Peace group lauds activists
National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002
By ARTHUR JONES
The evening of Nov. 2 began with guitarist Roy Zimmerman singing Phil Ochs-style satirical lyrics about the
Bush administration. Guitarist Ross Altman added fuel to the sardonic fire. It ended with actor Martin Sheen, Blase and Theresa
Bonpane, and the United Farmworkers' Dolores Huerta linking arms with a dozen others -- including Rabbi Leonard Beerman --
in the bima, the sanctuary, of the University Synagogue on Sunset Boulevard, to sing "We Shall Overcome".
None of this is hard to believe about an organization -- the Office of the Americas, often called the OOA -- that has a
downtown thrift shop called The Closet Liberal. The organization, founded by the Bonpanes and based in Los Angeles, recently
celebrated its 19th anniversary.
But this is not Left Coast radical chic -- this is serious organizing in the interests of nonviolent change sometimes linked
to serious jail time. Board member Don White and both Bonpanes were jailed for protests against the first bombings in the
1991 Gulf War.
A war threat later, Office of the Americas has organized since mid-September the ongoing Friday evening peace vigils at
Westwood Federal Building to protest administration war aims against Iraq. Mid-October brought members of the Office of the
Americas with the Los Angeles-area Interfaith Community United for Justice and Peace to Loyola Marymount University on Los
Angeles west side for a peace conference.
For the Oct. 26 antiwar demonstrations in San Francisco -- Blase Bonpane was one of the speakers -- Office of the Americas
joined with local lead organizer, ANSWER -- Act Now to Stop the War and End Racism -- to fill the convoy of buses that went
up from Los Angeles.
At the synagogue, the Bonpanes, their colleagues and supporters were marking the Office of the Americas' 19th anniversary
as an outspoken, frequently organizing, deeply involved world peace and justice program that started in the Bonpane's home.
Sheen, who plays President Jed Bartlet in the television program West Wing, was a founding member. He paid rent for the
group the first three months when, in 1983, Office of the Americas formally moved into an office. The money came from the
check Sheen received for work on a movie of the four U.S. Catholic churchwomen slain in El Salvador in 1980. He called Theresa
Bonpane and said, I can't take money for making a movie on these great women, and asked her to name five organizations that
could use it.
She included Office of the Americas in the five.
An underrated humanist
Forty years ago, Blase Bonpane was a Maryknoll priest in Central America -- from where he and others were expelled for
their involvement in political protests and organizing.
Back in the United States, Blase Bonpane earned a doctorate, and was a UCLA professor when he and Theresa Killeen, who
had been a Maryknoll sister in Chile, met and wed. They have two children, Colleen, a medical doctor, and Blase Jr., a musician.
(A favorite Bonpane family aphorism is: Don't moan, organize.)
Blase Sr.'s UCLA period was short-circuited, he said, when California's governor at the time, Ronald Reagan, told the regents
to oust him for outspokenness. Bonpane has worked as a commentator on Pacifica radio network and for two years in the early
1970's was in La Paz, Calif., as editor of Cesar Chavezs United Farm Workers' newspaper, El Macriado. He twice made
bids, unsuccessfully, for political office -- as a candidate for the U.S. congress and, later, for the California state assembly.
He returned to teaching, organizing for peace, and protesting. In the late 1980's, the Los Angeles Weekly called
him as the most underrated humanist of the past decade.
Today he's Office of the Americas director, a professor of ethics at Los Angeles Harbor College, and a KPFK radio talk-show
host. His books include Guerrillas of Peace: On the Air (Red Hen Press, 2000), a collection of his radio commentaries
The curriculum vitae of Office of the Americas executive director, Theresa Bonpane, almost outpaces her husband's for social
issues involvement -- from Spanish-speaking specialist in L.A. public schools, to case worker, to secretary of the East Los
Angeles Town Meeting. In addition to teaching educationally disadvantaged adults, she was a full-time volunteer for the United
Farm Workers in the early 1970s, later twice department chairperson of English as a second language programs, board member
of Women for Legislative Action, and manager of Blases political campaigns.
From the late 1970's for a decade she taught English at Santa Monica College, and is today active in committees that range
from the Pico Neighborhood Youth and Family Center to the Free Lori Berenson Committee.
In 1998 she founded the Los Angeles Peace Center Coalition, and in 2001 co-founded the Coalition for World Peace.
It was honors night for 500-plus Office of the America's anniversary celebration attendees. First honored were Kelly Campbell
and Barry Amundsen, sister and brother-in-law of Craig Amundsen, who died in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. The two are founding
members of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
Both have visited Afghanistan to commiserate with families there who lost loved ones in the resultant U.S. bombing (NCR,
Greg Palast, the U.S. journalist who reports for Britain's Observer Sunday newspaper and BBC television, was honored
for his investigations into the Bush family money trail, the Florida election's irregularities that led to George W. Bush
being elected by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Bush administration's quashed investigations of Saudi Arabia's financing of terrorist
organizations, and influence peddling in British Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet by Enron and other U.S. corporations.
(Few revelations could startle this gathering, one at which Blase Bonpane referred to the current head of the U.S. government
as the resident in the White House, and acknowledged Martin Sheen as the acting president.)
Acknowledging one of it's own, Sheen was the Office of the America's other honoree. Yet Dolores Huerta, who introduced
Sheen, had insights about Sheen fresh even to this audience.
Cesar Chavez, said Huerta, had only three photographs in his office: of Gandhi, of his own mother, Juanita, and of Sheen
-- along with a keepsake straw hat birthday present with the tag, "To Cesar, from Ramon Estevez" (Sheen's non-stage name).
Martin, said Huerta, had a spiritual connection with Cesar. When Cesar ended his fast against the use of pesticides, on
behalf of farm worker children dying of cancer, it was Martin himself who took up the fast to make it a chain fast. He involved
his children in the fast.
When we did the 1994 March on Sacramento, she continued, on Holy Thursday, it was Martin Sheen on his knees who washed
the feet of the marching farm workers. Sheen and his posse, she said, have been jailed for protests in Central America, for
the United Farm Workers and against war. But Martin's on probation and can't do anything right now.
Said Sheen, "The world is in a much worse condition than when I first became involved in peace and social justice issues.
There are infinitely more human beings with a far less certain future. It's a world made mad by the self-inflicted wounds
of poverty, environmental disaster and continuous wars and violence."
"Future generations deserve an explanation," he said," or at the very least an apology for receiving such a pitiful inheritance.
Yet they have no choice but to accept this bitter cup as offered, not altered, and the contents are staggering."
"Yet what he found truly miraculous," said Sheen, "is that in our dysfunctional culture there is no shortage of heroes
or martyrs who spring up along the way." And he listed a dozen of them, from well-known Catholic and other political and social
leaders to priests and people working for the oppressed, many being jailed for their nonviolent actions. He accepted his award
in their names.
"The answer to why a cynical culture such as ours motivates so many extraordinary and committed people," said Sheen,"is
complex in that we are all made so as to naturally seek a transcendence with a power greater than ourselves. And while it
may appear our country is running the world, a higher power is actually leading it."
"And when we surrender to and rely on that higher power," he said, "we have discovered fire for the second time."
"This is the fire," said Sheen. "With a light that illuminates who we really are, it unites us with all of humanity, and
when we commit to healing human suffering wherever we find it, in all its forms, we win our freedom and are made worthy of
the long-promised blessings reserved for those who hunger and thirst for peace and justice."
Rabbi Beerman had opened the evening's ceremonies with a prayer for a world of reason and compassion. Courage to those
who work to abate life's miseries and heal its wounds. Those who are comrades in the only battle worth waging -- the battle
to create a more humane world.
Sheen, the man who describes himself as a human being first and an actor second, helped close the event by linking arms
with those around him, as guitarist Altman struck the opening chords to "We Shall Overcome".
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