Mary E. Klassen
For the students who traveled from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary to Fort Benning, Ga., in late November, the experience of witnessing for peace and justice raised questions while it also inspired and challenged them.
Taylor Dwyer-Zeman, Katerina Friesen and Sandra Stevens participated in the November 21-22 march on the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., and the annual witness calling for the closing of the School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning. Traveling with them were Ted Koontz, professor emeritus of peace studies and ethics, and Matt Brown, a friend of Dwyer-Zeman and husband of AMBS student Allie Brown.
Reporting to a seminary gathering after their return, the students described how on Saturday, Nov. 21, they joined a march to the Stewart Detention Center.
Stevens pointed out the direct connection between the two places of witness and protest. “What happens with American policies through operations like SOA are contributing to the immigrants who are being held in Stewart,” she said. “The economic exploitation we do in their countries brings them here, and we economically exploit them again as we hold them in prisons as long as we want for misdemeanor crimes.”
Stewart is the largest for-profit prison in the U.S., Dwyer-Zeman explained, and of the 1800 men held there, 98.5 percent are deported. Conditions and practices, such as withholding food and medicine and placing people in solitary confinement, violate the U.S.’s own detention standards.
While joining the more than 1,000 people marching to call for closing the center, Dwyer-Zeman was aware that the center is a source of employment for people in the area. “How do we communicate that we want to shut down Stewart, but also communicate to the guards that we realize our protest has nothing to do with you. That was something I wrestled with,” he said.
Sharing her reflections on the Stewart march, Friesen said, “That first morning was a really powerful recommitment time for me as a peacemaker. It was an important symbolic time for me to realize this is what I want my life to be about,” she said.
During that witness, four people crossed into an area where they were not allowed, and they were arrested. Friesen remembered, “I was overcome with emotion, seeing love in action crossing those borders. There was deep joy and smiles on their faces as they went toward a place that represented death for so many people.
“I have seen an image of Christ in a way I did not understand before,” she continued. “Part of what it means to be a Christian is knowing that death does not have the last word. Knowing that the power of life is greater than the power of death in that moment was transformative in my own commitment as a peacemaker.”
At Fort Benning, people gathered to protest the work of the School of the Americas in providing combat training for defense personnel from other countries, primarily Latin American countries. Part of the Sunday witness at SOA included naming people killed by those trained at the center; participants held up white crosses on which the names and the ages of the people were written. Then participants moved to the entrance of the Fort and placed the crosses in the chain-link fences.
Dwyer-Zeman reflected that it’s important to communicate why this kind of witness and civil disobedience is being carried out. He asked, “How could we engage in civil disobedience that has direct effects in the way the civil disobedience in the Civil Rights Movement did? We can’t get inside these walls.”
Friesen added, “I want to believe in the power of prayer and that there is something happening beyond what we know. How is what we are doing there a kind of praying and knowing that God is working and doing something to pull down walls outside of what we are doing?”
The trip was funded in part by personal contributions from members of the seminary community, and a time of prayer for the group preceded their departure.