School of the Americas 2003 (1)
Locked Up: Letters and Papers of a Prisoner of Conscience
Imprisoned for six months in 2004 as a result of
his protest at the School of the Americas, Witherspoon member
Don Beisswenger offers a personal collection of journal entries,
letters, and spiritual reflections during his incarceration. The
book has unusual richness and concreteness as Beisswenger
narrates his encounters with prisoners, prison staff, and many
people on the "outside." In the process he offered a pastoral
presence and a prophetic challenge within the prison system. And
he also gives an account of his own spiritual growth and the
things that made prison life bearable. (from Witherspoon
Issues Analyst Gene TeSelle)
reports on his arrest and imprisonment, and his own reflections
His book is published by Upper Room Books,
with a list price of $15. ISBN: 083589939X
Beisswenger speaks to his presbytery about the spiritual significance of
his 6 month prison term for nonviolent protest against the School of the
Don Beisswenger was arrested for his participation in the
November 2003 demonstration again the School of the Americas at Fort Benning,
Georgia. He was sent to the Federal Prison in Manchester, Kentucky,
where he served a six-month sentence. He completed his sentence and
was released on October 1, 2004.
In speaking to his Presbytery, Don reflects on the meaning
of his action, the continuing violence -- especially now in Colombia --
rooted in the work of SOA. He concludes:
Prison is not foreign to our faith. In Hebrews
we are called to “remember those in prison as though in prison with them,
and as those who are ill treated for you also are of the body.”
So I thank you as you remembered me with
prayer and letters. I knew a deep sense of community with the people of God,
and peace, even amidst the difficult time.
released after 6-month sentence for School of the Americas action
Gene TeSelle, Witherspoon's Issues
Analyst, reports on the release of Don Beisswenger
from federal prison after six months in prison for civil disobedience at the
School of the Americas (SOA).
He was greeted by a group of supporters at the Nashville
Peace and Justice Center on Friday afternoon after a four-hour trip from the
Federal Correctional Institution in Manchester, KY. [10-4-04]
Here's the latest letter from Don
Beisswenger, a Witherspooner in prison for protesting against the School
of the Americas
Scroll down for an earlier letter from Don, and
August 30, 2004 [posted here 9-13-04]
Dear Family and Friends,
I have about four more weeks here in Manchester, KY. The
time has moved along and soon I will be free from this confinement,
October 1 to be exact. I am looking forward to seeing some of you at the
October 12th banquet to celebrate Penuel Ridge's
The middle period here has been easier, especially
having a cube, a light, desk, locker for storage and a chair. I also know
the ropes better, so rest more easily within the system. I have not had an
altercation for two weeks. Alleluia.
I continue to believe the prisons are obsolete as a way
to deal with ordering our society. Violent persons, of course, need safe
space to protect them and others. However, the 500 persons in this camp do
not need to be here but to be with their families, at their jobs, and with
the communities which support them.
I want to briefly address what I call the increasing
costs of dissent. As you know I am a part of the effort to close the US
army school in Columbus, GA because of the serious human rights
violations, including the torture and assassinations by graduates of the
school. The activities of graduates parallel what was done in the Iraqi
prisons, yet Congress does not support serious investigation into the
military policies which led to these atrocities--a sad commentary on our
Further, dissent from US government policies supported
by economic institutions which benefit from them is to be a troublemaker.
The cost of active dissent increases. Three instances come to my mind: 1)
When I was arrested, I was told to bring $500.00 for bond. When we
arrived, however, we were told that the bond would be $1000.00. This made
for considerable difficulty, and I had to ask the Presbyterian Peace
Fellowship for help. Lois Baker from Wisconsin loaned me the money. We
only recently received the money back. 2). All the 27 persons arrested
were upright and responsible citizens and could have been released on
their own recognizance, but the judge denied this argument from our
attorney. 3).Sixteen of the 27 persons sentenced for going onto the base
were given six month sentences, the maximum. Ten received three months.
Most everyone got a fine of some amount .The escalation of the cost of
dissent continues. (An article in the Nation dated August 23,
2004, written by Jim Hightower and entitled
"Bush Zones Go National" should be accessed for further information on
the issue of dissent and government policies.
Here is an excerpt:
"The Bushites are using federal, state and local
police to conduct an undeclared war against dissent, literally
incarcerating Americans who publicly express their disagreements with
him and his policies. The ACLU and others have now sued Bush's Secret
Service for its ongoing pattern of repressing legitimate made-in-America
protest citing cases in Arizona, California (etc.)----and coming soon to
a theater near you!
"If incarceration is not good enough to deter
dissenters, how about some old-fashioned goon-squad tactics like
infiltration and intimidation of protestors?" And it continues...
We are seeing a doctrine of "permanent" war forever, a
new doctrine of enclosing of dissenters far from the president, etc.
Terrorism is used to justify all kinds of military activity. We no longer
think of peace. Yet we are called to be peacemakers. As Pope PaulVI said,
"Development is the new name of peace." We must recover this vision and
Grace and peace,
You can learn more about Don in an article in The
Nashville Scene, entitled
"Letters from a Kentucky Prison."
To contact Don's support group in Nashville, send a
note to firstname.lastname@example.org
You can write to him directly at
PO Box 4000
Manchester, KY 40962-4000
Don Beisswenger shares reflections from
The Rev. Don Beisswenger was arrested last November
for "crossing the line" in the annual vigil and protest against the
School of the Americas. He was sentenced to six months in prison, and
his serving his time at the Manchester, Kentucky, Federal Prison.
He sent this note on August 23, 2004.
CONFINEMENT AS GIFT
Manchester, KY Federal Prison
I have been incarcerated over four months now. I await
October 1 when I will be released and free to roam beyond the camp where I
am now confined. I cannot leave the camp without serious consequences.
They keep track of me with midnight counts, stand-up counts, "give your
number" counts, etc. I am confined in every sense of the word.
Confinement, separation, enclosure, withdrawal to a desert have all been
disciplines in the life of faith. Confinement in prison adds another
Flannery O'Connor had lupus, a debilitating disease that
sapped her energy, confining her to the farm in Georgia. Her affliction
and confinement was permanent. It would not change. She named it "passive
diminishment." "From what I have to give out," she said, "I observe more
clearly. I can, with an eye squinted, take it all in as a blessing."
Confinement led her to use her energy attending to life at the farm and to
the people about her.
I have wondered a lot about being more present to the
time, the present time. What I pay attention to sharpens my life. If I pay
attention to what's in the future, I may miss something right before me.
What about this day? This time? Much of the energy of inmates is focused
outside the camp either on their appeals, family matters, girlfriends.
Mostly, the energy focuses on wanting to get out. Life is seen in the
future. Often, this characterizes me also. For most, they also find ways
to "pass the time." Distractions become central. Playing cards, playing at
sports, lifting weights become life giving. Religious faith becomes
central for some.
As I reflect upon the time here, I have paid attention
to my relationships with inmates, and to finding space for others in my
heart. I have paid attention to me, to dispositions, tiredness, confusion.
I cherish the support and give thanks to my friends, colleagues, family,
especially grateful now for the women in my life. I ponder those in the
Living Room [a regular discussion group with homeless people in
Nashville], those caring for Penuel Ridge [a retreat center near
Nashville, founded by Don and Joyce Beisswenger], and those working for
the people in Nashville. I continue my thoughts about the graduates of the
School of the Americas and how they affect the children, women, men and
communities in Latin America, and how the investigation into the SOA was
rejected. I see how the atrocities by the US military took shape in Iraq
and how this investigation is avoided, rejected and ignored, and I praise
the people of God who gather in praise and service in their love and hope.
I consider the beauty of flowers, the sky, running water and eating
peaches for breakfast.
Confinement has provided me with an unwanted isolation,
but confinement has also brought me the deeper meanings that lay quietly
within each of those areas already mentioned. I listen better, let events
be my teacher.
And amidst all, I have found holy presence in my life,
filling the space with life and sacredness. Such a gift! Van Gogh said, "I
think that everything comes from God." Even here in awareness this thought
presents itself especially in the morning and at night when I retire. I
realize that I am glad - grateful to be able to reflect theologically on
the incredible life given to me, even here. There is a majesty in all of
Flannery O'Connor says that she "embraced life from the
standpoints of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its
horror, been found by God to be worth dying for." Such a wondrous way to
And Paul, a prisoner, wrote to the people of God in
Philippi and said, "I rejoice in the Lord greatly ... I have learned to be
content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little. I know
what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the
secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of
being in need. I can do all things through him that strengthens me. In any
case it was kind of you to share my distress." (Philippians 4:10-14,
Thank you as well,
Gene TeSelle has added a few notes [in brackets] to
clarify some of the references in Don's letter.
You can now
send letters to Don Beisswenger [4-17-04]
Regenmorter, the Publicity and Volunteer Coordinator of the
Peace and Justice Center, reports on behalf of Don Beisswenger, who
recently began his six-month sentence for his non-violent action of
protest against the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, GA.
She says, "Don is
doing very well. He talked to a member of our community twice yesterday.
and said that he had his address now. I know he appreciates our letters."
(Don is a long-time member of Witherspoon, too.)
Don's address is:
PO Box 4000
40962-4000 [Please note corrected ZIP code!]
Keeping in touch with Don Beisswenger [1-30-04]
A web page has been created for supporters of
Don Beisswenger at
His support group also has a new e-mail address:
Check out the story and statement of Kathy Kelly,
6 months of Federal Prison for Reverend Don Beisswenger
[posted here 1-28-04]
[A press release from Edgehill United Methodist Church, Nashville, TN]
January 26. Columbus, GA -. Don
Beisswenger, a 73 year old retired Vanderbilt Divinity School professor,
was given the highest possible punishment for his November 28th act of
civil disobedience. Beisswenger was sentenced to six months federal
prison, with a fine of $1,000. Judge G Mallon Faircloth of the U.S.
District Court in Columbus presided over the trial. Beisswenger pled
guilty to charges of federal trespass.
"I am acting out of care of a nation
which still has a potential to be a life-giving force in the world," said
Beisswenger to Judge Faircloth in court today.
Reverend Don Beisswenger joins the list
of over 170 people who have served over 70 years in prison, and
approximately 17 people that have served over 22 years of probation for
engaging in nonviolent resistance in a broad-based campaign to close the
Pam and David Kidd, Judy Pilgrim, Nancy
McCurley and Mary Ev Bedenbaugh were among the twenty Beisswenger
supporters who made the six hour drive down to Columbus, Georgia for the
trial. "The judge did not appear to give any heed to his age or health
status," said Judy Pilgrim, a member of Don's Nashville support team.
Beisswenger, who considers himself a
post-Holocaust Christian, believes that he has a moral responsibility to
object to the United States government's role in supporting human rights
The SOA/WHISC is a combat training school
for Latin American soldiers. Its graduates are consistently involved in
human rights atrocities and coups, including the El Mozote Massacre of
over 900 civilians and the failed coup of 2002 in Venezuela. In 1996 the
Pentagon was forced to release manuals used at the school, which advocated
torture, extortion, and execution.
Since learning of US links to the
assassinations in El Salvador in 1980, Beisswenger has worked to educate
himself and others on the deadly nature of our US-Latin American foreign
In fellowship with Don's concern for the
poor of the US and of Latin America, Reverend Bill Barnes, founder of TNT
(Tying Nashville Together) met with Representative Cooper to discuss the
School of the Americas and a need for a Congressional investigation into
our Latin American foreign policy. Though HR 1258 has 103 co-sponsors in
the House of Representatives, Cooper is not one of them. One of the most
respected ministers in the Presbyterian Church, Beisswenger presently
worships with the congregation of Hillsboro Presbyterian. The founder of
the Living Room, a ministry with the homeless, and co-founder of Penuel
Ridge retreat center, Don Beisswenger is also one of the driving forces
behind Nashville's Coalition for the Homeless. Before she died a year ago,
Don and his wife Joyce raised 6 children and 8 foster children together.
Statement to Judge Faircloth
by the Rev. Don Beisswenger
January 26, 2004
Your Honor, thank you for this opportunity to address
I stand before you to state my plea. I carefully
considered my action on Nov. 23rd.
My actions were made possible, in
part, by the death of my wife of 49 years on Dec. 7, 2002, which gave me
freedom to act. My actions also resulted from my study and research into
the political and economic dynamics of Latin America over the past 23
years. I started my study in earnest when I heard of the rape and murder
of four missionaries in El Salvador. They, along with Archbishop Romero,
challenged the 17 families who own most of the land and resented any ideas
of land reform. Protecting their land led to security forces, [and] these
became death squads. Upon further exploration, the relationship of those
squads to military forces in these countries became evident. Finally it
was revealed that the worst human rights abuses in many Central and South
American nations were carried out by graduates of the SOA/WHISC.
Some years ago I began to witness in various ways,
finally leading to crossing the line at Ft. Benning in 1999 and going
around a concrete abutment last November. Some might say that my actions
are a travesty for a Presbyterian Minister, and for an emeritus professor
of Vanderbilt University. However I am a post Holocaust Christian who
learned that Christian nations can too easily ignore brutality and
atrocities done in their name. We must always seek to obey God rather than
humans. My faith has also led me to be attentive to what I call a war
against the poor. The shaping of policies which enrich the few and
dishonor the poor, especially children, has become the tragedy of our
time. The poor are losers in insurgency warfare carried out by the
military forces in these nations. Those who seek land reform, speak up
about sweat shops. or organize against violent acts of the military
forces, are enemies and often victims. The SOA/WH1SC must own up to its
complicity [in the actions] of these graduates. Amnesty International has
said "The US government should take immediate steps to establish an
independent commission to investigate the past activities of the SOA and
its graduates and to recommend appropriate reparations for any violations
of humans rights to which training at the SOA contributed, including
criminal prosecution, redress for victims and their families and a public
apology." Should this kind of accountability be done, I could more easily,
in the tradition of Martin Luther King and Ghandi, state my guilt. But we
do not look carefully at what these graduates have done in our name nor
our complicity in the terrorism. Yet I do honor the rule of law, law so
easily transgressed by those in power. I honor the law, even with its many
injustices. Thus I plead guilty, but reluctantly. I acknowledge that I
trespassed onto the base at Ft. Benning, Ga. on Nov. 23. 2003, about
2:30PM. I also recognize that I did not abide by the ban and bar letter I
was given in 1999.
This decision has been difficult since it is SOA/WHISC
which has violated the norms of our nation by training these military
leaders in Latin American countries, leaders who have been involved in so
many atrocities. In my judgement, and many others', the School of the
Americas is guilty, and has a far greater guilt than my six steps around
that concrete abutment. I stand before you, a 73 year old man who is
guilty but proud to be able to make this witness.
Thank you, your honor.
Beisswenger sentenced to 6 months for
SOA protest [1-27-04]
Marilyn White, former co-moderator of the
Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, reported on Monday, Jan. 26 from
Columbus, GA, that the Rev. Don Beisswenger (an active member of both the
Peace Fellowship and the Witherspoon Society) has been sentenced to 6
months in jail and a $1000 fine. He pleaded guilty, and as a second-time
offender was given the maximum sentence. (First-timers are being given 3
[Scroll down for background on Beisswenger's
Kelly has been given 3 months. White does not yet have information on
how the charges for resisting arrest were handled.
Marilyn said that Don had the largest
number of supporters -- a large group from the Open Door in Atlanta
including Ann Sayre, 3 Presbyterian ministers and others from Nashville,
Dwight Lawton and John Ewer (Prisoners of Conscience), and one of his sons
who's a member of the Georgia bar, who stood with him during the trail.
She reported that he was tired from all the pre-trial activities, etc.,
but in good spirits. Peace Fellowship leaders had thought that the judge
might not give him such a heavy sentence due to his diabetes and other
Marilyn White will be sending us Don's
one-page, magnificent statement to the judge, when she gets home Tuesday
evening. It will also be published in Briefly, the newsletter of
the Peace Fellowship.
[Marilyn herself just completed her own six-month
sentence for her protest at the School of the Americas in November of
Don drove his own car from his home
in Nashville to the trial in Columbus, GA. He will probably start home
tomorrow, but may stop at the Open Door before heading for home.
Marilyn estimates that he'll probably
start serving in April. Peace Fellowship leaders urge us to remember him
and all the other Prisoners of Conscience in our prayers.
Thanks to Len
Bjorkman, co-moderator of the Peace Fellowship
|Retired minister arrested for trespassing
Beisswenger is among 40 jailed during protest at Fort
by Evan Silverstein,
Presbyterian News Service
November 26, 2003 -- A retired Presbyterian minister was among 40
demonstrators arrested during a Nov. 23 protest at a U.S. Army base in
The Rev. Donald F. Beisswenger, 73, of Nashville, TN, was
charged with trespassing after he crossed onto the property of Fort Benning
in Columbus, GA, during an annual protest of a controversial U.S. Army
facility that trains Latin American officers.
Beisswenger, a professor emeritus of church and community
in the divinity school at Vanderbilt University, could be imprisoned for six
months and fined $5,000. His trial is scheduled for Jan. 26.
"I came down (to Fort Benning) with the understanding that
I wanted to make a witness, and was willing to bear the consequences of
that," Beisswenger said after being released from the Muscogee County Jail
on a $1,000 bond.
About 60 Presbyterians are believed to have taken part in
the nonviolent protest, one of the largest gatherings in the 14-year history
of the annual demonstrations demanding the closing of the combat school long
known as the School of the Americas (SOA). It has been renamed the
Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC).
The number of arrests was down by half from last year. The
demonstrations are held to mark the anniversary of the Nov. 19, 1989, deaths
of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador. Opponents of the school claim that
some of the people responsible for the priests'' killings had been trained
at the Fort Benning institute, which in the past has offered instruction in
practices such as extortion, execution and torture. The Department of
Defense says the curriculum no longer includes such training.
"I wanted to do it in solidarity with the people who have
been victims for so long," Beisswenger said.
Police estimated the number of demonstrators at 7,500 to
School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), the group that organizes the
protests, said about 10,000 people were involved. Last year, more than 6,000
people turned out and 88 were arrested.
Beisswenger said he
was one of about 35 participants from the
Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF), which has long opposed WHISC.
The protesters also included a number of students from Presbyterian-related
Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC.
Two Presbyterians arrested during the 2002 protest -- Marilyn
White, of suburban Houston, TX, and Ann Huntwork, of Portland, OR -- served
six-month prison sentences for trespassing and were released in October.
The Rev. Clifford W. Frasier, the United Church of Christ
minister who is coordinator of Presbyterian Welcome, the New York City
regional affiliate of That All May Freely Serve (TAMFS), also was arrested
last year. He also got a six-month sentence. He was to be released on Nov.
The Ledger-Enquirer, a
Columbus newspaper, has reported that SOA Watch plans to sue Fort Benning
officials for trying to "quell dissent" by playing patriotic music through
speakers trained on the stage where demonstrators were speaking.
Brig. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, Fort Benning's commander,
said the music was played to boost the morale of those of his troops who
were on duty instead of being at home with their families for Thanksgiving.
He said the sound system was installed to ensure that would-be trespassers
could hear authorities warning that they would be arrested if they came onto
The Rev. Leonard Bjorkman, of Owego, NY, a PPF
co-moderator, said those who trespassed were "making a witness on behalf of
justice in Central and South America, trying to live up to the highest
ideals of American democracy ... (and) the highest of what Jesus talked
about when he said, 'Love your neighbor,' and ... 'Love your enemy.' "
The PPF is an affinity group of the PC(USA) that promotes
peace and non-violence. It receives no funding from the Presbyterian Church
(USA) but sometimes works with the
The 1994 General Assembly called for the closing of WHISC.
Beisswinger taught at Vanderbilt from 1968 until his
retirement in 1996. He also has served PC(USA) congregations in Arkansas,
Ohio, Illinois and Iowa, and was involved in a Presbyterian
business-and-industry ministry in Chicago. He is now a parish associate at
Hillsboro Presbyterian Church in Nashville and a member of the Presbytery of
He has taken part in the WHISC protests several times
before, and once was banned from Fort Benning for five years.
The Army acknowledges that some graduates of the school --
a few hundred, it says, out of more than 60,000 who have attended over more
than 50 years -- have been guilty of abuses. It says all WHISC students now
receive instruction in human rights. And it claims that the institute is
largely responsible for the spread of democracy in Latin America.
Some blogs worth visiting
Mitch Trigger, PVJ's
Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where
Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and
views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both
personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!
You can post your own news and views,
or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.
for Life" website
Long-time and stimulating blogger John Shuck,
a Presbyterian minister currently
serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton,
Tenn., writes about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized
and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and
Click here for his blog posts.
Click here for podcasts of his radio program, which "explores
the intersection of religion, social justice and public life."
John Harris’ Summit to
Theological and philosophical
reflections on everything between summit to shore, including
kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology,
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens
neighborhood of Ridgewood -- by a progressive New York City
Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon
board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in
Voices of Sophia blog
Heather Reichgott, who has created
this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:
After fifteen years of scholarship
and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the
voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy,
students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers
and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God
in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God
through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through
articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and
Got more blogs to recommend?
send a note, and we'll see what we can do!