ELKHART, Ind. — For the students who traveled from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary to Fort Benning, Ga., in November, the experience of witnessing for peace and justice raised questions while it inspired and challenged them.
Taylor Dwyer-Zeman, Katerina Friesen and Sandra Stevens participated in the Nov. 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 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 they joined a Nov. 21 detention center march.
Stevens pointed out the 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., and of the 1,800 men held there, 98.5 percent are deported. Conditions and practices, such as withholding food and medicine and placing people in solitary confinement, violate U.S. 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?” he said. “That was something I wrestled with.”
Friesen said the Stewart march was a powerful recommitment time for her 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.
“I was overcome with emotion, seeing love in action crossing those borders,” Friesen said. “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. 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.”
The power of walls
At Fort Benning, people gathered to protest the work of the School of the Americas in providing combat training for military personnel from other countries, primarily Latin American countries. Part of the Sunday witness included naming people killed by those trained at the center. Then participants moved to the fort entrance and placed the crosses bearing the names in the chain-link fences.
Dwyer-Zeman believes it’s important to communicate why this kind of witness and civil disobedience is being done.
“How could we engage in civil disobedience that has direct effects in the way the civil disobedience in the civil rights movement did?” he said. “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. A time of prayer for the group preceded their departure.