An Appreciation of Roy Bourgeois

This was written in 2005 and I am sharing it here for friends who may be headed this weekend to Fort Benning.

For some of us, the story of Father Roy Bourgeois is familiar. We know he is the Maryknoll Catholic priest who has helped spark a movement to close the variously called “School of Assassins,” run by the U.S. Army at Fort Benning, Georgia.[1] On the first anniversary of the 1989 assassination of six Jesuit priests and two university staff women in San Salvador, Bourgeois and a couple of others staged a protest at the then-called School of the Americas. In 2004 on that anniversary, some 15,000 people had gathered to protest and say, “Close the School!”[2]

In a recent book, Disturbing the Peace, James Hodge and Linda Cooper tell the story primarily of how this Cajun Catholic and former Navy man who served time in Vietnam became an outspoken U.S. practitioner of the preferential option for the poor, and ultimately spent a few years in U.S. prisons for acts of nonviolent resistance.[3] It is a fascinating story in part because you get the feeling that Bourgeois is a very ordinary person who made some extraordinary choices in the course of his life.

The heart of the book for me is Bourgeois’s on-going conversion to the poor of this world. While in Vietnam, Bourgeois came to work at an orphanage where he was inspired by a priest, Lucien Olivier. There Bourgeois was, a member of the U.S. military then devastating the Vietnamese landscape and killing hundreds and thousands of people week after week. Nevertheless, he was able to make a human connection with these defenseless, vulnerable children. Bourgeois eventually began to see the war from the perspective of the victims of the war, rather than the theoreticians and cheerleaders for it back home. As the authors note, “Until Bourgeois met the war orphans it never occurred to him that the interests of God and country might not be one and the same. Later, in the seminary, he realized that his drill instructors had routinely assaulted the Sermon on the Mount. It seemed that core Christian values—forgiving, loving your enemies, putting away the sword—went out the window once the field packs were strapped on.”[4]

That encounter with the French missionary and the children changed Bourgeois’ life. After he finished his time in the military, he decided to become a missionary himself, which is when he joined the Maryknoll order.[5] Just to show that Bourgeois’ awakening was gradual, when Daniel Berrigan came to speak at his seminary, Bourgeois boycotted the event, believing that the outspoken Jesuit priest was a traitor.

As the 60s end and the war continued, Bourgeois was eventually shaken up enough by what he learns at home about the war, that, like many Vietnam vets, he started to work against the war. He was soon sent to Bolivia, however, after being ordained a priest, and there he encountered poverty, loneliness, fear, and a piercing sense of his own limits. He assisted the people in starting a health clinic and trade school. Throughout, he experienced the truth of which St. Augustine wrote, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage: anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” Over and over again, the reader sees both Bourgeois’ anger and courage as he opens himself to the various ways people struggling for life are oppressed. In a letter he wrote to folks back home, Bourgeois put it simply, “The poor know the leaders here have one goal—to get rich at the expense of the poor.”[6]

For making his own preferential option for the Bolivian poor and supporting them in their struggle for justice, Bourgeois was arrested, harassed, and, ultimately, forced to leave the country. Like many missionaries from the 1960s on, Bourgeois learned the price for siding with the poor.[7]

Bourgeois’ world was further disturbed in 1980 by the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and four U.S. Churchwomen, two of whom he was acquainted with through Maryknoll, Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke. Compelled by these heinous crimes, Bourgeois soon visited El Salvador and, much to the chagrin of his family and friends, he went “missing” as he traveled with some of the El Salvadoran guerrillas to see Salvadoran life from the perspective of those on the bottom of the society.

Not long after, he discovered that Salvadoran soldiers were being trained on a U.S. military base in Georgia. After several months of getting the lay of the land in Columbus, Georgia, Bourgeois and two companions decided to do a nonviolent direct action. Using tree-climbers at night, they scaled a tall pine tree, and with a boom box directed to the nearby Salvadoran soldiers’ barracks, Bourgeois and his companions blasted the last sermon of Oscar Romero. They wanted those soldiers to hear the words that included, “Stop the repression!”

After he got out of jail for that 1983 action at Fort Benning, Bourgeois decided to enter a monastery in Georgia, but he soon found out that contemplative life was not for him. Hodge and Copper elaborate, “In the monastery he felt increasingly like he’d gone AWOL from the struggles of the poor. As he looked back over his life, he realized how indebted he was to them. To the orphans and the refugees in Vietnam who’d been the instruments of his conversion. To the Bolivians who’d taught him not only about the effects of U.S. foreign policy, but what it meant to be totally dependent on God. To the Salvadorans who had risked their lives to let him glimpse the reality of their lives.”[8]

And so while the U.S. government continued its roles in the various bloodbaths in Central America, Bourgeois kept busy in the 1980s and 1990: doing educational work, speaking to hundreds of church communities, engaging in public fasts, protesting the U.S. support of the Nicaraguan contras, making a movie about the arms race, and commemorating the murder of the Jesuits at Fort Benning. He was relentless in calling the government and military to accountability: “The school and the Army have never acknowledged the truth, let alone apologized . . . . They simply downplay what these graduates have done. There’s just so much pain and death connected to this school and its graduates. Thousands of people continue to grieve for their loved ones. That has not ended.”[9]

The latter part of the book details the growing movement to close that school, as more and more facts about the exploits of its graduates came to light. Atrocities committed throughout Latin America had the fingerprints of numerous graduates of the School of the Americas. It’s a tribute to the disturb-the-peace persistence of SOAW movement that the Army decided to “close” the school in 2000 but then started a similar institution with the new name, Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation.

The authors certainly reveal Bourgeois’ human side, lest people put him on a pedestal, in the way that Dorothy Day scoffed at in her later years.[10] For example, while St. Augustime championed anger, Bourgeois admits, “Sometimes you have so much passion about what you’re doing, you feel so strongly about it, you believe in it so deeply, that you’re like a bulldozer. I can be gentle, but I can also be very short. One example was in the early days when we first came to Fort Benning and planned to climb the trees near the Salvadoran barracks and play Romero’s last homily. Larry, Linda, and I were committed, but two others backed out. They wanted to check with an attorney about how much time we would get. To me, it didn’t make any difference. They checked and found out we could get five years and I said, “So?” They wanted to keep talking about it, but I felt it was time to act. Too often we just analyze, analyze, analyze. Discern, discern, discern. We convince ourselves that we shouldn’t do something. Certainly we have to discern and consult and take things like this seriously, but there comes a moment when you’ve got to move and that’s the moment that I sometimes have regrets about. I feel I haven’t been as kind or as patient as I should’ve been.”[11] How many of us can relate to that impatience, that strong judgment of others who don’t feel the urgency that we feel, who seem indifferent to what is on fire in our hearts? Eventually, Bourgeois learned to better tame anger’s raw energy and see the privilege of his experiences in Vietnam and Latin America. At one point, Bourgeois grasped that “if [family and friends had] had the benefit of his missionary experience, they too might have been radicalized and would share his outrage at the deplorable conditions and the ugly roots of injustice.”[12]

Roy Bourgeois’ witness ought to be a goad to us to read the signs of our times and to gravitate to the equivalent of the Vietnamese orphans who unwittingly changed his life. It is true that “[t]oo often we just analyze, analyze, analyze. Discern, discern, discern.” One gets the sense that Bourgeois himself struggles with this balancing act of educating the public and disturbing the peace: “I’d given hundreds of talks on El Salvador, and I would have been a phony if I hadn’t gone [to Fort Benning]. Some people aren’t aware of what’s going on, but many of us are. We know enough to act. We don’t need to go to another lecture or read another article. We know that the money the U.S. sends to El Salvador is doing…. It demands a radical response.”[13] What today demands our radical response?

Bourgeois’s life reminds me of a significant statement from the world’s Catholic Bishops in 1971, in their Justice in the World, to wit, “[a]ction on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive condition.”[14] His own journey is a microcosm of the journey of some sectors of the Catholic Church in the last fifty years. Raised a traditional Catholic, Bourgeois’ experiences abroad broke him out of an insular Church to a Church of solidarity. In recent years, while Bourgeois has been focused intently on the School of the Americas, he has also visited other peoples in this hemisphere (Colombia, Nicaragua) and beyond (Iraq and a return visit to Vietnam). Bourgeois’ time in prison led him to a deeper spiritual understanding of public engagement. He reflected, “I used to try to empower people to help them bring about change. I felt I had to get them on the front lines. Now I realize that God must transform them, empower them. Otherwise, it will be short-lived like the seed that fell on the ground, sprouted but didn’t take root.”[15]

Canadian theologian Gregory Baum has claimed that “[i]t would be difficult to find Catholic texts prior to World War II that expressed solidarity with others—with Protestants, Jews, members of other religions and people without religion.”[16] Today, it wouldn’t be hard to find Catholic texts, religious communities, parish groups, coalitions and networks, theologians and an occasional bishop taking risks in solidarity with immigrants, men on death row, Arab peoples living under military occupation, victims of globalization, and marginalized minorities, in the U.S. and beyond.

For Roy Bourgeois, and many of the thousands who have joined him at the gates of Fort Benning in mid-November, it is this path of solidarity that is the practical expression of faith, hope, and love.

SOA Close up

Photo by Eric Sears, SOA Vigil, November 2000

[1] See the School of Americas Watch:
[2] See the reflections on that weekend from members and friends of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis at
[3] James Hodge and Linda Copper, Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2004).
[4] Ibid., 9.
[5] The authors go on to report, “Sometimes he’d also explain [in public talks] how he had met Olivier and how he had different feelings when he went to the orphanage. ‘We’ve all been there,’ he’d tell students, ‘when we’re not at ease, when the spirit is moving, when an inner voice calls us to something deeper, to somewhere we’ve never been.’ He wanted to put the life of a warrior behind him, he said, to heal wounds rather than inflict them. And in Olivier, he saw a meaningful way to spend one’s life: making the world safe for children.” Ibid., 25.
[6] Ibid., 41.
[7] The authors summarize, “To the regime, his sins were plentiful: organizing and educating peasants, forming base Christian communities, accusing the military of human rights abuses, visiting prisoners and comforting their families. Others guilty of far fewer offenses had already ended up missing.” Ibid., 49.
[8] Ibid., 106.
[9] Ibid., 199.
[10] Bourgeois is no stranger to defamation, either: “If his friends expressed anger about his walk with the Salvadoran guerrillas, Bourgeois’ detractors were downright vicious, calling him a communist and a string of obscenities. One said he should be hanged.” Ibid., 79.
[11] Ibid., 179. Upon his return home from Bolivia, Bourgeois would speak to fellow Catholics in parish settings. Hodge and Cooper: “Needless to say, his message [to the U.S. parish] didn’t sit well with many parishioners, who he said ‘wanted little spiritual lollipops.’ During a discussion with members of a conservative prayer group, he alluded to St. James’ philosophy of that faith without action is dead: ‘The kids in Bolivia are starving, and you can say all the Hail Marys you want, but if they don’t get fed, they’re going to die.’” Ibid., 53.
[12] Ibid., 56.
[13] Ibid., 88.
[14] Justice in the World, in David J. O’Brien and Thomas A. Shannon, ed., Renewing the Earth: Catholic Documents on Peace, Justice and Liberation (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1977), 391.
[15] Quoted in Hodge and Cooper, Disturbing the Peace, 101.
[16] Gregory Baum, Amazing Church: A Catholic Theologian Remembers a Half-Century of Change (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2005), 11.

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