MODESTO — A former Catholic priest who was nominated in 2009 for the Nobel Peace Prize will speak Sunday in Sonora for the 18th annual Motherlode Martin Luther King celebration.
Roy Bourgeois was ordained in 1972 into the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. The former Navy officer, who was awarded a Purple Heart in Vietnam, began working as a priest in La Paz, Bolivia, aiding the poor.
He became an outspoken critic of the School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) at Fort Benning in Georgia because South American leaders and so-called death squads who were trained there killed or oppressed nuns and thousands of other people in their countries.
The SOA was a Department of Defense facility that was set up in 1961 to train law enforcement and military students from nations in the Western Hemisphere. It began to come under increasing criticism for training students, especially some from Latin America, who went on to participate in undemocratic governments and commit human rights abuses.
For example, soldiers from the Salvadoran National Guard, some of whom had been trained at the SOA, raped and killed three nuns and another churchwoman, all from the United States, in 1980. In 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and housekeeper's daughter were massacred in El Salvador by an elite unite of the Salvadoran Army that had been created at the SOA.
In 1990, Bourgeois founded the School of the Americas Watch, which sought to close the "School of Assassins" and change U.S. foreign policy in Latin America by educating the public and staging nonviolent protests. He has spent more than four years in federal prison for his anti-SOA nonviolent protests at the gates of Fort Benning.
Kathleen Malloy, one of the organizers of the Motherlode MLK event, said some area residents had participated in those protests, which is how they became familiar with Bourgeois and his work. His long record of fighting for human rights and working with the poor is why the committee invited him to speak this year, she said.
Bourgeois ran into problems with the Vatican, but over a different issue: He believes women should be ordained to the priesthood. In 2008, Bourgeois participated in the ordination of a member of Roman Catholic Womenpriests. Last March, the Maryknoll officials told Bourgeois he had 15 days to recant his support for women's ordination or face expulsion from the society.
In a written response, Bourgeois said, "As people of faith, we believe in the primacy of conscience. In essence, you are telling me to lie and say I do not believe that God calls both men and women to the priesthood. This I cannot do, therefore I will not recant. I firmly believe that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is a grave injustice against women, against our Church, and against our God."
On Oct. 4, the Vatican ruled that Bourgeois had been canonically dismissed from the Maryknolls and the Roman Catholic priesthood after 40 years of service.
The event in Sonora will begin at 2 p.m. in the Sonora High School auditorium. It will include musical guests and the reading of a winning essay by a student. A free reception will follow the event.
Among other area MLK observances are:
Today, a Martin Luther King Luncheon and installation of new board members will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the King-Kennedy Memorial Center, 601 Martin Luther King Drive, Modesto. The speaker will be James M. Anderson, pastor of west Modesto's Christian Love Baptist Church. The celebration will include performances by Sankofa Theater and recording artists Shuntavia Reynolds and Glen Stovall. The luncheon is $20. For more information, call Jeremiah at (209) 568-3096.
On Feb. 9, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who marched alongside King, will speak at Modesto Junior College's annual celebration for the slain civil rights leader. Lewis, who represents Georgia's 5th Congressional District, was dubbed one of the "big six leaders" in the civil rights movement and served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during some of its most productive years in the mid-1960s. He helped plan the March on Washington in August 1963 and spoke at the event, at which King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.
His MJC talk, "King's Spirit Today," will celebrate the life and legacy of the civil rights icon. The event will include inspirational music, poetry and the presentation of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award.
Lewis is set to speak at 7 p.m. Feb. 9 at the Mary Stuart Rogers Student Learning Center on the MJC West Campus, 2201 Blue Gum Ave. The event is free and open to the public.
Retired John Muir School teacher Cordell Randall will guide elementary school students in singing tributes to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Forty to 50 second-graders from Muir School will give a 15-minute presentation honoring King at midday Monday during the community's celebration of his life in the exhibit building at the Merced County Fairgrounds. The Muir program covers the history of slavery, King's biography and a number of songs.
Monday's multiethnic unity program features school children, youth groups, choirs and speakers. For times and more information, call (209) 722-1506.
Modesto's Christian Love Baptist Church, 202 H St., and Christ Unity Baptist Church, 1320 L St., typically have special services in honor of MLK Day, but the churches could not be reached by press time for information. Christian Love's phone number is (209) 576-1034, and Christ Unity's is (209) 577-8112.
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