By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published May 31, 2007
In November 1989 Michael Vosburg-Casey was a student attending a Jesuit high school in California when news broke out about the killing in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter.
“It was significant around the school,” Vosburg-Casey recalled in a phone interview in late March.
Further investigation into the incident found that many of the assassins, Salvadoran military, had been trained at what was then called the School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.
The 1989 killings may have been one factor that set Vosburg-Casey on the road to social activism, he recalled.
“But … always for me, things happen slowly. It’s not like I wake up and know my next move in life.”
On April 17 of this year Vosburg-Casey began a 100-day prison sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Jesup, Ga., for trespassing, along with 15 others, onto the Fort Benning compound as part of a nonviolent protest of the history and mission of what is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas (and referred to by some as the SOA/WHINSEC).
For Vosburg-Casey, trespassing onto Fort Benning was “a deliberate decision.”
“People get to the same place different ways. Most of us were pretty clear that we were going to pass on the base before we arrived in Columbus.”
Jim Powers first came to know Vosburg-Casey when the “shaggy” but gentle and soft-spoken young man was with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Believing that “violence begets violence,” Powers has crossed the line at Fort Benning twice with hundreds and also thousands of others years earlier—once came only months before his daughter was to wed a paratrooper in the Special Forces, a man whom he respects for “putting his life on the line for what he believes.”
“I was nervous and kind of scared,” he recalled. “It could have meant that I would lose control. It’s scary having someone control you that completely (as happens in jail).”
The military did not detain anyone when he crossed over, Powers said, but bused those who had trespassed to a stadium two miles away and let them go.
Powers admires Vosburg-Casey for “putting your body there” and crossing over.
“You’re doing an action that can be noted; it’s done physically. You can always try to take back words, but an action is right there. It’s very significant, I think, whether you’re witnessing against another thing, or the war; it does have an impact.”
Vosburg-Casey was not alone in his decision to “line cross,” and had discussed with his wife, Amy, his reasons. Thousands throughout the United States still travel annually in November to attend the protest organized by the School of the Americas Watch, a watch group begun in 1990 by Maryknoll priest Father Roy Bourgeois. However, Vosburg-Casey has found less of an interest in the event for those much closer geographically to the controversial SOA/WHINSEC, which continues to train Latin American military.
“It’s not a strong movement here in Atlanta,” he explained. “People come from all over (to the November protest). … I hope one of the outcomes (of crossing over), particularly, is that those living in Atlanta recognize what’s going on and to bring more local attention to it.”
Vosburg-Casey finds solace in that Jesus often came into conflict with the politically powerful of his day.
“I’m also aware that the Gospel calls us to go forward into dark places and tells us to try and not to be afraid of dark places, to take risks to go forward even when we’re aware of the consequences of what the risks will be,” he said, and added, “Not that we go blindly, not sacrificing unwittingly, but that we know they’ll be other kinds of rewards and outcomes we can’t perceive. It’s the way in which we’re called to walk. I don’t know where it is in the Bible, but it’s in there somewhere.”
To some, Vosburg-Casey’s act of civil disobedience may conjure up the image of a “rabble-rouser.” But for those who know the former Jesuit Volunteer Corps participant, who know the man who speaks to the homeless as if he “were talking to the pope,” and who know the man who gives up a salary to be available to serve sweet tea to those on the margins of society, they see the consistent witness of a man dedicated to serving and living among the homeless and the poor, whether on the streets of Atlanta or in solidarity with those in Latin American countries such as El Salvador, Chile or Peru.
“Mike really lives out his Christian commitment on a day-to-day basis, not just on Sunday, but every day, doing all kinds of things,” said Father John Adamski, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Atlanta. “If he weren’t serving his sentence, he’d be at Lourdes every Tuesday and Thursday helping with Lourdes lunch program. He does humble service; I think he washes the dishes—the most difficult part.”
Father Adamski characterizes Vosburg-Casey as “an unassuming man” who reflects his faith and takes seriously the challenge of following Jesus. In explaining the Christian mission of service all are called to emulate, the pastor emphasized the importance of worship as part of Sunday’s Mass, but also added, “Do you think Jesus gave up his life just so you could go to church on Sunday?”
“We can’t be too quick to give ourselves the excuse we’re too busy, we’re too active. We have to live as Christians in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.”
Ed Loring, a friend of Vosburg-Casey, believes there is “no greater adventure than the Christian life,” a sentiment he shares with Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, which promotes peace and social justice.
“There’s something very meaningful about following Jesus, really, in life.”
Loring and his wife, Murphy Davis, are both Presbyterian ministers who, in 1981, founded Atlanta’s Open Door community, a Catholic Worker “house of hospitality,” serving as a residential, ecumenical Christian community in line with the Catholic Worker Movement begun in 1933 by Day and Peter Maurin.
Loring first noticed Vosburg-Casey, “an excellent and powerful musician,” when he came to the Open Door community as a volunteer.
Open Door residents work according to their abilities and receive according to their needs while also participating in works of mercy, such as providing meals and showers for the homeless, and in promoting peace.
“We live the life of the future; that’s how we hope to affect civilization,” Loring said. “We try to live the life of the beloved community now as close as we can.”
Vosburg-Casey lived as part of the Open Door community for one year, but then “fell in love with Amy,” Loring recalled, and chose not to live with the Open Door community. Residents cannot earn an income and Amy works as a lawyer providing trial-level defense for people with death sentences in Georgia.
Both, however, serve as volunteers for the Open Door community, which Vosburg-Casey described as being “valuable” since they can identify with “folks involved in similar work.”
“It helps make what seem like burdens, light.”
Loring spoke on “the doubleness” of Vosburg-Casey’s witness—“proclaiming from inside the prison and as a prisoner.”
“He’s a witness showing fidelity through his faith and the action taken in Columbus, Ga., that he is willing to go to prison, and in prison, he will be a Christian witness, living the embodiment of the Gospel in one of the most important places it can be lived.”
At the core of how Christians are called to bear witness, like Vosburg-Casey illustrates, is the challenge to live lives and to make decisions that reflect “the preferential love of the church for the poor.” This concept is widely discussed in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which was released in 2005.
Pope John Paul II is often quoted in points like this one:
“… this love of preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without health care and, above all, those without hope of a better future (182).”
There is something more, something perhaps even unsettling for the mainstream Catholic when faced with a deeper awareness of Gospel living and the call to plunge into the challenges that come with it to the extent that Vosburg-Casey has.
Ron Chandonia is familiar with the church’s “preferential treatment of the poor” as he instructs diaconate candidates for the Archdiocese of Atlanta on the church’s approach to social justice. He often refers to the Compendium.
“To be a witness in the public square is not just about how you vote, but what you say and what efforts you make to come to terms with (the church’s teachings) and addressing poverty,” he said. “It’s not just about voting for a program but about getting to know someone who is poor; those things are more challenging. … Sometimes people need to look for more opportunities than they do. Anything ventured for the first time will take you outside of your comfort zone. Mike goes out of his comfort zone. After awhile, it becomes second nature.”
Loring can also attest to the fullness received when the poor become friends.
“We all need to take a physical journey into the turf of the poor, not just a spiritual journey. We need to move from point A to point B, to be in the uncomfortable zone. In doing that, we meet Christ who comes in the stranger’s guise. It’s where we meet Lazarus at David’s door … it’s where we meet Mary Magdalene, it’s where we meet the woman who issued blood for 12 years. These people are real. (Today) they live under the bridge. … That’s where Christ heals us, remakes us.”
The work is rewarding but can be demanding. The church offers the appropriate and needed sustenance.
“The poor mediate the mystical body of Christ,” Loring explained, “they mediate God’s grace, like the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. My understanding of my faith, and I’m trying to claim some humility here, is that I’ve found the truth.”
Loring continued, “The cost of discipleship is high, but it opens doors. Listen, Jesus is standing at the door knocking. He wants to come in and eat with you. … Eating is what happens with the poor.”
Chandonia first met Vosburg-Casey when he was working at a night shelter and remains impressed with how his friend treats the homeless with dignity “and helps them get through life.”
He looks to Vosburg-Casey as somewhat of a “St. Francis figure,” and calls him “‘an unarmed prophet,’” a term mentioned in the Compendium, referring to “somebody who is a witness for Gospel values … who pursues peace and justice.”
“I’m struck by Mike. Some people may think he’s a weirdo, someone who would often be ridiculed. … (But) there’s a real single-mindedness in what he believes.”
In 1997 Chandonia was arrested for crossing over into the Fort Benning compound. Those were different times, as Chandonia was treated to a dinner on the base and then released.
“After Sept. 11, there was a general crackdown on all military bases,” he said.
While Chandonia characterized Vosburg-Casey’s crossing over as “a stronger witness” than just remaining among the crowd outside Fort Benning, he added that it is really more of “a minor part” of a larger picture. “The biggest part of (Vosburg-Casey’s) witness is what he does with his whole life. He does not have a regular job, but his whole life has been about taking care of very poor people.”
The readings of this liturgical season remind churchgoers of the beginnings of the early church and what Christ’s followers had to endure.
“The apostles went before the Sanhedrin who said, ‘we’ll just beat you and let you go.’ They rejoiced because they were being treated like Jesus. … They were witnessing with their bodies; they were flogged and they found joy in that.”
As coordinator of the Jail and Prison Ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Powers has a sense of what Vosburg-Casey is going through now that he has started his prison term.
“Going to jail isn’t easy. It’s scary. I’m sure Mike was scared.”
Friends have passed along letters Vosburg-Casey writes to those supporting him and Amy during his sentence. He resides in the “low security satellite” portion of the prison, and has sent along words describing prison life—the constant noise, the lack of privacy, and starting his job as kitchen help. His strategy is to forgo naps and go to bed early as some do who like to rise before breakfast to pray.
Now Vosburg-Casey will add another dimension to his work among the poor.
“In Atlanta, we have friends on the streets dragged into court and thrown in jail for six months (the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor) for truly ‘petty’ crimes: urinating in public, blocking a sidewalk, (being) idle and loiter(ing). When this happens, our national values and our proclaimed obedience to Christ is betrayed,” reflected Vosburg-Casey in an e-mail sent following Holy Week. “… I believe that the Easter miracle calls for us to be people of hope; people (like Peter) for whom a betrayal does not signal the end, people who struggle for a country that neither tortures nor teaches torture, people who will continue to work for the coming fulfillment of God’s beloved community.”