experiencing LaCrosse, Wisconsin

Sister Arlene and a few other Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration were my breakfast companion on the morning of September 19. After the other sisters had finished their breakfast and had left, I asked Sister Arlene what motivated her to enter the religious life.
Sister Arlene told me that she went to Catholic schools when she was growing up. The nuns at the school told the children that they ought to follow their vocations, if they had one. Sister Arlene said, as a young person, that she was not aware that she had a vocation to the religious life. She was dating boys and was having a good time.
One day, one of Sister Arlene’s friends suggested to her that she had a vocation to the religious life. So, Arlene decided to explore that possibility. She came to the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration to find out if her friend could be right. She was exploring the idea that she should stay with these sisters. Not much later, she had a talk with the mother superior, who said, “OK, you can stay.”
That was nearly fifty years ago. Sister Arlene said that she has never regretted the life path tht she had chosen. She was twenty years old when she came to the the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Since joining the order, Sister Arlene has worked in food service and as a certified nurse’s aide. Later, she was trained to be a pastoral associate. After the training, she worked as a chaplain in a small hospital and in an adjoining 70-bed nursing home.
As a chaplain, Sister Arlene worked with many patients and with their families. She counseled them and prayed with them and brought communion to the patients. She helped family members when their loved ones died. She figured that, in the several years that she was at the hospital and the nursing home, three hundred patients passed away.
Sister Arlene told me that she has lived and worked in small communities near LaCrosse for most of her career. At one point, however, she lived in Georgia, near Savannah. She said that the people there were very friendly and were mostly “Southern Baptists and very few Catholics.”
Sister Arelen had to return to the motherhouse when she was diagnosed with glaucoma and could no longer see well enough to drive.
Sister Arlene dresses in bright colors and looks very cheerful and at peace with her life as it is now.
After breakfast, I spent the rest of the morning quietly… reading, crocheting, going to the daily mass at the chapel, and having lunch.
Once lunch was over, I went outside to catch a bus that would take me to the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. The bus system in LaCrosse is easy to use and inexpensive. Rides cost one dollar, and transfers are free. Also, for bike riders, the buses are helpful because all buses are equipped with a bike rack. Mary got on the bus at a later stop, and the two of us caught a connecting bus when the first bus arrived downtown. Amazingly enough, the connecting bus was waiting for us as soon as we got off the first bus. The bus driver on the first bus had asked all of the passengers to call out the connecting buses that they planned to take. Then he must have called ahead to the other buses, which waited for us to get on so that they could start their routes. That made the entire trip quick and efficient.
At the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, I went to the office of the Wisconsin Public Radio. There, I was interviewed by Sandra, an excellent interviewer, who made me feel very comfortable. That was great because I had started off by feeling a little bit of stage fright. Sandra asked me many questions about the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. I gave her a history of the school, which now spans sixty years. I also told her about the most recent legislation to suspend operations of the school and to investigate instruction at that school. Sandra also asked me about my own experiences. I told her how I had become interested in Latin American-U.S. relations and in Latin American cultures and issues. I talked about the work that I had done for Alt Press in Buffalo, including my interviews with School of the Americas Watch founder Father Roy Bourgeois, MM. I discussed my first visit to Fort Benning and the discernment process that I went through before deciding to cross the fence and risk arrest. She also asked me about life in federal prison, so I told her about that, too. All in all, it was a good interview. Actually, my standards are still fairly low so I am happy when I don’t stutter and sputter! But the results of this interview far exceeded those low expectations. Sandra said that she felt the the interview went really well and that she would like to use portions of it as a series. That was very good news for me.
After the interview, Mary and I caught the bus and went downtown. Mary gave me a little tour of downtown LaCrosse. The highlights of the tour were:

  • an art museum called “By James,” which featured drawings by Marc Chagall, a beautiful painting of the Mississippi River, a semi-abstract painting of a cat titled “Slacking Alice,” and much more.
  • a new age store with crystals and new-agey kind of music and nice smelling stuff and witch costumes.
  • a bookstore with a pirate manual in the display window. The book featured a real, functional compass embedded in the cover.
  • a “private” park with the Ten Commandments prominently featured. This park was very tiny and was surrounded by a wrought iron fence.

In the evening, I gave a talk at the Franciscan Spirituality Center on WHINSEC/SOA. Before speaking, I showed an eighteen -minute video, titled “The New Patriots.” It is about people who had served in the U.S. military, including Ellen Barfield, Laura Slattery, and Father Roy Bourgeois. The former military personnel talk about the reasons that they joined the service. They also talk about their post-military lives, especially about working for peace and justice and against war and violence. It is a very powerful video, as it manages to intertwine the personal stories of former military personnel with the stories of violence perpetrated by School of the Americas graduates. After the video, I presented the history of the school and talked about how the actions of some of the graduates has caused turmoil in their own countries. One interesting thing to note about all of the military aid and training that the United States has given to Latin American countries… these countries have not fought wars with one another in many decades. So, what is the point of all of this military aid? In the talk, I also discussed the fact that WHINSEC is not the only military training school that has foreign troops as its student body. There are many more schools, in which troops from abroad are trained in the United States. Two others that train Latin American troops are the the Inter-American Air Forces Academy in Lackland Air Force Base, Texas (with 36,238 graduates, as of 2003) and the Spanish Helicopter School Battalion in Fort Rucker, Alabama. This school was part of the School of the Americas until that school changed its name to WHINSEC in 2001. Since then, it has been an independent school that trains foreign militaries, mainly from Mexico and Colombia, on the use of the Blackhawk and Huey helicopters. It does all of its training in Spanish. Originally, that school was started in 1984 to train Salvadoran helicopter pilots. Today, its goal is to train Colombian pilots in conjunction with provisions of Plan Colombia.
After my talk, it was time for a question and answer session. People asked many questions, about WHINSEC, about the other schools, and about my experiences in federal prison. The questions were good, and it was a positive experience.
I also talked to the group about crossing the fence at Fort Benning. I asked them to consider discerning whether they might want to take such an action, but I pointed out that the actual decision was theirs alone to make.
And, for anyone reading this blog, I’d like to ask you to consider discerning a fence crossing at Fort Benning. I would love to see 20,000 people cross that fence this year, in a spirit of peace, to give a message to the government about human rights and accountability.
Please think about it.

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