Wednesday, November 26, 2008


For those of you interested in my Human Rights activities, I went to Columbus, Georgia, last weekend to attend the SOA Watch Vigil and Demonstrations against the School of the Americas (SOA), now known as
the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).
Depending on who to believe, there were 8,700 demonstrators or 20,000 of us. I am inclined to believe, based on attendance, that it was much closer to 20,000.

The Memorial March on Sunday again involved the reading of names of victims of violence in Latin America, starting with Archbishop Romero and speaking other names (or sometimes no names, as "Unknown child of _____, age 14 months." As perviously, we would all raise our Crosses (on which a name of victim was inscribed) and say "Presente!" to show that the victim is remembered. The procession lasted more than two hours, with 10 - 15 names read every minute, and even in that time, only a small percentage of victims could be honored individually.

During the March, we placed our crosses, flowers and other memorials on the fence which Ft. Benning had erected to keep us out of the Base, transforming the barrier from a symbol of exclusion to a symbol of hope. As in previous years, a number of people "crossed the line," trespassing on Ft. Benning property as an act of Civil Disobedience. This year there were only six violators, who were arrested and will face trial on January 26. As in previous years, I will probably attend the trials and act as attorney for one or more of the defendants.

There was a feeling of hope during the weekend, that now that we have a new Administration, perhaps the SOA/WHINSEC will finally be closed. Last year a vote in the House failed by 12, and 35 opponents in the House are no longer there. SOA Watch is hopeful that the school will be closed that that our gathering next November will be a Celebration. It would be good to close it, as it is the visible symbol of torture, murder and massacres which are all too well remembered by the people of Latin America. If you call or talk to your Congressperson, I hope you will express your view that the School should be closed now.

Frank Schneider

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Time of Celebration

We have been part of history making in this country with yesterday’s election of an African American to the presidency of the United States. That fact alone is call for celebration, no matter which candidate received our vote. It has been too long – too long in coming. And yet while we all know that our road toward equality for all has not ended here, today at least, we can celebrate, take in a deep breath of thanksgiving for what has happened as we continue that journey toward equality tomorrow.

Monday, October 27, 2008

November 4 looms large on the minds of people across America and looms large across the screens and news pages of our media. There is as much excitement in the air around this election as I can remember in my history of voting for presidential candidates. (since 1972) As the Election Day closes in and our anxiety increases, may the rhetoric of the candidates be one that brings out the best in voters. Political rhetoric can be dangerous if it is used to continue to fan the ambers of rage that is so apart of Americans at this time as we see our world facing an catastrophic economic crisis. It is stressful times for most people, so may the political rhetoric offer an antidote to the public’s anxiety, otherwise that anxiety and fear might turn into violence which would be a sad commentary on our politcal process.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Human Rights Activities

To those of you interested in my Human Rights activities, I recently returned from a Witness for Peace delegation to Colombia. We spent ten days there, primarily in the City of Cali, but also traveling to Buenaventura, the major port on the Pacific Ocean, and to Trujillo, where a notorious massacre (actually a series of massacres) took place between 1986 and 1994, and to an indigenous farm in the North Cauca region of the country. We met with Community representatives and labor organizations. We toured the docks of Buenaventura and talked to the laborers there. We visited a marginal community living in shacks sitting on poles over swampland. It was an eye-opening experience.

There are a number of things to know about Colombia which I, and probably some of you, did not know or really appreciate. For example, I was not aware of the size of the Afro-Colombian population. Estimates of Afro-Colombians range from 10.5% to 18% to 20-30% of the approximately 44 million people in Colombia. The Afro-Colombians, despite their numbers, are even more marginalized than the indigenous population. Afro-Colombians are concentrated in the western and northern coasts of Colombia. They live in the worst housing and do the hardest physical labor. They have never really been given a fair share of the Country's wealth.

The second matter of note is the pervasive impunity which exists in the country. Murder is common and almost never punished. The military and the paramilitary forces are responsible for a majority of the killings and forced disappearances, but the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the major guerilla group, also contributes its share. Enemies are kidnapped, tortured and murdered. Often the offenses are imaginary -- such as attending a rally, signing a petition or even making the wrong comment (or no comment) to the wrong person. It is hard to overstate the fact of forced disappearances. Examples: in Trujillo, a popular priest spoke up for the people; he was kidnapped, and when his body was subsequently recovered, it was without its hands, feet, head and testicles. It is believed that the members were cut off while the priest was still alive. In Trujillo also, village authorities who opposed Army murders were themselves kidnapped and taken to the Army's local center of operations, where their bodies were allegedly cut up with a chainsaw by Army Major Alirio Antonio Urueña, a graduate of the School of the Americas. Again, people organized a rally on March 6, 2008, against military and paramilitary violence. Colombian President Uribe denounced the demonstrators as guerilla sympathizers. A new paramilitary group, the Black Eagles, announced threats against the organizers, several of whom were subsequently tortured and murdered. Jesus Caballero Ariza, an instructor of human rights for his teachers union, disappeared on April 16, 2008. His body was found in a mass grave two days later, with signs of torture, machete wounds and a shot to the head. Of all labor union murders, three-quarters of them occur in Colombia.

We also saw the bad effects of Fair Trade on Colombia. In Buenaventura, the port facilities have been privatized. The laborers work longer and receive less. For example, sugar arrives on huge semi trucks and is unloaded by Afro-Colombian laborers, who load the sacks weighing about 120 pounds each onto pallets, which are then taken into a nearby warehouse. It takes 6-8 laborers about an hour to unload the truck, for which they each receive about $1.00. The are paid only while unloading, meaning that if there is not another truck, they must wait (unpaid) until there is another truck to unload. We spoke to some of the laborers, and their anger and rage were obvious. There may well be a civil disorder in Buenaventura during the next month or two. Incidentally, even for a country noted for violence, Buenaventura was especially dangerous. Outside our hotel, two men had an argument during the overnight, and one shot the other. Police then came and clubbed some people and took away four men. The fate of the four was unknown to us.

Cali itself was a scene of violence while we were there. On Sunday just before midnight a car bomb went off in front of the Palace of Justice, destroying the front of the building and damaging several nearby structures. Five people were killed, and another 26 were wounded. At the time, we were at our hotel, which was a mile or two away from the blast (but I still heard it). The government immediately blamed FARC, but it was also reported that the public prosecutors were closing in on a drug conspiracy. I am not aware that anyone has claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel and Egypt. Most of the money has gone for military aid to suppress the insurgency, because the Colombian government says, and our government apparently believes, that the insurgents are really narcotraffickers and terrorists. The real conditions are extreme wealth amidst grinding poverty and government lawlessness against its own citizens. It seems perverse, but all too typical, that where our government helps another country militarily and economically, the violence and lawlessness in that country increase.

Complicating all of this is the narcotics problem. Coca production and eradication, and the enormous sums of money to be made by the traffickers, are corrupting influences throughout the country. The FARC taxes and controls the narcotics traffic, as do the military and paramilitary forces, each within the areas of their influence. Because the cocaine trade is illegal, it is difficult to determine its precise size, but many people have become very wealthy. Also, because of the illegality, the acts of the traffickers are also unlawful. Human rights activists charge that the former paramilitary forces, which have been officially disbanded, have become narcotics protectors and enforcers, albeit in a different guise, such as the Black Eagles noted above. FARC also is involved in the trade, although apparently in a lesser quantity.

In Africa there is an old proverb that when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. Say a prayer or two for the people, the grass of Colombia. The situation is intractable, and probably will not change unless the United States changes its drug policy and until some sense of justice can come to the people of that poor unfortunate country.

Frank Schneider

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

1968 - a historical moment

Today, August 27, was a date within the history of Church of the Three Crosses that has been remembered as one of the defining moments in the life and witness of this congregation. Forty years ago, during this week in August, the 1968 Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. 1968 had already been a painful and turbulent year with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April and Senator Bobby Kennedy in June. The Vietnam War continued to drag on with mounting U.S. casualties. Many anti-war and anti-establishment groups came to Chicago to protest the country’s political situation in general and the War in particular. The city government took a hardline approach and would not issue any march/rally permits or allow the thousands of demonstrators permission to camp in the lakefront parks.

Although many north side churches (including Church of the Three Crosses) had become alarmed at the potential for conflict and had made preparations to provide emergency housing, food, and first aid as needed, many church folks were still shocked at the mounting violence and disregard of civil rights as the Convention week proceeded. The police were ordered to clear the parks every night at 11:00 pm leading to daily confrontations. There were many rumors of violence being planned by demonstrators against the city and police, and the police were on edge against every possible provocation. Some demonstrators were intent on disruption, but most only wanted to peacefully express their dissent against the war and the political establishment.

Northside clergy began circulating among the young people in Lincoln Park and nearby streets and attempted to prevent confrontations with the police or to help people who were injured. In Grant Park, demonstrators faced lines of police and National Guard and Army troops, and chanted: “the whole world is watching.” And indeed, the media carried the news across the nation, overshadowing the convention itself.

The situation became so dire that a meeting was called for northside clergy to meet on Tuesday evening, August 27 at Church of the Three Crosses. About 100 clergy and some lay people decided to march to the park to act as a reconciling force and prevent further violence between police and demonstrators. The clergy wore clerical collars, put on white armbands and carried the huge cross from the church’s sanctuary (then located in the old Second EUB building). The group entered the western edge of the park south of Fullerton around 10 pm. By 11 pm, almost 200 clergy were present, along with several thousand demonstrators. Hymns were sung. Studs Terkel spoke and an almost deceivingly peaceful, coffeehouse atmosphere prevailed. However, as the crowd began to sing “America, the Beautiful,” about 200 police on horseback charged the crowd, firing tear gas and swinging clubs. The crowd was pushed into the Old Town area; many people were chased down and beaten; the cross was lost in the ensuing melee, possibly thrown into the park lagoon.

Two days later the convention was over and the delegates and demonstrators went home, but the actions of the mayor and police were publicly debated for some time. The official Walker Commission Report on the convention violence termed the events a “police riot.” Many of the clergy and lay people who intervened and assisted during that tumultuous week in Lincoln Park 40 years ago felt they had made a difference in preventing a worse outcome.

As we watch the Democratic National Convention again, some 40 years later, let us give pause and thanksgiving for this congregation’s faithful witness to justice, advocacy and reconciliation.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Shootings in Knoxville

Knoxville, TN - a place near my home in Virginia and currently home to my niece and her two year old son. It is also home of the University of Tennessee, where my older brother and his family often watch Vols' football. So it is a place with family connections. Knoxville sets in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains – whose majestic beauty awes millions each year – I would have never thought that such an act of violence could have erupted in Knoxville and too, in a religious setting, during a service where children were performing for their parents and friends. All of this violence is just unthinkable to me.

The attacker “stated that he had targeted the church because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country," wrote investigator Steve Still from the Knoxville Police Department. While there is no excuse for the attacker’s actions, our society’s immunity to violence and our fear of those who don’t share our values could have certainly fueled the attacker’s rage. Rage is a commodity that is exported by the media with its escalating use of violence to sell movies and video games it is exported by our politicians as they use language to describe the country’s “war on terror, war on drugs, war on crime”, etc. This ongoing use of violence-language has desensitized the general population. As a culture, our threshold has been lowered. We are not as repulsed by violent acts and thus our social inhibitions have been reduced resulting in acts erupting such as in Knoxville. Also by holding on to a politic of fear, rage is flamed. When will the tide shift in our culture which supports diversity, encourages mutuality and condemns violence as a means of conflict resolution? It is time.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Responding to Myanmar and China

With the disastrous ecological and human toll of the cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in China, our awareness of human suffering around the world has been exponentially increased over the past few days. Our involvement in the fate of others has been dramatically heightened by television and the internet. The distance separating us from others has been drastically shortened by the images and news brought into our living rooms. Jonathan Sacks says in his book the Dignity of Difference, “It seems that our compassion for the victims of poverty, war and famine, runs ahead of our capacity to act. Our moral sense is simultaneously activated and frustrated.” I am very frustrated that the government of Myanmar is blocking international aid. Let’s hope that their hearts will be softened by the needs they see and let’s hope that the United Nations will continue to push for relief efforts to reach the victims of the cyclone.

In situations like this it is good to remember that we are a part of denominations that are making responses to the crisis. Both the UCC and UMC churches have set up relief web sites for those who might want to contribute funds to Myanmar. I am sure that within a day or so, sites will also be set up for relief in China. The links to those sites are:

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Human Rights in Guatemala

For those of you interested in my Human Rights activities, I went to Guatemala this past week to participate as a member of a Delegation to celebrate the life, death and mission of Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was murdered 10 years ago last Saturday.

Guatemala was ruled for many years by a military junta after the 1954 CIA-led revolt against the democratically elected President Arbenz. During the early 1980s there was a wave of violence against civilians who were believed to be helping (or at least sympathizing) with the guerillas who were opposing the military. Massacres occurred at more than 400 mainly indigenous villages, which involved torture, rape and sadistic killing of women, children and men. It is estimated that approximately 200,000 people, primarily indigenous, died or disappeared between 1980 and 1992 during La Violencia.

As a result of international outrage and pressure, the government and guerillas entered into Peace Accords, which were finalized in December 1996. A part of the agreement was the formation of a sort of truth commission, known as the Historical Clarification Commission, sponsored by the United Nations. It was supposed to supply the historic record of what had happened during that time. However, because of military pressure, the Commission was not allowed to name victims or perpetrators of massacres.

The Catholic Church in Guatemala was under no such restrictions. It formed the Recovery of Historical Memory Project, known by its Spanish initials as REHMI. Under Bishop Gerardi's guidance, it trained interviewers and took testimony from survivors, observers and witnesses. On April 24, 1998, REHMI released a four-volume report titled GUATEMALA ¡Nunca Más! [Never Again!]. It named villages, victims, manner of torture, abuse and killing, and more importantly, it named the alleged perpetrators and their superiors, and their training and direction in degrading, torturing, raping, then killing the victims. Bishop Gerardi wrote the introduction and explained the methodology and intent of the Report.

Two days later, as he returned home in the evening, Bishop Gerardi was attacked and beaten to death in the garage of his rectory. The entire story of the killing, the coverup and the subsequent investigation, prosecution, trial and conviction of the perpetrators is set forth in Francisco Goldman's book THE ART OF POLITICAL MURDER: Who Killed the Bishop? I recommend it highly, and I have a copy if you are interested in reading it. The book reads like a detective murder mystery, except that all the characters are real.

Although we were in Guatemala to honor Bishop Gerardi, we spent most of the week in meetings with various non-governmental organizations (NGOs). We talked to representatives of: Catholic Relief Services; Association for Justice and Reconciliation; NISGUA; Guatemalan Cultural Action (ACG); the Paz y Reconciliation ministry of the Pastoral Social de Quiché; a microcredit women's cooperative sponsored by ACG; Grupo Apoyo Mutuo (GAM), a mutual support group for survivors of those killed or disappeared; CONGCOOP (an academic group studying the effects of CAFTA-DR in Guatemala); the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights in Guatemala; the Protection Unit of Human Rights Defenders (Unidad de Protección de Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos); FAFG (Fundación Antropología Forense de Guatemala), which exhumed and examined the bodies of victims to determine manner of death; and Scalabrini House, which provides shelter and ministers to migrants on their way north. We also attended a Commemoration service on Thursday, at which Rigoberto Menchu spoke, and where she officially unveiled Bishop Gerardi's name as a victim of the violence. Finally on Saturday we attended a Memorial Mass at the Cathedral, then marched with many others to the Rectory where Bishop Gerardi was slain. I was able to stand before the Memorial erected in the garage at the place where he died.

It would unduly lengthen this e-mail to describe the above meetings or any of them. I invite you to call me for coffee or lunch if you are interested in hearing more (or even if you are not).

From the meetings and my time in Guatemala I have several items of Good News and Bad News. First the Bad:

1. Corruption is endemic and pervasive and extends to the highest levels of government.

2, Impunity is almost universal, whether for "street crimes," violence against women and domestic violence, or for actions against human rights defenders, or for political crimes. Between 80 and 90 percent of crimes are never even investigated. Of those investigated, only about 3 percent are prosecuted, and about 1 percent of the defendants are ever convicted and imprisoned.

3. There is pervasive violence against women, and domestic violence. Very recently, a judge convicted a jailer of raping a jailed indigenous woman. The conviction was celebrated as unique, against the large numbers of rapes which are never reported or prosecuted.

4. Economic hard times are present in Guatemala. The promised benefits of CAFTA-DR have not been received by the mass of the people. As in the U.S., the benefits have accrued to the top and the rest are being left behind. Large numbers of people are leaving their homes to cross Mexico on the way to the U.S. to escape the poverty at home.

5. There is a real danger of actual starvation, especially among children. On more than one occasion, we heard a representative remark that there will be actual starvation in Guatemala during the coming year. This appears to be much worse than the malnutrition which is endemic in the rural areas.

Now, the Good News, little as it is:

1. Despite the obstacles and setbacks, human rights defenders continue to pursue justice. Courts are beginning to pay attention to them. Convictions are occurring. But the process is painful, slow and dangerous. It sometimes seems like three steps forward, two back; two forward, one back; three forward, four back, and so on.

2. The Peace and Reconciliation Ministry in Quiché is actively working on mental health issues. The Quiché people suffered greatly. They sometimes watched the soldiers rape, torture and kill or disappear relatives. They sometimes came back after a massacre to view the destruction of their village, attend to any survivors and bury the dead. They fled to the hills and watched their children die from untreated disease and hunger. They had no shelter. The mental and physical suffering was enormous.

Therapists at the Peace and Reconciliation Ministry have been present before, during and after exhumations to help the survivors work through their pain and anger. The job is very difficult, because there are hundreds of thousands of survivors and very few therapists. Group sessions are helpful, but there are really too many people in too much pain. (Interestingly, Catholic Relief Services told us that it too is beginning a Survivors Support network in Guatemala City; perhaps there is hope there.)

3. ACG in Quiché has started a women's microcredit cooperative for indigenous women. They form into groups of five women. They are then interviewed and receive credit counseling. They may borrow Q500 or Q1,000 (1 dollar equals approximately 7.40 Quetzales). They pay the loan back on a weekly or biweekly basis, including approximately 20% interest (which is said to be slightly lower than a commercial bank, if the woman could get such a loan). The cooperative is flexible in repayment and accepts reasonable excuses for delays, such as sickness, childbirth or other good reasons. According to the facilitator, there are approximately 475 loans outstanding. When I asked about the rate of default and repayment, the woman remarked in a surprised tone, "Why, they all pay it back."

We interviewed some of the women about what they had done with the money:

a. One woman bought small chickens, which she then sold in the market after they were larger.

b. Another bought and raised chickens for eggs to sell and to sell the chickens for meat in the market. She is able to sell eggs to her neighbors, and her own children are able to eat meat on a periodic basis.

c. Another raised turkeys. Her example was that she purchased two small turkeys for Q50 each. After they were grown, she took them to market and received Q200 and Q250.

d. Another opened a small tienda (store) in her home to sell small items to her neighbors.

e. Another helped her son open a tire repair business. She is a widow, and he lives at home. With the business he is able to support her and pay back the loan.

f. Another purchased a number of buckets and tubs, which she then sold in the market. She started with small buckets, but from the money she made, she is now able to buy and sell larger tubs for a greater price.

g. Another purchased a cow. She now sells milk to her neighbors.

The feeling of empowerment among the women was almost palpable. They are not docile and submissive. They are knowledgable of their rights and are willing to assert them. It is amazing what a small amount of money and a lot of counseling has done for these women and their families.


This e-mail has been much too long, but a lot happened in Guatemala while we were there, and there is much to celebrate and to be concerned about. Having been there and having participated, I feel obligated to pass along my observations and feelings. I hope you will forgive me if I have gone on too long.

Frank Schneider

Saturday, March 15, 2008

God and Country

As I listened to the news cast last night – on every major news network - I listened in disbelief to the conversation, questioning Senator Obama for his association with Trinity UCC church here in Chicago and his relationship with Dr. Jeremiah Wright. As I was drawn into the news frenzy, my disbelief turned to anger and then to sadness as I listened to the conversation questioning his ability to lead this country, his patriotism and his relationship to God based upon comments made by Rev Wright. Not only was the exchange unfair to Trinity and Dr. Wright’s vast and long history around social justice, ministry to the African American experience, and prophetic voice, but I found it profoundly sad that our political system has come to this. Have we come to a point in our religious and political history in this country, that a prophetic/religious critique of our social systems, economic distribution and the fairness of our access to opportunities is not allowed by any candidate or the people in the wider circles he/she travels? Has the dominate voice praised God and America with the same breath for so long that it has forgotten how to separate the demands of God’s justice from the demands of being a patriotic citizen. It seems as though empires always try to silence or marginalize voices of dissent. Isn’t that what Holy week is about? As I pushed beyond my anger this morning - perhaps, I thought, (trying to see some positive side of this debate) there is a window of opportunity for Americans to seriously ponder just how much their feelings and thoughts about God are separated from their feelings and thoughts about America. Let us remember that God is not at god that aligns with any particular government, or people, or economic system. But rather, God stands as an ethical critique and a prophetic voice of all systems, stands as a voice of protest against any national policy that exploit, oppress and/or uses violence as a way of enforcing and maintaining the self interest of some at the expense of others.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Northern Illinois University

My heart goes out to those directly touched by the tragedy at Northern Illinois University and to those the ripples of this violent have reached and traumatized. Unsettled and aching from the horrible shooting in Tinley Park just a few days ago, we absorb the full impact of this horribly violent act. It is too much. There are no words, no logical reasoning, no…

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Lent - we are invited to ponder

Lent is a time of reflecting upon our world and our contributions to that world. Often Lent has been seen as a season of inward focus, a season that calls us to reflect upon one’s personal spirituality. Lent is much bigger than that, much larger than us. While Lent does offer opportunities for personal reflection, our faith calls us well beyond our private spirituality. It invites us toward a “world” spirituality. This is a spirituality that is grounded in the reality of the state of our world and to acknowledge honestly the mess it is in. In today’s world, we cannot afford to privatize Lent.

While browsing the web today, I discovered a sobering web-site – a site listing the 3,948 Americans who have been killed in Iraq. When I caught my breath when I saw the thousands of names, I began to notice their ages – most were in their 20’s. Then I noticed their faces. The link to the pages is:
Lent invites us to ponder …