Father Roy Bourgeois’ Journey

How the founder of School of the Americas Watch became an activist

George Fish September 2, 2012

Father Roy Bourgeois went from silence to solidarity. (Courtesy of Unitarian Universalist Church in Cherry Hill)

I should begin this review of Roy Bour­geois’ elo­quent pam­phlet, My Jour­ney from Silence to Sol­i­dar­i­ty, which is both auto­bi­og­ra­phy and polemic, with a dis­clo­sure — that, after inter­view­ing Bour­geois at length on sev­er­al occa­sions, I con­sid­er him a friend. For me, an angry ex-Catholic athe­ist, Roy Bour­geois rep­re­sents all that is admirable in Chris­t­ian moral wit­ness, more often than not hon­ored in the breach by pro­fessed Chris­tians. Indeed, far too many Catholics would much rather look the oth­er way rather than dis­agree with a bish­op or — heav­en for­bid! — the Pope. Yet that is pre­cise­ly what Bour­geois has done, and done coura­geous­ly: stand up pub­licly to Vat­i­can sex­ism, as a mat­ter of conscience. 

Bour­geois writes this lit­tle pam­phlet in a direct, unas­sum­ing style. My Jour­ney from Silence to Sol­i­dar­i­ty begins with Bour­geois’ recount­ing of the times he did remain silent in the face of injus­tice, of the times he stood on the side­lines rather than demon­strate sol­i­dar­i­ty with the oppressed. Born and raised in Louisiana, young Roy took for grant­ed that the Catholic parish he was a mem­ber of was seg­re­gat­ed, along with the pub­lic schools he attend­ed. He accept­ed the usu­al ratio­nal­iza­tions, It’s just our tra­di­tion” and sep­a­rate but equal.” Fol­low­ing high school grad­u­a­tion, he attend­ed col­lege in Louisiana, desir­ing to be a geol­o­gist and become rich oil prospect­ing. The civ­il rights move­ment of the 1960s was just get­ting under­way, but he paid that no mind either. 

After one year Roy dropped out of col­lege and enlist­ed in the Navy, opt­ing to go to Viet­nam, a star­ry-eyed patri­ot who believed it was nec­es­sary to stop com­mu­nism” over there lest we have to fight it in Cal­i­for­nia. But his eyes were opened in Viet­nam, where he vol­un­teered at an orphan­age direct­ed by Father Lucien Oliv­er, a man he calls a peace­mak­er, a heal­er who would have tremen­dous influ­ence on my life.” At the orphan­age, which held over 300 chil­dren, he began to see the real­i­ty of U.S. pol­i­cy in Viet­nam, and wrote in My Jour­ney from Silence to Sol­i­dar­i­ty, Their par­ents had been killed in the war, most by our guns and bombs. Life at the orphan­age was a real strug­gle for survival…and brought con­flict and sleep­less nights. See­ing the suf­fer­ing of the chil­dren at the orphan­age forced me to ques­tion our pres­ence in Viet­nam, and I start­ed to dis­cuss this with my fel­low offi­cers.” (Bour­geois was a naval lieutenant.)

For this he was direct­ly rep­ri­mand­ed by his com­mand­ing offi­cer, who told Bour­geois blunt­ly, Lieu­tenant, your job in the mil­i­tary is to imple­ment our country’s for­eign pol­i­cy, not to ques­tion or dis­cuss it.” When Bour­geois brought up the orphan­age, the com­mand­ing offi­cer shout­ed at him and walked out.

Upon his dis­charge from the mil­i­tary, Bour­geois returned to his home­town in Louisiana a hero, hav­ing won the Pur­ple Heart in Viet­nam when his bar­racks was attacked by the Viet Cong and 14 per­sons were killed. His expe­ri­ences in Viet­nam had changed a num­ber of things in him, among them his views on race and racism. While nev­er an active seg­re­ga­tion­ist, he’d tak­en it for grant­ed and nev­er pre­vi­ous­ly ques­tioned it, but serv­ing with African Amer­i­cans in basic train­ing and Viet­nam and return­ing to Louisiana to see that racism still pre­vailed despite cer­tain changes — the pub­lic schools and the Catholic church he’d attend­ed were inte­grat­ed — now made him angry. Invit­ed to join the local chap­ter of the Vet­er­ans for For­eign Wars because of his war ser­vice, Bour­geois told the local VFW, which had a sep­a­rate chap­ter for African Amer­i­cans, he’d join only when it was inte­grat­ed. He calls this the first stir­rings of a pub­lic con­science that would mark so much of his lat­er career.

While in Viet­nam Bour­geois felt a call to the Catholic priest­hood, which he dis­cussed with the chap­lain, who rec­om­mend­ed he apply to the Mary­knoll Mis­sion­ary Order. Bour­geois enrolled in the Mary­knoll sem­i­nary in Ossin­ing, New York short­ly after his stay in Louisiana. Despite Bour­geois’ grow­ing anti­war con­vic­tions, he was still hes­i­tant and doubt­ful about resist­ing war at Ossin­ing, so much so that he boy­cotted a speech giv­en there by Jesuit anti­war resister Dan Berri­g­an. When Bour­geois lat­er recount­ed this to Berri­g­an, Berri­g­an was jovial and sup­port­ive, know­ing full well the issues Bour­geois still had to work out. As Bour­geois writes, Becom­ing a true peace­mak­er is a process; it takes time to work through many issues.”

After his ordi­na­tion in 1972, Bour­geois was sent to La Paz, Bolivia, where he served as a Mary­knoll priest until 1977. He saw first­hand the oppres­sion of the Boli­vian peas­ants he worked with, and also their egal­i­tar­i­an faith com­mu­ni­ty, so in con­trast to the tra­di­tion­al top-down hier­ar­chy of offi­cial Catholi­cism. Bour­geois also saw the com­plic­i­ty of U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy in this oppres­sion, through its sup­port of Boli­vian dic­ta­tor Gen­er­al Hugo Banz­er. Because he chose to live in the bar­rio in La Paz rather than a com­fort­able rec­to­ry, Bour­geois was imme­di­ate­ly con­sid­ered sus­pect, but as a priest and a for­eign­er, he was able to get a pass into the pris­ons and talk to the polit­i­cal pris­on­ers there. He doc­u­ment­ed cas­es of tor­ture of these pris­on­ers, shar­ing the infor­ma­tion with a Boli­vian ecu­meni­cal group of priests, nuns and layper­sons who were human rights activists. Bour­geois also returned briefly to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where he informed mem­bers of Con­gress of this tor­ture and oth­er human rights vio­la­tions car­ried out under the Banz­er gov­ern­ment. His vis­it was report­ed to the Boli­vian gov­ern­ment, and in August 1977, days after his return to Bolivia, he was declared per­sona non gra­ta, deport­ed and refused any right to return.

From that point, Bour­geois’ work as a Mary­knoll priest led him to focus on the repres­sion in El Sal­vador, in par­tic­u­lar the assas­si­na­tion of Arch­bish­op Romero and the mur­der and rape of four Catholic women work­ing there. The lat­ter gal­va­nized him to found SOA Watch, as the nuns’ killers had all been trained by the School of the Amer­i­c­as (now known as WHIN­SEC), in Fort Ben­ning, Georgia. 

It was through Bour­geois’ work with SOA Watch that he met many devout, com­mit­ted Catholic women who felt, as he had, a call­ing to the Catholic priest­hood, but from which they were barred because of their gen­der. This moved Bour­geois to become a devot­ed advo­cate of women’s ordi­na­tion as well. He first spoke out pub­licly in 2001 on a Vat­i­can radio broad­cast about SOA Watch, men­tion­ing it at the end of his inter­view — which drew an angry and abrupt end­ing to his broadcast.

Bour­geois relates this sto­ry in a flow­ing, elo­quent and anec­do­tal way in the first 16 pages of My Jour­ney from Silence to Sol­i­dar­i­ty: a seam­less web” (to use the phrase made notable by the late Car­di­nal Joseph Bernardin, Arch­bish­op of Chica­go) of awak­en­ing to the injus­tice around him. The remain­der of the pam­phlet is devot­ed to Bour­geois’ activ­i­ties con­fronting Vat­i­can sex­ism and sup­port­ing women’s ordi­na­tion, and of the attempts of the Vat­i­can to silence and pun­ish him. All this is told in a straight­for­ward, earnest way that demon­strates not only Bour­geois’ indomitable com­mit­ment, but his under­ly­ing humility.

My Jour­ney from Silence to Sol­i­dar­i­ty express­es well those key ideas that inform Bour­geois’ com­mit­ment. The first is his notion that he grew to unhesi­tat­ing­ly accept, that silence is the voice of com­plic­i­ty.” The sec­ond, tak­en from St. Paul’s Epis­tle to the Gala­tians, 3:28, appears on the back cov­er, There is nei­ther male nor female. In Christ you are all one.” And the third is that the call to the priest­hood is a direct gift from God, bestowed to women as well as to men. As Bour­geois has said on many occa­sions, Who are we as men to say to women Our call is legit­i­mate, but yours is not’?” Indeed, Bour­geois writes, Sex­ism, like racism, is a sin. And no mat­ter how hard we may try to jus­ti­fy dis­crim­i­na­tion against oth­ers, it is not the way of our lov­ing Cre­ator who made us all equal.” Bour­geois even cites in defense of his dis­obe­di­ence to the Church” Pope Bene­dict XVI him­self, who as Car­di­nal Joseph Ratzinger specif­i­cal­ly stat­ed the duty to fol­low one’s con­science even against the require­ment of eccle­si­as­ti­cal authority.”

Bour­geois ded­i­cates My Jour­ney from Silence to Sol­i­dar­i­ty to the mem­o­ry of Sophie Scholl, who along with her broth­er Hans and oth­ers who were mem­bers of the White Rose resis­tance, were exe­cut­ed by the Nazis in 1943. Bour­geois also cites as hero­ic exam­ples Rosa Parks and Franz Jager­stat­ter, an Aus­tri­an farmer and father of four chil­dren exe­cut­ed for refus­ing to join Hitler’s army. My Jour­ney from Silence to Sol­i­dar­i­ty is a pow­er­ful must-read, elo­quent tes­ti­mo­ny of one man’s ongo­ing strug­gle against injus­tice. It is also an impor­tant and hon­est state­ment about grow­ing, of mov­ing from silence to solidarity.”

My Jour­ney from Silence to Sol­i­dar­i­ty is avail­able for $7 by request from Roy Bour­geois, at P.O. Box 3330, Colum­bus, GA 31903, phone/​fax 7066825369. It is now in its sec­ond print­ing, the ini­tial run of 5,000 copies hav­ing run out; it’s also avail­able as a PDF at www​.roy​bour​geoisjour​ney​.org, and repro­duc­tion of its con­tents is specif­i­cal­ly permitted.

George Fish, a free­lance writer liv­ing in Indi­anapo­lis, has writ­ten for Dia­logue & Ini­tia­tive, Month­ly Review, Polit­i­cal Affairs, Against the Cur­rent and Social­ism and Democ­ra­cy.
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