|Toni Kathleen Flynn|
I stand before you as a U.S. citizen, a Catholic Worker volunteer, a woman, a mother, and soon to be a grandmother. I also stand before you as a follower of the Gospel and as a person of prayer. Christ calls us to bring peace, to love our neighbors and our enemies, and to break bread with one another. It is because the School of the Americas (currently, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) stands for the exact opposite of peace and love and sharing bread that I oppose it.
Knowingly, I crossed over the line at Fort Benning two years ago. Last year, I went round the fence and over the line again. Yet I am not guilty ? not guilty by necessity because I am part of a justice movement that requires us to be a voice for the voiceless poor and their martyred champions - for the tortured and the dead and the disappeared who have met their fate because of the very wrong doing of this shameful school.
Catholic Workers have a saying and it goes like this: "When they come for the innocent without crossing over your body, cursed be your religion and your life." And so it is that I put my body in front of the military so as to bring honor to my religion, a blessing upon my life, and protection to the innocent.
Magistrate Faircloth, as I mentioned, I'm a person of prayer.
Here is a prayer for you and for me and for all of us in this room, for the military beyond, for the instructors and graduates of the SOA/WHISC, for peacemakers, for the suffering poor of Latin America, and for all who suffer at the hands of injustice:
Lord, make us all instruments of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may seek not so much
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And in dying to self that we are born into Your Grace.
Shame, Fear, and Liberation
by Toni Flynn
"I come among you in weakness, in fear and great trembling not to convince you by philosophic argument, but to demonstrate the convincing power of the Spirit"
Paul: 1 Corinthians
So this is what it's like to await a trial and possible prison term for opposing the School of the Americas. Frightening. Uncomfortable. Painful. I wait here in the desert at Manna House listening to the clock tick away hours, checking the days off of my calendar, feeling phobic about boarding an airplane, and worse, trying to mold myself into what I never will be a brave peacemaker. Oh. Don't misunderstand. I am a peacemaker, just not a brave one! I'm scared. There is a feeling about me of old wounds reopening under the pressure of this suspense filled time. I'm reluctant even to write and publish these thoughts, but I will do it in the hope that it might inspire even one other person to practice peacemaking in the face of fear and shame.
I never wanted my adult life to be about poverty, publicity, and going to jail. And yet, those experiences have accompanied my choice of living as a Catholic Worker and accompanies my further decision to protest each year at the SOA Watch events in Columbus, Georgia. Poverty. Publicity. Jail. Catholic Workers volunteer their services without benefit of a paycheck. Journalists publish stories about our good deeds as peace activists or we write about our experiences in our own newsletters. We repeatedly risk incarceration when performing non-violent acts of civil disobedience. I do not fare well in any of these scenarios. And I am not faring well now. And I know why.
The childhood that I lived through (dare I say survived?) involved an overload of familial scandal, shame, financial distress, and yes jail. My parents, now deceased, loved me with a deep love but it came to me in a twisted fashion and from the depths of their wound: alcoholism. One autumn afternoon I arrived home from school to find all of our furniture out on the front lawn with an eviction notice tied to the rocking chair. My parents, I later discovered, had not paid the rent and had fought out of doors, in full view of the neighbors, who subsequently phoned the police.
The police thereafter determined my mother and father to be drunk and disorderly, handcuffed them, and drove them off in a police car to the local jail for a night. I was forced to stay with the neighbors who had turned in the complaint. Everyone on the block - and for blocks beyond - proceeded to look at me and my siblings as "those poor children". Poor in more ways than one, shame being as poverty producing in spirit as having no money for rent is in the material scheme of things. Predictably, as the eldest child, I spent the rest of my youth trying to atone for my family's scandalous behavior. I struggled to move beyond 'well behaved' into some sort of sanitized sainthood yet I was concurrently fierce in my pursuit of 'normalcy'. To top it all off, I also felt compelled to champion anyone whom the world dismissed, overlooked, or came down upon unjustly. That compulsion (or gift?) remains with me today.
Now I am a grown up 'fifty-something', brooding upon the paradoxes and contradictions of my life. I am not an alcoholic but I carry within me an unreasonable fear that at any moment I could fall prey to that disease. I am a mother and about to be a grandmother. Respectable positions. But I am also a peacemaker. Not so respectable a position in the eyes of many. A part of me still longs to overcome memories of my wounded childhood and just be perceived as "normal" and "acceptable" in the company of my children, neighbors, and fellow parishioners, Yet, I am about to do a most seemingly abnormal and unacceptable thing fly to Georgia and face a judge who will likely sentence me to a federal prison for 6 months. Why? I was not drunk and disorderly. I was not screaming and yelling. I held no weapons. I simply and directly trespassed on military property with a non-violent group of people and said "NO!" to a school that is in denial of its history, its shame, its continual acts of terror against the innocent poor of Latin America.
Somehow, my peace activism is all intertwined with my family life. I am worried that I will embarrass my grown children, that my soon-to-be born grandchild will someday learn that grandma was incarcerated at the time of his/her birth and be burdened by some sort of residual guilt. The last thing I want is for my family to feel shame. Shame has overshadowed me and my relatives for too many decades already. And so this time of waiting is requiring me to pray. And pray. And pray. I pray that my actions will heal past familial wounds, not reopen them. I pray that my appearance before a judge and my probable time in a prison will reframe the episodes wherein my parents were convicted of misdeeds that sprang from their illness. I pray that liberation, not humiliation, prevails. And I pray that in some small way, I may be a witness, a reluctant prophet, who goes forth in solidarity with all of the countless poor of Latin America who have lived and died in poverty and shame at the hands of the School of the Americas.
"He supports us in every hardship so that we are able to come to the support of others"
Paul: 2 Corinthians
The following letter was written last year, just before Toni Flynn of the High Desert Catholic Worker, left for Fort Benning, GA. to participate in the SOA Watch vigil and action in opposition to the School of the Americas/WHISC:
November 14th, 2001
Dear friends and family members:
Tomorrow I board a plane bound for the School of the Americas protest at Fort Benning, GA. On Sunday I will be joining other peacemakers in a procession wherein we will trespass onto the Military Base and risk arrest. It may be that we will be ignored altogether, or be detained by the Columbus City police before we even cross over the property line. It may be, however, that we succeed in entering the Base only to be promptly arrested by the military police. If that happens, I along with my fellow protesters may face trespassing charges, a trial, and up to six months in a Federal prison. This possibility is real for me because when I return to Fort Benning this week, I will be in violation of last year's U.S. Army-issued "Ban & Bar" letter forbidding me to reenter the Base.
Some of you (especially my children!) receiving this letter will be worried about my well being. Don't worry. I will be in the company of many good people, all non-violent in their commitments to peace and justice. Among them are priests, nuns, school teachers, Catholic Workers, university students, veterans of war, parents, and some neighbors from south of our border who have survived the violence waged upon them by the graduates of the SOA/WHISC.
Some others of you receiving this letter may be furious at me, or bewildered, or even embarrassed. To you I want to say that I understand that you may not agree with my spiritual path, my philosophy, my political perspectives. I accept that and all I ask is that you, as my friends and relatives, read further before you shake your head and turn your back on my anticipated actions.
I confess that I am nervous. But I am a pacifist, sincerely, and a Catholic one at that. I must therefore behave and act from that center or it means nothing. Admittedly, the campaign to close down the School of the Americas is not a popular cause outside of the circle of Catholic social justice activists, some enlightened veterans of war, a handful of Democrats, those who have suffered in Central and South America, and others in the peace movement. Especially, it is not a popular cause this year, in the aftermath of our September 11th tragedy and in the midst of a well-supported U.S. war of retaliation. It is not a popular cause at the White House, the Pentagon, nor even in most churches and homes where every day citizens gather to pray and to live out their lives. But as an American Catholic, I cannot stand by while a U.S. military base sponsors a school, with U.S. tax dollars, that trains military officers from our neighboring countries to go back home and kill their own with tactics akin to the terrorism we have just condemned at ground zero in New York.
Among the countless victims of SOA/WHISC trained military forces are Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyred; the Jesuits and their women co-workers, massacred; the North American church women, slain; and the poor villagers of El Mozote, all murdered. And for what? The perpetuation of a U.S. relationship with the very rich of Central and South America and Mexico for the furtherance of our economic interests in those countries? According to the faith that I cling to, the SOA victims - the voiceless poor and those who championed them - lived and died as part of the Mystical Body of Christ - the same Body that invites those of us who remain to live lives of mercy and justice.
How can I make this easier for you, my dear ones, if not to believe what I believe, than at least to begin to feel what I feel, and as passionately? Perhaps this quote by Oscar Romero will suffice: "The Church would be betraying its own love of God and faithfulness to the Gospel if it were to stop being the voice of those who have no voice, the defender of the rights of the poor this requires of the people of the Church a greater insertion into the lives of the poor with whom the Church should place itself in solidarity even to the point of accepting their risks and their destiny."
So it is that this cause to close down a military school of infamy is much more a spiritual endeavor for me than it is a political one. And yes, from my viewpoint, it is also a way to remember all people who have suffered and died through violent means, including those who died on September11th of this sad year, those who die now in Afghanistan, and those young soldiers - our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, who, as in times past, are now being sent to kill and be killed in a far away place because we have not yet figured out Christ's alternative Way of Peace. I hope against hope that we see the light, and soon. Meanwhile, I'm boarding that plane for Georgia pray for me.
Toni Flynn was arrested along with several others on November 18, 2001, for processing around a fence and onto the property of Fort Benning in Columbus, GA. She was handcuffed, photographed, finger printed, and detained at the Base for several hours and then released. In April, 2002, she and 43 other protesters received notice to appear before Judge Faircloth in Columbus on July 8th for a trial and sentencing.
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