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School of the Americas 2003 (1)
Don Beisswenger

Locked Up: Letters and Papers of a Prisoner of Conscience   [3-1-08]

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)

Read our 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

Rev. Don Beisswenger speaks to his presbytery about the spiritual significance of his 6 month prison term for nonviolent protest against the School of the Americas    [3-7-05]

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.

Don Beisswenger 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 background reports.

August 30, 2004  [posted here 9-13-04]

Manchester, KY

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 20th year.

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 democracy.

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 hope.

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

You can write to him directly at
Rev. Don Beisswenger
Qtr 0B1
PO Box 4000
Manchester, KY 40962-4000

Don Beisswenger shares reflections from prison  [8-25-04]

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.


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 dimension.

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 this.

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 see!

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, selected)

Thank you as well,

Don Beisswenger

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]

Christina Van Regenmorter, the Publicity and Volunteer Coordinator of the Nashville 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:

Rev. Don Beisswenger
Qtr 0B1
PO Box 4000
Manchester, KY 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, another protester.
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 SOA/WHISC.

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 violations.

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 policy.

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 this Court.

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 months.)

[Scroll down for background on Beisswenger's protest.]

Kathy 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 medical problems.

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 2002.]

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 Benning

by Evan Silverstein, Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE -- November 26, 2003 -- A retired Presbyterian minister was among 40 demonstrators arrested during a Nov. 23 protest at a U.S. Army base in Georgia.

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 8,000. 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. 25.

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 federal property.

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 Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.

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 Middle Tennessee.

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

PVJ's Facebook page

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.


John Shuck’s new "Religion 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 lightening up.

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 Shore blogspot

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 Flushing, NY.


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 thoughtful community.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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