Jeannine M. Pitas is in Georgia, covering the annual protest that took place over the weekend to demand the closing of the the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas. This is her profile of Father Roy Bourgeois, founder and organizer of the School of the Americas Watch. A report on the weekend's actions will follow later this week.
Update, Nov. 19: Today, it was announced that Father Bourgeois was given a "canonical dismissal" by the Vatican for supporting women's ordination.
Father Roy Bourgeois never thought that he would one day become a Catholic priest. "I was raised Catholic, but as a boy I really didn't take the religion very seriously, and I always thought that priests were weird," says Bourgeois, who grew up in Louisiana during the 1950s.
He also never imagined that he would become a social justice activist. "As a white male living under segregation, I never questioned the system, nor did any of the Catholics around me ... Black Catholics sat in the last four pews, and we referred to segregated schools as 'our tradition.'"
Indeed, this description hardly seems the profile of the man who would later go on to found the School of the Americas Watch -- one of the largest and most vocal components of the anti-war movement in the western hemisphere. But, when he signed up for the U.S. navy in an eager attempt to leave Louisiana, Bourgeois had no idea just how dramatically his life was about to change.
After volunteering to fight in the Vietnam War, he was compelled to encounter realities he'd never considered before. "I went to Vietnam thinking that we Americans would be liberators – the same kind of thought that the US always uses to justify its invasions," he says. "Instead, I witnessed violence beyond my imagination."
Faced with constant danger and vulnerability, Bourgeois noticed his faith growing more important to him. By chance he met a Quebecois missionary priest running an orphanage for Vietnamese children, and he began doing odd jobs there when off duty. "This missionary was a true healer; he wasn't seeking to convert the children to Catholicism, but merely to understand and help them. He was a true inspiration for me ... The Vietnam War was pure madness, but in the orphanage my life had meaning."
On the advice of his new mentor, Bourgeois applied to the community of Maryknoll Missionary priests and was accepted into the seminary. His family was surprised by his decision, but they supported him emotionally and raised funds for his missionary work. Upon his ordination, Bourgeois was assigned to work in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, where he soon encountered the ideas of liberation theology -- a strain of Catholic thought that applies Christian principles to the social realities of the poor and oppressed.
"My spiritual and political awakening began in Vietnam, but it continued in Bolivia," says Bourgeois. "I'd been raised in a hierarchical, patriarchal, colonial model of the church that said the poor should embrace their poverty and look forward to happiness in the next life. In Bolivia, I encountered a model of God as an all-loving being who'd made us all equal. Liberation theology resists the idea that each individual must seek his own salvation; it's much more community-based. The struggles of others became my struggle."
Not all Catholic leaders in Bolivia shared this commitment to liberation theology; indeed, some openly favoured the dictatorial regimes that had taken hold of much of Latin America by the 80's. But Bourgeois, who visited prisoners and learned of documented torture cases, continued to investigate this transnational issue. "Hundreds of churches were talking about the School of the Americas in Latin America, and the more I learned about this horrific abuse of U.S. military might, the more concerned I became."
Founded in 1946, the School of the Americas is an elite institution of the U.S. army that has trained Latin American military personnel in a variety of areas, including torture techniques. When the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador was exposed as having been completed by SOA graduates, Bourgeois transformed his concern into action.
Since 1990, the organization he founded has fought tirelessly for the closure of the SOA, lobbying government leaders and raising public awareness of the impacts that U.S. military policy continues to have in Latin America. Every November, thousands of concerned citizens from around the Americas gather with Bourgeois and other SOA Watch activists outside the gates of the Institute's facility at Ft. Benning, Georgia for a vigil commemorating the dead. Although the name of the institution was changed in 2001 -- it is now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), its faculty and central purposes remain unchanged.
About five years ago, Bourgeois was joined by former Maryknoll Lay Missionary and human rights activist Lisa Sullivan. Together, they decided on a new strategy toward closing the school: removing its students. Travelling throughout Latin America and meeting with multiple political leaders, Bourgeois and Sullivan have found this strategy to be somewhat successful. Beginning with Venezuela, they eventually got Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay to withdraw their troops. Last summer, a meeting with President Rafael Correa ensured Ecuador's withdrawal. In a September meeting with Bourgeois, Sullivan and a delegation of SOAW activists, Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega announced that his military would also be withdrawing its own remaining troops, making Nicaragua the first Central American country to withdraw formally from the SOA.
"When we see an injustice, silence is the voice of complicity," says Bourgeois, who has served time in the U.S. prison system for entering Ft. Benning during previous vigils. "I've always believed in the primacy of conscience, which enables us to discern right from wrong." This commitment has led Bourgeois to confront not only the state, but also his own church. For the past three years he has spoken openly about what has become a taboo topic in Roman Catholicism: women's ordination.
"In the old model of the church, preached since the Fourth Century, God speaks to his people only through men," says Bourgeois, who cannot help but notice a correlation between the structural sexism of the Catholic priesthood and the institutional racism he experienced in 1950's Louisiana. "But in liberation theology, God speaks through everyone. Don't we profess that men and women were created equal? Who are we male priests to say that our call to the priesthood is authentic while women's is not? No matter how hard we try to justify our discrimination against others, it is not the way of God."
Although Bourgeois' support of the Catholic women's ordination movement has drawn censure from the Vatican (to the point of being pressured to "recant" his position or face excommunication), he has remained as passionately devoted to this issue as he has to closing the SOA. "Our conscience is a lifeline to God," he says. "When I fail to follow it, I feel torn and conflicted. On both of these issues, my conscience has told me to speak clearly, boldly and with love. This is what I have done, and this is what I will continue to do."
Jeannine M. Pitas is a graduate student at University of Toronto's Centre for Comparative Literature.