressed in black shrouds and white death masks carrying coffins were "dying" and being arrested. Paul, who had crossed the line with me, decided he wanted to get on the bus, so we walked to the head of the line where a military police man escorted us onto a waiting school bus. Unbeknownst to us, however, Fort Benning had decided to process 2,100 of the 3,600 who crossed and ban us from the base. We were bussed, not outside the base, but to another part of it where we waited in tents. Some had to stand outside in the rain. After a long time we were led into a warehouse where we were searched for weapons and kept in line for an even longer time. I worried about my status as a Canadian and about the likelihood I would be separated from Paul, but I kept thinking about how Latin Americans being arrested for protest would feel. Compared to their fear, my fate would amount to no more than inconvenience.
The arrestees were cheerful, many singing and laughing; many let others go ahead of them, even though they had been waiting themselves for hours. Exhausted and, now that I was indoors, too warm with all the clothes I was wearing, I meekly submitted to having my fingerprints and picture taken and showing my ID. After another wait, I received my "ban and bar" letter saying that I am not welcome on Fort Benning Military Base for the next five years, under pain of a $5,000 fine or six months in jail. I got on the bus and was bussed to a park where I got a ride and happily found my companions.
Later, after a hot bath I snuggled into my sleeping bag back at the hotel and said a small prayer for those still on the base who were just beginning the tiring six-hour processing.
Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2001, page 6. Some rights reserved.
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