Hundreds of cheering supporters gathered at St. Joseph’s the Worker Church this morning to bid farewell to Father William O’Donnell as he left to begin a six month sentence at Atwater Federal Prison in Merced County.
O’Donnell, the 72-year-old pastor at St. Joseph’s, at 1640 Addison St., was convicted of civil disobedience and trespassing last year after leading 46 demonstrators around a chain link fence into the Fort Benning military base in Georgia. They were protesting the School of the Americas (SOA), a training facility for Latin American military personnel.
The scene on the steps of the Berkeley church was far from somber. In fact, it resembled a festive rally more than a farewell. Laughing and smiling as he greeted the crowd, O’Donnell joked about the experience ahead.
“God help the warden,” he said, “That judge is just silly to put a saint like me in jail.” O’Donnell acknowledged that having a jubilant crowd send him off raised his spirits.
Dolores Huerta of the United Farmworkers was among those who showed up to wish O’Donnell farewell and to build support for further protests against the military school. “We have learned from the farmworkers movement that it only takes a few people to get organized. We must give our time and our resources to shut down the SOA.”
The crowd, which spilled out of the church and onto Addison Street, included mayoral candidate Tom Bates. Bates said he was looking forward to praying with O’Donnell on Election Day and collecting his absentee ballot.
Parishioners of St. Joseph’s are known for social activism. Many who attended the rally have served time in jail for civil disobedience. “One of our main missions is social justice,” said religion teacher Thea Hicks, standing among a group of students from the parish school. “We like to expose the kids to that. This is their community.”
The congregation hopes to send 100 people to Fort Benning this year for what has become an annual protest. Each will wear shirts reading “We are here in place of Father Bill.”
“He is a great example to live by,” said activist Owen Murphy. “He works the gospel among the people. That is what Jesus Christ did.”
O’Donnell, who has been arrested 224 times because of his activism, is one in a long line of religious leaders who have protested U.S. military involvement abroad.
Central America became a focus for religious leaders following the 1989 deaths of six Jesuit priests and two housekeepers in El Salvador. A 1993 Congressional investigation linked the murders to the SOA.
Over the years, protests against the SOA were often organized to assure civil demonstrations. However, after Sept. 11, the SOA heightened security and tightened down on the demonstrations.
“We tried to explain that 10,000 people at the school was a prime target for any suicide bomber,” said Pentagon spokesperson Kenneth LaPlante.
Despite warnings, protesters on Nov. 1 marched as planned and many were arrested for crossing military boundaries.
Today, the SOA is officially closed. In its place is the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which opened in October 2000. Officials say that much has changed in the military training at the institute, but activists disagree.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, currently has 111 co-sponsors for a bill that would close the institute.