WASHINGTON — Days before his expulsion from both his order and the Roman Catholic priesthood for ordaining women, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois sat in chilly spring sunshine staring at the White House, contemplating what life will be like after he's defrocked.
He was hungry — the result of a weeklong fast as part of his perennial protest against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Fort Benning, Ga. The institute, formerly known as the School of the Americas, trains police and military forces from Latin America. Opponents say the school's graduates return to their home countries and use those skills to torture citizens.
He was wistful. After all, Bourgeois' 38-year career as a member of the missionary Maryknoll order has meant spending time in such countries as Bolivia and El Salvador, preaching the gospel and speaking out against the rape and torture of those nations' citizens. Bourgeois, 73, a resident of Columbus, Ga., helped lead the first protest at the school following the 1980 assassination in El Salvador of Archbishop Oscar Romero and four churchwomen, acts Bourgeois links to training at the School of the Americas.
Those protests began with 20 people and have grown to thousands.
He was at peace. It's been a long time coming for the native of a small, predominately Catholic Louisiana parish who went on to serve in Vietnam and has spent nearly every year since he returned fighting policies he sees as oppressive. In August 2008, in Lexington, Ky., he participated in a ceremony to "ordain" a Catholic woman, Janice Sevre-Duszynska, and was subsequently excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church after he didn't recant.
"What happened with my works with the School of the Americas movement, speaking out against injustice, I discovered this injustice much closer to home in the Catholic Church, women who are saying they are being called by God to preach," Bourgeois said. "I really had to reflect on what they were saying. What I discovered was grave injustice against women, our church and our God who calls women to be priests. I broke my silence to go public."
The Army considers the Fort Benning school as a valuable asset in its ability to help build partnerships with other nations, contribute to peace and stability and ensure the Defense Department will not have to expend additional resources in the region on peacekeeping efforts.
"We challenge them to see what we actually do. We're proud of it," said Lee Rials, the school's spokesman. "The training we teach starts with democracy and human rights matters. The longest course is the same one taught at Fort Leavenworth (Kan.) to army majors and is taught in Spanish."
On Thursday, Bourgeois and other human rights activists gathered in front of the White House to protest both the planned Colombia Free Trade Agreement and the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. On Wednesday, the White House announced that U.S. and Colombian negotiators had reached agreement on protections for labor unions, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House.
On Friday, a group of Catholic protesters are expected to gather outside the Vatican Embassy in support of Bourgeois, who will publicly respond to Maryknoll leadership by stating that he cannot, in good conscience, recant his support for women's ordination. He must publicly recant his support for women's ordination by Saturday. After that, he'll get another warning as a formality, then be defrocked.
On Sunday, Bourgeois will be joined by hundreds of human rights activists from around the world in a march to the White House calling for an executive order from Obama to close the Fort Benning school.
"I was tortured by the Colombia military. Colombia is the biggest user of the school, and it is no coincidence that it is the biggest abuser of the school," said protester Hector Aristizabal. "Obama has promised a great deal in the field of human rights, but unfortunately he has continued the same policy as the Bush administration. There are all of these contradictions, and I haven't seen a great deal of change in foreign policy."
As for Bourgeois, amid the flurry of geopolitical and theological debate, he finds himself feeling quite centered.
"Maybe it took me this long to be a priest. This is what we should be doing," he said of fighting what he considers injustice. "I actually, because of what I'm going through, feel like I'm getting closer to God. When we face a crisis, we have to go within to find that peace. I find my spiritual life is growing and I'm growing closer to God."
(Allison Kennedy of the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer contributed.)
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